My Cato Address to Students for Liberty
By Bryan Caplan
Students for Liberty! I’m so happy to see all of you in the world’s
greatest cathedral of liberty. It didn’t
look like this 23 years ago, when I interned for Cato. In 1991, Cato fit in one mid-sized house,
plus an annex across the parking lot. I
worked for Tim Lynch and Doug Bandow.
And I was also assigned a special task by David Boaz – throwing obsolete
paperwork out of the file cabinets. As a
result, I was greatly amused by an E.J. Dionne footnote in Why
Americans Hate Politics, “My thanks to Ed Crane and David Boaz of
the Cato Institute for letting me read through their excellent files of
clippings on libertarianism… To their credit, the libertarians save
everything and not just the flattering stuff.” The files that Dionne
perused had actually been cleaned out years earlier… by me!
great deal has changed at Cato since my internship, I’m pleased by how much has
stayed the same. I still remember David
Boaz telling me that Cato aims to be “libertarianism with a human face.” My first-hand experience tells me that Cato
lives up to this ideal: Promoting liberty with civility and a smile.
course, it’s mutual civility and smiles.
But unilateral friendliness still beats the alternative. Selling radical ideas is hard, but selling
them with a chip on your shoulder is virtually impossible. And in all honesty, there is plenty of truth
in the stereotype of the hostile, insulting libertarian. Yea, that was me.
don’t like the stereotype, denying its roots in the facts is pointless. It’s far better to undo the negative stereotype
by violating it – and politely policing our own. Private police, mind you! Students for Liberty has been doing yeoman work on this
count. From my first Students for
Liberty Conference, I’ve been amazed by the social intelligence of the next
libertarian generation. I’m not sure how
you’re pulling it off, but please please please keep up the good work.
If you have
any interest in nudging government policy in a more libertarian direction, Cato
is the most valuable connection in the world.
Cato publishes on virtually every policy-related topic you can imagine:
economic policy, social policy, foreign policy, you name it. And it continues its long-standing big-tent
approach. Cato hosts every flavor of
libertarianism from the most moderate to the most extreme – not to mention
liberal and conservative fellow travellers.
What counts is sound reasoning and a positive attitude – not orthodoxy.
libertarians occasionally grumble about Cato’s moderation. What they tend to forget is that Cato is
trying to sell libertarian ideas to people who aren’t already buying them. Under the circumstances, avoiding “extremes”
of anger and impatience is just common sense and common decency. But that’s not enough. It’s also important to make a wide range of
views feel part of a shared endeavor. I’m
as extreme a libertarian as they come, but I’m still delighted to have
moderates around. If I’m not persuasive
to moderate libertarians, I need to improve.
In a perfect
world, Cato’s worldly mission would already be accomplished. Your job, as the next generation, would just
be writing the history of statism’s welcome demise. As it turns out, though, the world remains
light-years from libertarian ideals – and some relatively libertarian countries
– especially the United
States – have spent the last decade and a
half back-sliding. And enormous,
flagrant violations remain even in the self-styled “free world.” Unless you’re lucky enough to be born in a
rich country, the world’s governments legally exclude you from the best labor
and housing markets. A few years ago, I
asked my readers to distinguish
the status quo from the Jim Crow laws, and I’ve yet to hear a decent
persistence of statism is bad news for liberty, but good news for your careers
and your free time. There is an enormous
amount of work and play for libertarians in public policy, academia,
journalism, the arts, and – if you can stomach it – politics. Some of it is intellectual, but even more of
it is salesmanship. Gandhi was right:
You must be the change you wish to see in the world. All of us can, like Cato, nudge the world in
a freer direction with good arguments and good cheer. This is, to put it mildly, an uphill
battle. But when I’m standing in the
cathedral of liberty with the next generation of the liberty movement, I can’t
help but feel optimistic.