Thursday, June 27, 2019

Interview: Cato's Aaron Powell explains whether or not the Constitution is a libertarian document

Editor's note: This interview was originally published in April 2017.

This is the second of three articles spanning my discussion with Aaron Ross Powell. Read the first piece here. 
Story by Joseph Ford Cotto
Libertarianism has seen better days.
A few years ago, certain political forecasters claimed that the future of America's center-right belongs to libertarians. Since the 2012 presidential election, however, protectionism surged -- not only in the GOP, but among Democratic ranks as well. Now, amid the age of Donald Trump, libertarianism's once-ascendant nature seems a distant memory.
"I fear that the classical liberal/libertarian idea and ideal will be seriously tarnished by the policies and politics of the Trump Administration," Dr. Richard Ebeling, one of our time's greatest Austrian School thinkers, recently told me.
He continued: "Virtually all of Trump’s proposed policies involve a continuation or an intensification of government involvement in social and economic life. He acts as the all-knowing government central planner when he calls in business executives and tells them where to invest and what products they should make to 'create jobs.' He undermines respect for and protection of essential civil liberties when he ridicules the freedom of the press and their way of reporting on his administration’s actions and his words."

Ebeling went on to state his worry "that with the assistance of the mainstream media the Trump Administration’s anti-freedom policies will tarnish the real case for a free society and a free market. That is, people who want lower taxes and fewer regulations on business will be identified as the people who also believe in torture, discrimination against immigrants, violations of civil liberties, and the instigation of trade wars because of aggressive nationalist attitudes."
While libertarianism is easy enough to discuss in a superficial context, what does it mean in a deeper sense -- something beholden to political philosophy discussions rather than sound-bite-driven 'news' clips? Perhaps more importantly, how is libertarianism relevant to American society?
"Aaron Ross Powell is a research fellow and editor of, a project of the Cato Institute," his biography there relates. " is a source for the ideas and history providing the foundation for libertarian public policy and features introductory material as well as new scholarship related to libertarian philosophy, theory, and history. The site is also the home of the Guides, free online, self-paced courses that include lectures and books from influential libertarian scholars. Powell is also the co-host of Free Thoughts, a weekly podcast on libertarianism and the ideas that influence it. His research focuses on political philosophy and the moral case for liberty. He earned a a BA in English and Philosophy from the University of Colorado and a JD from the University of Denver."
Powell recently spoke with me about libertarianism and its place across the fruited plains. Some of our discussion is included below.


Joseph Ford Cotto: What is the most important apolitical ramification of libertarianism in American life?

Aaron Ross Powell: To the extent that libertarianism is a theory about the proper role of the state, it by definition doesn’t have apolitical ramifications. But the underlying moral principles that point to libertarianism as a theory of government only impact the way we ought to live. Yet I would argue that the underlying moral principles of libertarianism—respect people’s rights and dignity, don’t engage in violence, don’t violate others’ property—are the principles most of us already live by. 

In fact, one powerful way to argue for libertarianism as a political theory is to ask, “What are the moral principles we apply in our daily lives already?” And then ask, “What would government look like if it was bound by those same principles?"

Cotto: Were the United States's founding fathers generally aligned with what you would call libertarianism?

Powell: There’s no simple answer to this, because the founding fathers differed among themselves, and because even those most libertarian held plenty of non-libertarian views. But the Constitution as they drafted it certainly is considerably more libertarian than the federal government as it exists today.

Cotto: Is the Constitution a libertarian document?

Powell: Libertarians disagree on this. However, most would agree that the government articulated in that document is more libertarian than the government we have today.

Cotto: Some might say that libertarian philosophy, which has many different currents, is too complex and rationalistic for the average American to comprehend. What do you think about this perspective?

Powell: I would argue the opposite. Compared to the mishmash of often conflicting policies and principles behind the platforms of the two major parties, libertarianism is actually quite simple and consistent. Respect the rights of others. Don’t use violence except in defense of basic rights. Respect property. There’s not much difficulty in comprehending that.