Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Interview: Cato's Aaron Powell says "it’s become clear that neither" Dems or GOPers are really "interested in libertarianism"

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

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: In the context of American politics, what does 'libertarianism' really mean?

Aaron Ross Powell: Libertarianism is a label for a spectrum of beliefs about the proper role of the state. But what they all have in common is the claim that government exists, and is justified in existing, in order to protect the basic rights of its citizens, and that when the government moves beyond that limited, yet crucial, mission, it behaves illegitimately. Within a specifically American context, this often takes the form of pointing out that the government as authorized by the Constitution is quite limited to what we have today, and that much, if not most, of what the government does goes beyond the authority granted to it by its founding documents. So in American politics, a great deal of libertarianism is asking that the state stick to what’s written.

Cotto: Is there a split between libertarianism in a theoretical, academic context and libertarianism as applied in partisan politics?

Powell: A “split” probably isn’t the right word for it, but of course there’s a difference between libertarianism as you find it discussed in, say, works of academic philosophy, and libertarianism as it shows up at the ballot box. It’s not a fundamental difference, or a difference of principle, but of focus. “Theoretical” libertarianism asks questions about justice and rights and morality, whereas day to day political libertarianism is about policy: which policies move us in a libertarian direction, or in which ways the application of libertarian principles to policy will achieve better results than an expansion of government intervention.

Cotto: One could say that both major parties have been influenced by libertarian ideas. Has one party, however, gone down the libertarian road more than the other?

Powell: For a time, there was a general sense that the Republican party was friendlier to libertarianism, at least in an economic context, than the Democratic party. Republicans, in their rhetoric if not in their actual policy making, spoke of the benefits of free markets, pushed back on government expansion, and so on. Democrats, on the other hand, saw government as the solution to most social problems. But it was never a neat fit, because the Republicans were also the party more likely to trample civil liberties, whether in opposition to gay rights, or their support for the drug war, or their more adventurous foreign policy. 

For the last few decades, however, it’s become clear that neither party is much interested in libertarianism as a governing philosophy. The Republicans have largely repudiated economic freedom, while the Democrats have embraced state surveillance and interventionism abroad.