Liberty Unbound: An Interview with Dr. Tom Palmer
Wabash Conservative Union: Can you tell us a little bit about your education and what made you turn towards Libertarianism?
Dr. Tom Palmer: That’s a more difficult question than it may seem because I’ve been thinking about these questions for a long time. I would say that when I was very young I had a formative experience which was reading the essays of Frédéric Bastiat. Bastiat was a modest person, a French businessman and economist and was very active in the 1840s in France. I recommend his writing very highly; if you want to learn economics, one of the best things you can do is read Bastiat. Many great economists have stated this: Joseph Schumpeter, Friedrich Hayek. Alan Blinder (who was on the Council of Economic Advisors under Clinton) said if you want to understand international trade, read Bastiat. Bastiat helps us to see the world in a new way that is very valuable, he talks about the concept of the seen and the unseen, what modern economists call opportunity costs, that every choice has a cost—that which is given up. This cost is usually clear to us in our personal behavior. If you are at the movies, you’ve given up some of your study time, for example. Normally we expect the benefits to be greater than the cost, but when collective choice is involved, this may not be the case. People only focus on what is seen—the benefit—and not what is unseen—the cost—the thing that did not happen, the choices that were not realized. Quite often we see behavior [by governments of all sorts] that imposes invisible, enormous costs on people, but awards benefits to a visible few and everyone says, “This is wonderful,” but the net outcome is the impoverishment of society. Once you get this, you can’t be a socialist, or at least a dumb socialist, anymore. It doesn’t make you into a Libertarian, but it sets up a world view in which you begin to think more systematically about choices.
After that I was introduced to Ludwig Mises and Fridriech Hayek. In the course of that reading though, I spent a lot of time reading every anti-Libertarian approach as well and I never found any of them satisfactory. They make good points, I don’t just dismiss them, but I most of them are founded on fantasies, and I would include both right-wing and left-wing fantasies, about how the world works. I found that the Libertarian approach is more realistic, in some ways more modest and—at the same time—a more idealistic approach to the world.
I dropped out of high school—I did not like out of high school, it was very boring—and was told I could enroll in the University of Southern California when I was sixteen. Not an experience I’d recommend to other people [going to college at sixteen years of age]. I was the first to go to college in my family so I had no idea what college was like. I then transferred after dropping out and working for a couple of years: like I said, going to college at 16 is not a good idea. When I was 20 I went to St. John’s College in Annapolis, which is very similar to Wabash College in many respects. It was very good for me, I went on and did graduate work at the Catholic University of America in philosophy and did my doctorate in politics at Oxford University. During that time I was very engaged in politics: movements against military conscription, against registration for conscription, anti-tax movements and the like. In the late 1980s I convinced some people to put some money behind me and went to Austria and started a program smuggling books into the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries. It was an interesting time in my life and I continued doing these kinds of crazy things and later became very active in the Arab world to promote ideas about liberty and established and still coordinate programs in fourteen different languages.
WCU: So you told us before you came that you were very excited to see the Pierre F. Goodrich Room. Can you tell us a little bit about why you wanted to see this room of our library?
TP: Pierre F. Goodrich was a very interesting man; I never got to meet him. He loved books and the life of the mind and was a very passionate and committed Libertarian. He believed that if people understood the interchange of ideas historically and the ways that the ideas of liberty emerged, people would then embrace them. Perhaps that was a bit naïve, but a good kind of naïveté to have. He favored open discussion and listening to other people and he would invite people to dinners, but the invitation came with a book and the expectation was that you would read the book, come to dinner at his home, and there would be an intellectual salon type of conversation.
So he saw the history of Liberty as a historical development to which many different figures and trends had contributed. I have benefited a great deal by learning from Mr. Goodrich; he was very interested in the Chinese classics and had an appreciation of the Libertarian elements in Chinese culture, elements that can be found in the writings of Mencius, Lao-Tzu, and so on. So to me this room is a monument to a life of thinking and contemplating and attempting to appreciate that liberty is the exception to human history. Liberty is a great accomplishment and certainly not the norm. This is something that the neo-conservatives who launched the Iraq War did not understand. Their assumption was that the natural equilibrium state of the human race is something like Indiana. Everyone lives like us, right? All of my life I’ve been free, that’s just how the world is. Of course a free society is not the natural equilibrium state of the human race; it’s an extremely rare occurrence. If you look at the wide span of human history, most people have lived as slaves under brutal forms of oppression by other people; most did not enjoy freedom of religion, freedom of speech or the freedom to come and go as they please. [The fact that we enjoy these freedoms] is a great accomplishment. Yet if the neo-conservatives had understood all this, they would have understood you can’t just kill Saddam Hussein and turn Iraq into Indiana. Maybe Iraq will become more like Indiana at some point, it may become more civil and a little more free, but this will not happen just because we removed the obstacle [of Saddam Hussein]. So Mr. Goodrich understood, in a unique way, how Liberty has developed through history, and this development is exemplified by the names on these walls and ends, interestingly enough, with the Declaration of Independence. I’ve always wanted to come and visit this room and get a physical manifestation of his understanding of history.
WCU: That’s really interesting; I’ve always been told that these names are just the names of great thinkers and accomplishments of history.
TP: Oh no, he definitely saw this as a history of freedom; there is a clear progression here. This is why it begins with Gilgamesh, the Urukagina, and others from Sumeria. You begin with the story of Gilgamesh, which is a story of checks and balances. Gilgamesh is the great and glorious king, but he goes to the house of every bride, to sleep with her before she is married to her husband. This, of course, means he rapes her—this is the great advantage of being the most powerful man, you get to rape all the pretty girls—and the people are upset about this, it’s humiliating and monstrous. So they pray to the gods and Ururu creates Enkidu and Enkidu goes to the city, confronts Gilgamesh, and they fight. This is the first story of checks and balances. So long ago, mankind realized the worst thing is to be subject to the arbitrary will of another person and to combat that you need some other power. You see this develop all throughout history. I don’t know if James Madison ever read Gilgamesh, but he put the same idea to work in our constitution. This kind of story about liberty unites all the names on the wall; it’s actually a fairly intelligible story from this perspective.
WCU: It seems today that no matter what side you’re on, the downfall of American democracy isn’t too far off. In the short years we’ve been alive, we have seen tremendous advances against liberty and freedom in America. The current trend seems to be away from freedom and I’d like to get your thinking on this.
TP: In other words, you’re very pessimistic. However, if any trend continues unabated, the world is going to hell. This is always true, yet it never happens. I’m less pessimistic. I think people are beginning to wake up. The predatory behavior of the Bush administration has been followed by the predatory behavior of the Obama administration and the cumulative effect is becoming more obvious to more people. I think that there is an awakening to the dangers of unlimited state power and the dangers of Caesarism: that the president is the manifestation of the people’s will and we must all follow him or somehow we are traitors. People are beginning to push back against that mentality. People are beginning to realize that the foreign policy adventures of the Bush administration have done nothing to advance liberty; they certainly haven’t advanced liberty at home; we have suffered a great many assaults on our freedom and witnessed a great number of assaults on the Constitution.
For example, the attempt to suspend the writ of habeas corpus by executive fiat; this is an ancient right and one of the most important elements of our freedom. This is one of the most important freedoms we have: you cannot be detained, imprisoned, and locked up on the say-so of one person or branch of government; you have to go before a judge and have due process of law. This way, two branches of government must agree that you may be detained, then there is a process to determine if you are guilty and how you should be punished. But the Bush administration said, “No! I’m designating you an enemy combatant,” and people disappeared under his and the Attorney General’s say-so. This is unconscionable, this is monstrous. This has been substantially beaten back. Another is the breach of the rule of law with Guantanamo. The previous administration said, “We’re exempt from American law, this is Cuba.” This is grotesque. Finally, the unnecessary wars into Iraq and Afghanistan. Afghanistan war has gone completely off-track. We’ve gone from removing al-Qaeda to nation building—putting a Starbucks in every village—it’s just not going to work.
The other point I would make in this regard is that the last eight years have been pretty bad, especially in the United States, for liberty; it hasn’t been so bad for the rest of the world. China has made incremental increases in liberty; I wouldn’t call it a free society, but it has gotten more free and with 1.3 billion people, it should be heavily weighted on the scale of human liberty. But if you look at a longer term comparison, we live in possibly the freest time in all of human history. I will admit that these last 8 years have been retrograde in the United States, but overall there’s no Soviet Union, no gulag, no more slave labor camps, the Chinese Lao-Gai system is largely abolished ( the trend is very positive in China), the Apartheid is gone from South Africa, slavery by and large is gone. So looking at the question from that perspective, you are the freest generation of human beings who ever lived. Now, that might go up in a puff of smoke and we should always remember what happened in the terrible retrograde motions of the early 20th century after the phenomenal advance of Liberty in the 19th century. What happened in the late 19th and early 20th was the rise of anti-Libertarian philosophies: socialism, racism, imperialism, nationalism, and these won the day. The Libertarians were politically and intellectually in retreat and states were taken over by monstrous, tyrannical ideologies that killed hundreds of millions of people; we have since been recovering from that so we should never forget that these achievements are fragile. That said, I’m optimistic about the future.
WCU: So what do you think is the future of Libertarianism in America, especially with the rise of the Ron Paul movement and more college students interested in Libertarian ideas and authors like Bastiat and Hayek? Is there a future for Libertarianism in America?
TP: I do [think so]. I think that Ron Paul’s candidacy is an interesting lens to use to look at that. He was the only candidate out of eight Republicans who opposed the war. Naturally, that makes him interesting. You had seven who said, “Oh yeah, this war was a great success, bring it on,” and only one who said, “This was a tremendous and disastrous mistake.” This gave him a natural prominence and people began to listen to him as a consequence. This mobilized a lot of people to get into politics, which is a very positive phenomenon. I think it’s important that one focuses more on the ideas than on the candidate; I think that personality based political movements are always fragile and can have the danger of degenerating into cultish movements. But Ron Paul demonstrated that there is a natural constituency and a natural market for the ideas of limited government—that in a sense, limited government is sexy. A lot of people have thought big government programs are sexy because you’re helping people—again it’s the what is seen versus unseen phenomenon—you’re building pyramids, great engineering projects because our government loves us and cares for us and tucks us into bed at night and so on. But now it turns out that talking about the costs of all this is sexy; what have we given up? What have you given up in terms of your freedom, your personal autonomy, your ability to direct your own life, what price are we paying? The perfect example would be the massive social engineering project undertaken by the Clinton administration and the Bush administration to promote home ownership in America. Renting is bad, everyone must own a home and the consequence of this was they pushed interest rates down into negative territory; they pumped a vast amount of artificially cheap money into the housing market. They coerced and subsidized banks into lowering bank lending standards, which were boring. Asking if you can actually pay the loan, how dull is that, right? So we ended up with college students with no job, no income and no assets getting 105% loans to buy houses. It was all pretty cool… until it blew up, until the bubble burst. People then began to understand that there isn’t a free lunch; you can’t print money to create prosperity. I think that this [approach] is a way to be idealistic and realistic at the same time. We want the ideals of liberty and we’re realistic in that we understand those other ideals don’t work.
WCU: I would like to get your opinion about another prominent Libertarian movement, that of Ayn Rand. What do you think about what the Objectivists believe?
TP: Well first, Libertarianism is a political philosophy, it’s not a philosophy of music or architecture or any of those things. There’s aesthetics and appreciation of art and all sorts of other things in life. Libertarianism doesn’t claim to be everything; it’s not an all-encompassing philosophy. The element of the Objectivist that is oriented toward political philosophy has been Libertarian, so they are Libertarians. Now, some people, not all of them, have maintained that you can’t believe in Liberty if you don’t also believe all these other things: their views on metaphysics, theology, quantum mechanics, and all other sorts of things, and I don’t think that’s a justified view or that such a view is correct. In fact, people can have a multitude of reasons for believing the same things and it is not the case that we should not choose political allies because they don’t believe the same that you or I do on some other matter. When people were fighting communism, it would have been a very strange thing to say, “Oh, well I can’t make an alliance with you because you don’t go to the same church as I do or you listen to a different kind of music or something of that sort.” This would be a very strange thing to do. So in my view, the Objectivists are Libertarians and they understand that; they have a wider encompassing view about the world, and that’s fine. I found some of the elements about it very attractive, but I don’t subscribe to any philosophy set down by another person, such that I must accept all of it. I am admittedly eclectic in my views and my perspective is, if I have four reasons to believe that proposition
X is true, I am more certain of its truth than if I have only one reason. I don’t find helpful those philosophical positions which argue “No no, you must have only one reason for believing this.” If the four reasons are compatible, if no combination of reasons rules out another, then there is no reason to throw any one out; why not embrace all of them? Now for example, respecting individual rights is an element in the achievements of human happiness. I believe as a substantive moral commitment that self-directedness is an important constituent to a happy life. As Aristotle points out, if you are happy because of fortune you are not really happy; happiness needs to be an achievement. To achieve happiness, then, you need to be self-directed and have self-autonomy. Now it’s also the case that a free society that respects the rights of individuals is a much more fun place to live, it’s healthier and people live much longer. I don’t have to pick one reason I would embrace in order to support freedom, I think all of them are true. Consequently, I don’t think we have to say only this reason is the reason; I’m much more a compatibilist.