Personnel Profile: Matt Welch

Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason, a monthly libertarian magazine. His new book with Reason editor Nick Gillespie is “The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America.”

How did you first become interested in libertarian politics?
Unlike most people who self-describe as a libertarian, I didn’t get there by reading Ayn Rand. The biggest influence on me was living in Central Europe and watching the transition from a planned, totalitarian state into something quite a bit more wonderful. Specifically being under the influence of Vaclav Havel, who has a really great kind of approach. Havel’s whole dissidence was rallied around him trying to defend a rock band from a crackdown by the government. So you totally hate communism, you totally hate central planning, you totally hate censors and you think that people should be able to be filthy rock guys smoking hash in the street – it’s not a normal American sense of politics, but it’s one that has always spoken to me.

Why do you think libertarianism is rising in popularity?
The strain has always been there. Our colleague Brian Doherty wrote a very helpful history of libertarianism called Radicals for Capitalism. He says, “Hey, look, it’s right there in your Jefferson.” The pursuit of happiness – as you yourself define it – is important. During the founding era, there was a lot of transfer from the UK of these then radical, classical liberal understandings of the morality of markets and freedom. Over the last 10 years, we have seen a pretty sharp spike in total government spending. George W. Bush increased spending by 60 percent, adjusted for inflation. Then Obama comes in and doubles down. When you have this gap between popular sentiment and what politicians are doing, the economy is terrible, and you’re disrespecting American political traditions, it’s kind of a perfect storm for the rise in interest in libertarianism.   

When we talk about libertarian politics we’re not talking about the Libertarian Party but more about the impulse of libertarianism –  the desire at any given moment to ask yourself, “Is the solution to this having the government exert more control or devolving more decision-making and control to the individual on their own terms?”

K-12 education would be an example. Put that money in the kid’s backpack and let the kid and parents choose their school. Introduce a little competition amongst schools to get this money. We’re spending three times as much per student, adjusted for inflation, than we did in 1970 and scores are absolutely flat. There are very few elements in the economy that perform worse or at the same level while costing more over the last forty years. The great trend in life is ‘stuff gets better and costs less.’ How can we replicate that? Make it centered around the individual.

Another libertarian impulse is to secede intellectually from the two main tribes. If you, as a super Democratic partisan, become a reliable voter no matter what, your issues are not going to be taken seriously. We see this with Obama. There’s a lot of anti-war sentiment on the Left that’s just going to be ignored. He does that because he knows that those voters can be taken for granted.

What do you feel are some good examples of libertarian policies?
We drink good beer now, because of deregulation under Jimmy Carter. No one noticed it at the time, but an upstate New York Republican and Alan Cranston in California slipped in some bill, a repeal of the prohibition on people making their own beer in their basement. It used to be you could only make a very small amount and you couldn’t sell it. By the 1970s, there were only a few beer companies left and they all made swill. This whole subculture that was brewing illegally, people were able to finally experiment legally. Now, craft beer is not only the most interesting and best tasting stuff in America and arguably in the world, but it’s also the only growth sector in the beer industry. In many cases, de-regulation improves the very thing that you thought you were protecting, like safety.

What are the differences between social and economic libertarianism?
I don’t really personally create or acknowledge any difference between the two. The insight of libertarianism is that people, when left alone, will probably make better decisions in the long haul. It’s a leap of faith, and it’s one that people on the Left and Right can’t totally accept. Among younger libertarians, there really isn’t any kind of split on these kinds of social issues.

How can libertarian policies help California?
I highly recommend reading probably the most libertarian speech ever given by a sitting politician in America. It is Jerry Brown’s second inaugural address, back in 1979. It has some fire-breathing, anti-Lord Keynes kind of comments and it will shock the modern reader. California has been spending itself into oblivion for a really long time. The more local you get, the worse it gets. It’s very telling that a lot of the official thumb-sucking class in the L.A. Times and elsewhere say that the problem is the ten Republicans left in the state and if they can just get rid of these obstructionists, we’ll repeal Prop. 13 and all will be good and gravy.

In the short term, it’s about pensions and fixing the giveaways to public sector unions. Schwarzenegger, who was a great disappointment as a governor, finally did a little bit of reform at the tail end of his term and Brown has talked about it but hasn’t really done much.

I always make sure at Reason to do a round-up of the most asinine bills. It’s like “increasing the penalty for throwing fruit on a minor league baseball field.” Brown has a great idea of abolishing the re-development agencies. Re-development agencies are like organized crime by government. It puts government in the position of “doing deals,” which usually end with local developers and scammers getting rich. It’s a racket.

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