Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Interview: Cato's Aaron Powell believes traditional America leans libertarian, explains why

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

This is the third and final part of my discussion with Aaron Ross Powell. The first and second articles are available. 

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: Leading a libertarian lifestyle requires a strong intellect and highly-developed sense of self-discipline. It can be argued that, in our identity politicked age of instant gratification, most Americans are not cut out for libertarianism. Do you have an opinion on this?

Aaron Ross Powell: Here I’d give largely the same answer as I did to the question about “apolitical ramifications” above. So, I’d argue that in our daily lives, most of us already live by largely libertarian principles. Where we go wrong is in forgetting those principles when we enter the political sphere.

Cotto: Our country has developed a social safety net to prevent millions upon millions of people from falling into absolute poverty. What does libertarianism, generally speaking, have in store for them?

Powell: First, it’s important to understand that, if libertarians are right in our economic claims, then a significantly freer society will also be a significantly richer one, and this is a claim borne out by centuries of history, and the continued progress we see around the world. (For more on this, check out Cato’s Thus a more libertarian country would have fewer people in need of a social safety net. But doesn’t mean there’d be none, of course. 

For those people, we have substantial evidence that, in the absence of government programs, private charities pick up a great deal of the slack. Citizens want to help each other. Beyond that, though, of the things our government currently does, transfer payments to the genuinely poor is among the least harmful, even if an ideal world we wouldn’t have these programs and we wouldn’t need these programs.

Cotto: On a cultural level, can traditional American society be described as libertarian-leaning in any key respects?

I think so. American society has always had a strong respect for the individual, for personal freedom, and for freedom of speech, religion, and the press. We also have a great deal of admiration of innovators and entrepreneurs, and relatively more skepticism about government than in many other parts of the world.