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Announcement | Audio | Transcript Transcript

What It Means to Be a Libertarian
January 28, 1997
Charles A. Murray


Introductory Remarks

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is David Theroux, and I’m the president of The Independent Institute. Welcome to our Independent Policy Forum today! The Independent Institute regularly sponsors programs featuring outstanding experts to address major social and economic issues, especially as they relate to important new books.

For those of you new to the Institute, you will find information on our program at your seat. The Independent Institute is a non-profit, non-politicized, scholarly public policy research organization which sponsors comprehensive studies of critical public issues. The Institute’s program adheres to the highest standards of independent inquiry, and the resulting studies are widely distributed as books and other publications, and are publicly debated through numerous conference and media programs, such as in our forum today.

We invite each of you to join us in becoming an Independent Associate Member in order to receive new Institute books, our new quarterly journal, The Independent Review, discounts to future Institute events, and much more.

In making today’s Independent Policy Forum possible, I want to especially thank the members of our Host Committee for their kind assistance and support, a list of which you will also find on the program in your packet.

In recent decades, the established sanctity of so-called “statecraft” in general, and political institutions in particular, has increasingly been met with skepticism, cynicism, and growing distaste. The “corporate state,” the “welfare state,” the “national security state,” the “nanny state,” and so forth, though each traditionally championed by the Left or the Right, today ring hollow to a growing number of Americans. Since the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War, politics has taken an increasingly anti-political turn with subsequent elections producing an ever more impatient electorate determined to “throw the rascals out.” And, what exactly is considered “liberal” and what is “conservative” is no longer so clear.

Among academics, many of the shibboleths that long dominated economics, history, political science, philosophy and law—and too often served to champion the regality of government programs in the twentieth century—have been either abandoned or come to be viewed with suspicion.

With the new technologies of communications, the cost of information and its transmission has never been so cheap. Combined with the rapid internationalization of trade, the vice-like grip that governments have sought to wield to manipulate people and cultures can no longer be fully sustained. Collectivism and nationalism are under assault in ways none of us can properly fathom! Not only can rule by a Soviet Union no longer endure, but government powers are being increasingly shaken in such developed countries as England, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Canada.

The last time Charles Murray visited with us here at an Independent Policy Forum, his book, In Pursuit, had just been re-published in a new edition, and his best-selling book, The Bell Curve, was about to be released. The following spring, I asked Charles how he would classify his views, asking if he might consider himself to be a sort of “laissez-faire communitarian,” if that makes any sense. Well, I am delighted that in his new book, Charles has answered my question and now sets the record straight.

Beginning with his blockbuster book, Losing Ground, on the anti-social, anti-family, and anti-minority nature of the welfare state, Charles Murray has been pioneering critical analysis of government policies, especially pertaining to American culture and the fabric of civil society. Now, in his new book, What It Means to Be a Libertarian, Charles offers a blueprint very much in sync with the new anti-politics—to overhaul dysfunctional government and replace it with a system that safeguards human freedom and fosters human happiness.

Charles Murray is the Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a member of the Board of Advisors of The Independent Institute. He received his B.A. in history from Harvard University and Ph.D. in political science from M.I.T. A superb scholar and writer, he is one of the most influential social commentators in the U.S. today.

So, drawing on the noble tradition of Jefferson, Madison, Tocqueville, Mill, Thoreau, Hayek, and other individualists, classical liberals, Whigs, or today, what we may call libertarians, I am very pleased to introduce Charles Murray.

Charles Murray

Thank you for that wonderful introduction. It’s very good to be back here. Actually, as some of you know, I’m on a book tour, and publishers provide authors with minders on book tours, which is necessary since often times we haven’t the least idea what city were in, let alone where we’re supposed to be next. And I was pointing out to the very capable person who’s been helping me that she might want to skip this speech because she’s heard it two or three times already, and suddenly I realized, whoops, the last time I was at the Independent Institute I said a lot of the things I’d been planning to say in my speech today. So you’ll be glad to know, Catherine, that you’re going to hear a different speech now than you have heard the last couple of days.

I want to raise some new issues that I have not raised before, because many of you in this audience are familiar with In Pursuit, and were here the last time I talked. I would like to expand upon some of the ideas that I’d dealt with then, and, I hope, raise a few different ways of thinking about some problems in which we have tended to becomes set in our ways. Let me start by making a few comments about the word “libertarian” itself. The real word to describe someone of my point of view is “liberal”—derived from “liber,” meaning free. That’s what the word meant in nineteenth-century intellectual thought. In continental Europe, a liberal still refers to someone who believes in a laissez-faire economy and also a great deal of personal freedom. In the United States that word has been lost to that point of view; it simply cannot be recaptured, in my opinion.

The alternatives are first to call myself a Whig, because that’s also a reasonably accurate description of what I am. But somehow the book title “What It Means to Be a Whig,” did not seem to be one that was going to go very far. Then you have “libertarians.” Well, “libertarian” has a problem with it. It is known to many, in vague terms, as this flaky bunch that wants to privatize all the roads and stays up until three o’clock in the morning arguing about whether to legalize child pornography as long as it involves consenting individuals of twelve-years old. Well, that is true; there are such elements in a libertarian group. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my friends who call themselves libertarians don’t partake in of those kinds of eccentricities. Instead, they are concerned with ways of limiting government that would be absolutely familiar to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington, and the rest. They are talking about something as American as apple pie. And the fact that it seems so radical to want to limit government in the ways that libertarians want to limit government is itself a commentary on how far this country has shifted in a relatively few decades. Hence I said, okay, I’m going to come out of the closet and call myself a libertarian, and I’m hoping that by using this word and having others use this word this way, that it will take it’s appropriate place as a replacement for the ancient and honorable meaning formerly associated with “liberal.”

The Framework

In What It Means to Be a Libertarian, I have three sections. It’s a short book, by the way, deliberately written in a non-technical way. There are no footnotes, there are no tables, there is just one graph in the whole book (this is in stark contrast to The Bell Curve). It does not pretend to be a scholarly tome. It tries to give a framework of how this way of looking at the world hangs together. The first part deals with the framework (I’m not going to go in much detail on that). It talks about the basic commandments of libertarianism, which in my view are two: Thou shall not aggress against thy neighbor, and Thou shall not deceive or defraud.

Now, in my view those are ethical principals. Other libertarians will argue with me on this. I think that if you’re going to have a successful limited government, you have to have people who are not only prevented from aggressing against their neighbors (because you have a big enough police force), not only prevented from deceiving and defrauding (because you have strict enough laws against that), but who also in their heart of hearts believe these are deeply wrong things to do. On top of that, however, the limited government which I have in mind does have police forces and prisons and courts to enforce these basic principals of a free society, Thou shall not aggress against thy neighbor, and Thou shall not deceive and defraud.

There is a large role in the libertarian society in my vision for tort law. I understand that to talk about a country that’s going to be improved by increasing reliance on lawyers may seem to many of you to be inappropriate. I’m not talking about tort law as it now exist. I’m talking about an ancient body of common law which evolved over the years and as of the 1950s had reached, what seems to me to be a highly sensible state of affairs. Which roughly speaking (lawyers in the room can fine tune this) said the following: “If you are the manufacturer of a product or the proud provider of a service and you do something which causes harm to the people who purchase the service or product, you are on the hook.” Meanwhile, the people who purchase the product or service have an obligation to exercise reasonable care in the use of that, and you use ancient principals of negligence and liability and nuisance, and the rest of it, whereby you can have some fairly common sensical, quickly heard, quickly decided complaints which enable a vast range of human activities to take place without the interference of bureaucrats. This system worked real well.

Then radically after the late 1950s we changed it, and changed it very, very consciously. I’m not a conspiracy theorist in general, but it is true that some jurists in the late 1950s, including some prominent Californian ones, consciously decided there needed to be a change in liability law so that it would serve a redistributive function, so that it would spread around the risk involved in society. So the whole concept of negligence on the part of the user was no longer really an issue. Rather, you were just trying to get the money from the people who had the money to help out people who suffered losses, and I think that was a disaster. In my book I go through this in more detail, and I talk about public goods and the kinds of things that maybe the government can legitimately do to serve public goods. I will not go into that now, except to observe that “public good” does not actually mean anything that some politician thinks is good for the public. It has a more thoughtful legal and philosophical tradition, and things that qualify as a public good are quite limited. But all of that is another part of the framework.

What I would like to do first in this presentation is to take a couple of specific examples of how a libertarian state might look and get you to play with the idea of how this might actually work. My purpose is not to send you out of this room absolutely convinced that this is the way to go about it, but I do want you to take a different slant. Then I would like to turn to the question, Why bother to even talk about a libertarian state given the current political realities.

Permitting Revolutions in Education and Health Care

First, the examples that I would like to bring to your attention. Start with education and medical care. Now in education and medical care we seem to have two extremely different problems. In fact, ones that seem to have no relationship to each other. Actually, there is one common aspect to those two problems. In both cases the fact that we are suffering some of the evils that we suffer defies common sense. Start with education. The idea that it should be an issue that weapons are being brought on to school grounds by students is crazy. In any kind of reasonable world there will be schools where if a student brings a weapon on to school grounds and is apprehended, he will be tossed out on his ear and never allowed back again—or not allowed back again for a very long time and after some very, very stringent conditions have been imposed.

It is also absurd that we should be worrying about an educational system that is getting worse. We should be in a situation where education is entering a Golden Age. Quick example: My children (I have four, and the younger two are now eleven and seven); they come home from school, get done with their homework as perfunctorily as they can get away with, and then go to the computer where they spend hours and hours playing Oregon Trail II. Oregon Trail II, for those of you who have not encountered this computer program, is a game in which you try to get from Independence, Missouri to Sacramento, California or to Oregon City. It teaches more about the realities of Western expansion than I ever learned at that age, in great detail, with great historical accuracy, utterly engaging these children—and they think they’re doing this for fun. That’s the kind of thing that’s out there.

The same craziness applies to medical care. We’re worried because the rising astronomical cost of medical care. Let me suggest to you, it’s bizarre that costs for routine medical care are rising. In all sorts of instances, the kind of thing that is involved in routine medical care (and by that I’m mean simple kinds of stitching up cuts, and prescribing for the flu, and for that matter some simple kinds of surgery and the rest of it). In all of these areas technology is not making medicine more expensive, it’s making it cheaper. There are all kinds of things that you can do now much easier, that require much less training than they required before. You also have such things, for example in the realm of diagnosis, where before what you had to do was take an individual, cram him with as much book knowledge as you could, hope he could remember it, and hope that when he’s confronting a patient with a number of strange symptoms that he can withdraw from his memory all of the various things he needs in order to make the diagnosis. We are under the impression that that’s still what we want, this wise individual who is drawing on all this experience to tell us what’s wrong with us. There is diagnostic software now that behind our backs, after we’ve left the room, the doctor already goes and taps to find out what the problems are. But that diagnostic software doesn’t have to be operated by a physician; it can also be operated by a bright nurse practitioner with good diagnostic software and her availability.

In these kinds of problems a lot of what has happened in the craziness is attributable to one thing only, and that is that both education and medical care have systematically been protected from the revolutions which would have ordinarily occurred. In the case of education, we do have a private school system. So one might say, well, innovation and education can occur because even if public schools aren’t so hot, private schools can do it.

Let me suggest to you that the system of private education we have in this country right now is in its variety and in it’s quality and innovation roughly comparable to what a private restaurant system would look like if the government provided mediocre but free restaurants. Which is to say, yes, you would have some private restaurants, but it would look nothing at all like the incredible, complex restaurant industry you have in this country, where you can get every kind of food and every kind of organization and chain. Given a situation in which education was financed in a way that permitted the forces of the market to work, you would have changes in education that we cannot even imagine.

And I am not trying to invoke here any particular futuristic version of education in which there is no longer teachers in classrooms, I am assuming there will always be a place for teachers in classrooms. I am simply saying that we have in place all sorts of things that should be making education better and better, and they aren’t, and it’s because of the government. And I am saying we are having all sorts of things in place that should be making routine medical care cheaper and cheaper and are not, and the reason is because the government supports a cartel in which everything must go through the physician. If government got out of the way of that we would see revolutions in both fields which would have enormous advantages for not just rich people but for poor people as well. So that when one talks about getting rid of Medicare or Medicaid, I can give to you a set of arguments about how medical care would be provided. I can go back to historical precedents and describe for you the ways in which health was improving for everyone in the country before Medicare and Medicaid and did not suddenly accelerate in its improvements after Medicaid and Medicare.

But that’s not really the point I want to emphasis to you this afternoon. I want to emphasis to you the fact that we have two areas of critical importance to American life which stand in sharp contrast to everything else in American life where improvement is occurring by leaps and bounds in fields in which the government cartel, does not enforce regulations which systematically inhibit innovation. And the solution in both cases is to radically reduce to role of government.

Free to Choose Drug-Free Schools and Workplaces

Let me turn, as my other example that I would like you to think about, to perhaps the most emotional topic associated with libertarianism, and that’s drugs. It sometimes seems to me that to say that you’re a libertarian automatically means that the chief thing on your mind is legalizing drugs; well it’s not. To me it is a relatively minor issue. However, I want you to think for a minute about legalizing drugs. The principled libertarian position is quite simple: People must be allowed to harm themselves. We simply are not in the position to say to someone else, “I know what’s better for you than you know.” It can be true, of course, if you’re talking about people who have profoundly difficult mental problems, if you’re talking about children, of course that’s true. I’m talking about ordinary adults. As soon as you say, “I know what’s good for you better than you do,” you are at the beginning of a kind of totalitarian mentality.

All right, that’s the principled position. But that doesn’t do a whole lot of good in talking to a large part of the population, because you can say that’s the principal, and they are still are real worried about their children getting hooked on drugs, they’re worried about the ravages of a drug culture. What does a libertarian have to say to them?

I suggest that there is a very powerful and common sensical statement which goes like this: We do not know how to stop the drug problem using the current strategies of interdiction and punishment. I suppose we could do it if you really went after the user. If you started throwing people who use drugs—even in small quantities—into jail, that might have a deterrent effect. But you aren’t going to do it by trying to stop drugs coming into the border, you’re not going to do it by prosecuting the dealers; we know that. So we don’t know how to have a drug-free America using the federal government, the police, and the prisons.

But let’s ask a simpler question: I’m really worried about whether my child is going to be exposed to drugs; that’s really what I’m worried about. Now, do we know how to run drug-free schools? Sure we do. Unannounced locker checks, immediate suspension of any student who is caught with drugs—its easy to have drug-free schools. The anti-drug strategy for having drug-free schools: free up the schooling system so that the parents may send their children to schools with as strict a policy as they prefer. If you have parents who don’t want to have unannounced locker checks and immediate expulsion, if they have a more permissive attitude towards drugs for their children, let them choose schools that have that kind of attitude; I’ll choose the kind of schools that I want.

Consider the employer and the workplace. How do you have a drug-free workplace? That’s also pretty easy. You have as terms of employment whatever is decided by an employer is the drug-free policy he needs. Now the fact is that most employers do not need to have employees who have never ever ingested any kind of mind-altering substance. They need them to be sober on the job, or reasonably sober on the job, and drug testing is expensive, so you impose those kinds of drug-use tests that make economic sense, which in most cases will not be that strict. But if you’re employing airline pilots or people like that, then you probably have a little stricter policy. And that’s the kind of things that employers are in the best position to decide.

Free to Choose Drug-Free Communities

Here’s the most interesting example of all, it seem to me: How about drug-free neighborhoods? Most of the people in this room live in neighborhoods in which, yes, you may have some of your neighbors doing drugs. But if they are, they are probably not a problem for your quality of life. You have moved to neighborhoods in which people mostly share your values, and you don’t stumble over people strung out on crack cocaine when you walk out the door in the morning. You’ve used money to achieve that state of affairs, you’ve moved to neighborhoods in which that doesn’t happen. The reason it doesn’t happen has a lot to do with socio-economic status.

Now, suppose you are a low-income person, and you have children, and you live in the inner city, and you want to live in neighborhood in which drugs are not a problem. One of things that you really want is to have a system in which landlords have a very open, free choice about whom they rent to and are able to evict under the terms of the lease, quickly and inexpensively. Landlords are one of the great maligned forces for social good in the following sense: Landlords want to rent to people who will pay the rent on time and will not trash the property. To the extent that people present themselves to the landlord who look like they’re going to pay the rent on time and not trash the property, they’re going to get preference. To the extent that they look like they might trash the property, the landlord’s going to charge a premium.

But it’s more complex than that, and to see that, all you have to do is go to low-income urban neighborhoods, which historically in the United States have been patchwork quilts. So you have in one neighborhood a tenderloin district with prostitution and gambling, and a few blocks away you have a prim and proper neighborhood in which nothing of that sort would ever be tolerated. How did theses neighborhoods form? It has a strong analogy to the kind of operation in the economic realm that was described by Friedrich Hayek, when he talks about the way that prices reflects all sorts of knowledge that no one person can summarize. So too, the neighborhood formation functions are involved in thousands and thousands of little steps, so that a particular set of blocks gets a reputation for being a certain type of place. And usually these are landlords and rented properties; they are not owned properties in low-income neighborhoods. The reason why the landlord in one of those areas doesn’t rent to somebody who looks like a problem, even though he has the money to pay the rent, is because he is under a lot of social pressure, if he’s a resident landlord, not to do that. Even if he’s not a resident landlord, the fact that his properties acquire a certain value by being in a certain kind of neighborhood means that he ends up renting to certain a kind of people. I am not describing a utopian future, I am describing the way that neighborhoods really form.

And I will also suggest to you that the reason why it is very difficult for low income people to find neighborhoods like that anymore, is deeply implicated with what the government does. Sometimes the government plots a public housing project right down in the middle of a functioning, low-income community, which brings with it all sorts of people which utterly change the character of that community. They make evicting people who don’t pay the rent, and trash the property so difficult that it can’t be done. They put all sorts of barriers in the way of a landlord looking at a prospective tenant and saying, “I’m not going to rent to you because I don’t like your face. I don’t care about the fact that you have the money.” Now we have done all of this for some of the noblest of reasons, and they begin with the antidiscrimination laws because of race, and then they have extended it to other areas. I’m not going to spend the entire rest of the speech describing to you the reasons why I think those laws have been counter-productive. I do want you to think about the ways in which these same laws have made it very difficult for people with low incomes to use their character as an asset, bringing to the table something of value that can set them apart and enable them to live with their fellows. The tag line to this is very simple. Do you want a system that enables people of all income levels to live in neighborhoods that are as drug-free as they wish? Then free up the housing market.

The Case for Political Optimism

Well, all of this talks about a federal government which is much, much smaller than the one we have now. It talks about stripping away huge bureaucracies. In my book I talk about getting rid of Social Security and Medicare altogether. It may be asked, “Why bother talking about all these things, given we’ve just gone through a two-year period in which the Republicans got creamed because people were so frightened of a reduction in the rate of growth of Medicare. Why talk about getting rid of vast amounts of regulation when large corporations are many times quite happy with the current regulatory situation? And they are quite happy with the current regulatory situation because large corporations—this will come as a shock to you—have influence in Congress. And they can get these regulations written in ways that they can live with. Furthermore, they have the financial ability to cope with the cost of these regulations in ways that their smaller competitors do not. There are many ways in which Ralph Nader and a number of CEOs are very happy with the way of working together that they have come up with. And why talk about getting rid of regulations when you have two such powerful forces in favor of sustaining that kind of government intervention? If one takes a snapshot of where we are, I think that kind of pessimism is appropriate.

But let me suggest to you that some very strange things are going on in the American polity. I don’t mean short-term trends. I mean long-term, profoundly important changes in the way that Americans are likely to be voting over the next twenty years. Start out with the simplest ones. The simplest one is that whereas in 1964 about 75 percent of the population said they trusted the American government, now about 75 percent say they don’t. Now this alienation from government—here is the proposition—is not a cyclical phenomenon. What has happened is that over the last thirty years the government has taken on a whole lot of new functions, has not done those very well, but in the process of taking on the new functions, has also ceased doing the old functions very well. And finally—and all of this is related—private alternatives have kept springing up to what were at one time monopolized government functions. Federal Express and the Post Office, that’s the obvious example. But there are lots of others. There’s a much greater use of private arbitration to sidestep the court system. There are all sorts of privatized police forces. The crazy libertarian idea of privatizing streets: What do you think a mall is? In all of these cases we are seeing a consistent pattern.

When we look at the things that private institutions do, by and large, we see that they work real well. I live in a little town in western Maryland. I can pick up the phone twenty four hours a day and order an incredible variety of goods, and expect them to show up at my doorstep a couple of days later delivered by a cheerful UPS or Federal Express man. And if the goods aren’t in good shape or if I don’t like them, I call up the place and send them back—no questions asked. That’s typical. On the other hand, if, say, I want to get my front porch enlarged, I call on the phone and I get often times, not always, but often times I get a sullen voice who doesn’t quite know who to send me to, and when I finally get hold of the right person, I’ve got to show up in person down at the court house, and I’ve got to go back three times and then they turn down permission finally, anyway. The same thing happens with a problem with my water bill—you name it. This is not right-wing ideologues saying this stuff, this is true. The things that private institutions do in this country tend to be tidy, courteous, and work. The things that government does, other than it’s most core functions, tend to be untidy, discourteous, and not work. And that’s the way the world really is. So when you say to people, “You know, private institutions could do this a lot better than the government does,” there is an increasing number of people who say, “You know, that makes sense in terms of my everyday experience.”

Another phenomenon that’s going on is what Grover Norquist, who’s with Americans for Tax Reform, refers to as “coalitions of people who want to be left alone.” These are people who identify themselves as moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans. These are not people who read Freidrich Hayek before they go to bed. But they just want to be left alone. And the effect of this is to change that old cliché that Americans say they want smaller governments except when it’s their own benefits at stake. Parents with school-age children, about five million of them, by sending their children to private school, already have voted to give up a public benefit in return for being left alone. Small businessmen who are under exquisitely detailed control as to how they provide their good or service—incredibly heavy paperwork and also pay heavy taxes—would be willing to give up any government benefit in order to be left alone. The socially conservative lower middle class, who sees family and religion as extremely important in their lives, sees itself paying taxes to government who it seems in return does everything it can to undermine their own values. You have a younger generation of taxpayers who quite rightly very seriously doubt that they’re ever going to see that Social Security come back from their FICA taxes. They would love to be left alone and allowed to opt out of the system and pay for their own retirements. These kinds of people offer a real chance for real reform.

But finally there is this to consider. I think there is also—and this is the least specific but in many ways I think it may be the most profound of the changes that is taking place—an increasing awareness on the part of Americans that they don’t have enough to do with their time. I know that sounds like a strange statement when we’re talking about families that are working all the time, and where everybody seems stressed out, and all the rest of that. But by “important things to do with their time” I think there is a sense, particularly as the Baby Boomers get older, that career isn’t everything after all, and personal indulgence isn’t everything after all, and that their deepest satisfactions are increasingly coming from family and community. There is also a still-inarticulate sense that a lot of what has happened to social policy in the last thirty years has nothing to do with how much money the government has spent, has nothing even to do with the kinds of negative effects that I’ve described in books like Losing Ground, but rather the most pervasive effect of what has happened in the last thirty years is that the stuff of life has been moved downtown to the bureaucracies. And that if you want communities that work—that catch phrase “community” that everybody talks about these days—if you want vital communities, communities must have vital things to do. And the way that happens is if communities are on the hook for doing those things.

Its the same process that makes parents do all sorts of things for their children even when they don’t want to be doing those things at that particular time. I have a daughter that every Saturday morning has to be taken to a violin lessons twenty mile away. That’s not necessarily what I or my wife wants to do on a Saturday morning, but we do it. Similarly, with all parents we do hundreds of things because we have to do them or no one else will. Its the same thing with communities. If you want communities that are taking the kind of personal responsibility for people in need, for human sufferings and needs of all kinds, you don’t do this with a partnership in which the government says, “Well, we will provide all this money and then you other folks will provide volunteer work.” You achieve that kind of vital community if the statement is “its on our backs, and if we don’t do it nobody will.” Well, when I say I sense that, there is probably and element of hope as well as certainty in that. It is drawn from conversations that I have with lots of different kinds of people. It is based on my own experience of moving out of one kind of de-personalized neighborhood out to a small town, where in fact it is still run that way. It also comes from watching lots and lots of my contemporaries who are behaving in the same way.

In all of this, I hope I have conveyed what is a central theme of What It Means to Be a Libertarian and I hope that it is one that you will contemplate even if you are not fully convinced, and that is that in order to live a satisfying life freedom and it’s obverse, responsibility for the consequences of one’s action, is not simply one characteristic of a society among many. It is the core defining characteristic of a society that works. And that society which works is not at all exotic, it doesn’t have any presumptions of human beings being perfect, it doesn’t have any particularly ambitious claims for anything about human nature, but rather it has both the profound and the deeply compassionate understanding of how human beings live satisfying lives that was held by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington. They were right then and I think they are right now. Thank you very much.


How would libertarians define a healthy national immigration policy?

Charles Murray

A classic example of “You have to do two things at one time.” The first law of libertarian reform, according to Charles Murray, is that every increase in freedom must be accompanied by a corresponding increase in responsibility for the consequences of behavior. So if you take away the welfare state, you have an immigration policy where I say, “Have the open doors.” Because what you attract to this country historically has been energy and vitality, and I think that has kept this nation young and alive.

If you have an extensive welfare state and then you add on to that an immigration policy which gives preference for the relatives of people who are already here, you no longer have a situation in which a man is picking himself up from his country, wrenching himself away from everything he knows, and coming to make his way in the New World. You rather have a guy whose been sent an airline ticket by Joe, and then can come over and stay at his place while he sees how he likes it over here, and of course if he doesn’t like it over here he has a more generous welfare state than he has back in his own country—you have a very different self-selection policy.

So your answer is: as things stand right now, I say that a rational immigration policy has to be one which has some restrictions. And I don’t think you can open up borders under the way we have it now. So in that sense, I say you have a legitimate police function for the state. But I’m very sad about that because I would much rather have a situation in which the words on the Statue of Liberty still apply, because I think it has made this nation great.


Could you comment on Prop. 209 and Ebonics?

Charles Murray

I have for many years felt as deeply as anything that strong affirmative action has been one of the most pernicious polices this country has pursued. I could go through that in detail, but I believe that as deeply as I believe anything—whether you’re talking about measuring progress of blacks or whether you’re talking about racial hostility and all the rest. The idea that Prop. 209 could be declared unconstitutional is to me deeply depressing.

Ebonics? I come from a town where we have Appalachian white kids who need to speak correct English if they’re ever going to get anywhere in the world. If it could be shown to me that it really worked to take kids and work with them in the incorrect English they use, in order to get them to use correct English, I’m enough of a pragmatist to say okay. As far as I know, that’s not true. My more general statement is that I think one of the things that has been most damaging in educational in general and to black kids in particular has been saying “Oh it’s okay, we don’t expect much from you.” I think high expectations, of no-nonsense expectations, is the way to go—for Blacks, Whites, Asians, whatever.


Do you think campaign finance reform reduce political favoritism toward special interest groups? Is this a reform you would want?

Charles Murray

I would like to do some empirical work here. Think back twenty, twenty five years. We all know that money spent on campaigns at that time was much lower. We had virtually no restrictions whatsoever on what people could give. You also had some people who gave lots and lots of money. On the one hand you could be pretty sure in those case that if you had a guy who has give a million dollars to a candidate, then probably that elected congressman is not going to vote against the interests of the person who gave him a million dollars. I think that in a sense that influence has been bought. I think that that’s probably true.

But I think that it is also historically true that people who were the big campaign contributors weren’t calling up their congressman everyday to get the congressman to vote their way on particular votes. It was a much more board, diffused kind of vote. It is my view, but it is not one in which I have done a lot of work. Its my impression that the Campaign Reform Act laws which have attempted to limit money have had the effect of intensely focusing the money on certain issues. So now it is true that for every issue that comes up, the congressman is voting in response to some very direct pressures by people whose money he needs.

I’m in favor of free speech and I consider that giving money to a candidate is no different in terms of free speech than Barbara Streisand having a fund raising concert in which she sings and has other people give her money. And I don’t think that restricting the amount of money that a person can give is in appropriate thing for the government to do.

I also believe as a pragmatic matter, if you simply get rid of all the campaign financing laws, period, that you are not going to have an explosion in more money coming into theses campaigns and you’re not going to have an explosion of special interests. I think exactly the opposite. I think its a classic case of the government trying to stage manage something where every time it tries to do something, it back fires on them. Having said that so emphatically, I really need to do a lot more work before I’m absolutely sure I’m right about all of this, but I do want to look into this.


Would a libertarian society be good or bad for the environment?

Charles Murray

One of my favorite chapters in the book is on the environment. A couple of quick comments. For a great many environmental issues, I think extension of private-property rights rather than restriction is the way to go. One of the things that human beings do best, is act as stewards of things they own, and one of the things that they do worse is act as stewards of things they don’t own. That is a phenomenon that each of us has observed in things we’ve owned and things we’ve rented—Who washes a rental car? It’s true of the houses, its true of all kinds of things. A great deal of what happened bad to the environment was a retreat from appropriate tort law in the nineteenth century in the name of greater industrialization. It became okay to dump effluence into the rivers even though you were making trouble downstream, and because they wanted economic growth. Well it seems to me that it was appropriate then and is appropriate now to say, “Look, if you dump something into the water, you’ve committed a nuisance under tort law and you are liable for it.”

Having said that, I also think there are aspects to the environment that lend themselves to the classic definition of a public good. Clean air is good example. If we’re talking about one smoke stack emitting noxious fumes, then we could go to tort law. If were talking about a hundred smoke stacks, then I think that there is an appropriate place for saying you have a non-segmentable public good in which certain government regulations are appropriate. I say that and then I also say that this legitimate function has been performed by the federal government in idiotic ways (and by local governments too). So I would have huge reforms in the way we go about this, but I think there is a role to be played by the government in protecting the environment.


Didn’t the libertarian principles you espouse create the system which lead to the Civil War and to the totalitarian movements in Europe earlier this century?

Charles Murray

This reminds me of a lot of the discussion of The Bell Curve. I’m serious, sir. First I’ve got to say, “No, I’m not beating my wife,” and then I’ve got to say that there was a great flaw—a tragic flaw I think in the Aristotelian sense—in the creation of this country, in which it was thought that you could have a free society co-exist with slavery. But slavery was not a libertarian principal and the people who created this country did not say, “Oh, we think slavery is great, we want to keep it.” Thomas Jefferson himself was forced to remove from the Declaration of Independence a reference which talked about getting rid of slavery. They made a huge mistake. But it was not libertarian principals that produced the Civil War.

We’d have to talk for a long time before I understood your relationships between libertarian governments and the totalitarian governments of the early part of the century. I suppose it had to do with the immiseration of the poor, that sort of thing, and there I think we’d have some serious empirical arguments. It’s too big of a question for me to deal with in full.


If public education is a public good, what’s the best way to pay for it, especially for children of the poor?

Charles Murray

In the book, I say vouchers—unrestricted vouchers. There is a very serious set of arguments on that. I cited Milton Friedman in In Pursuit as my foundation for being in favor of vouchers, unrestricted vouchers. Where upon Professor Friedman wrote me a lovely long letter saying I had correctly cited him, but that he had since changed his mind. I wrote him a letter back stating, “Professor Friedman, I’m in a position of not being able to answer your arguments, but I’m still not persuaded.” So I’m sticking with vouchers.


Why can’t we require drug testing of welfare recipients?

Charles Murray

I have heard similar arguments made. Why shouldn’t it be appropriate to require young women who are on welfare be required to have Norplant. Now on the one hand, I will grit my teeth and say, “Now if you have a government benefit, it is not a right, and the government may attach to that benefit whatever requirements it wishes, including drug testing or Norplant or whatever.” And I say that gritting my teeth because I think that is symptomatic with the way we may end up going. Because that really is opening the doors to a really authoritarian degree of intrusion into people’s lives which starts from an appropriate premise but then becomes, “Well, if we can require Norplant for young women on welfare, well then why not for...” And then you can imagine for yourself what are the extensions.

And with regard to that, let me say that one of things that scares me most about contemporary liberalism is the degree of cognitive dissonance that is evolved—where you have large numbers (I’m talking about a lot of academics and intellectuals with whom I’ve had a variety of contacts) who are saying one thing and they will talk about the injustices of the American criminal justice system and how it oppresses blacks, and how it does this, that and the other thing, but you can be damn sure that they’re living in safe suburbs to which they have moved. They will talk about the importance of the public school system and the way that it’s been the democratizing force in the United States, and you can be damned sure that their kids go to schools that they think are good, and if they have to be private, so be it. So you have this kind of cognitive dissonance where they’re saying one thing and thinking another. And the psychologists will tell you that when cognitive dissonance is finally resolved—because it does create internal tensions of very large proportions—when it is resolved it is not resolved by people calmly going toward the middle. It tends to go very quickly, with the fervor of the newly converted.

I’m not trying to demonize the Left here, I believe this; I see a real danger of an authoritarian reaction in this country in which certain elements of the Right are joined enthusiastically by members of the Left. And so in many ways proposing a free society is something that seems to be more urgent now than before.


Do you think we need a way to bring these libertarian ideas to a wider audience?

Charles Murray

Well that’s sort of why I wrote the book. I hope that this book makes the word “libertarian” not so flaky. I really hope that it helps contribute a broader understanding of this way of looking at the world, and I think that the first step in doing all of that is to engage in a dialogue. I think that libertarians have had a tendency in the past—because they do have a strong set of principals upon which you can erect and isolate correct theoretical structure—to say A points to B point to C point to D, the same way that the Marxist could. And libertarians have tended to argue that way. So when it comes to drug legalization for example, they have started out with a principal, Thou shall not have the right to interfere with another person’s right to harm himself, and they have not been willing to come to grips with a question, Well how do you deal with the collateral effects? Talk about a trite answer, but I think it is to engage in a dialogue where you are trying to come straight to grips with the concerns that people who are not libertarians have.


[The questioner asks about protections of rights not listed in the Constitution.]

Charles Murray

The main point of the question was referring to the clauses of the Bill of Rights which say that all rights not specifically enumerated in the Constitution are reserved to the states and the people, respectively. Those are the Ninth and Tenth Amendments. Robert Bork refers to them as “ink blots.” I think as a statement of constitutional jurisprudence, that’s about true; they simply have no meaning. You take something like the Interstate Commerce Clause, which says, “The federal government shall have the power to regulate commerce among the states,” which sort of meant you can’t put up toll bridges between the states. That now is justification for virtually any kind federal intervention. And similarly with other aspects of the Constitution. Those don’t mean anything. We have big trouble in the Constitutional interpretation.


How do you keep vouchers from becoming a desperate trap and destroying the private school system?

Charles Murray

That is such a serious question that when I say I’m for vouchers (and I think I have the sentence in italics in the book), they must be wholly unrestricted. But as you’re shaking your head, I see why you’re shaking your head, because you can see all the ways in which that can be gotten around. I just don’t have a pat answer for you. I think all we can do is say, “Look, its important that poor children have a shot at a good education and this is one of the best ways to it,” and then trumpet loud and clear the fact that government must stay out of regulating the schools. But I’m very sympathetic with your statement.


What is the reason that education is a public good? If you got rid of public financing and let poor people pay for their own children’s education?

Charles Murray

Well, Milton Friedman in his letter to me, said, “Look the reason that education is a public good is because you can’t run a democracy without an educated electorate.” But where he changed his mind was, he said, “It is quite obvious from history, including some of this history cited in In Pursuit that even absent a government-financed educational system, you would have a very high proportion of people being educated and you would achieve the public good without state financing.”

Furthermore, to reinforce your point, I don’t think it is the case that if you got rid of state financing that you would then have poor children who would not have a chance for education. It’s fascinating to read in the early schools established in the United States (long before the common school movement) the degree to which it was taken for granted that there was provision made for children whose parents could not afford to pay the fees.

It comes down to a narrow choice, and where I come down is as follows: children are different from adults. There are all sorts of ways in which the inequalities visited by upon children cannot be redressed by the states, by the government. I don’t want to get the government involved in many of them. As I look at education I say that’s one area in which it is appropriate for children that there be a method that we can be sure that there is an opportunity out there for everybody. If you want to say to me you think it would also be out there as well without state financing, I think that’s an important argument to have I come down on that side mainly because children are involved.


I’ve often heard people object to the principles you’re espousing by saying: “Isn’t this just one more example of the wealthy saying let’s just have this libertarian society? What that will do is enable them to secure theirs and leave the other behind?” How would you respond to this type of comment?

Charles Murray

The New York Times review of my book says that The Bell Curve is actually in contradiction to the happy prospect in this book. A theme I did not go into, because I did it the last time I spoke at the Independent Institute, is that it is precisely in order to provide satisfying lives for a wide range of people that you need to have vastly decentralized functions.

When I talked briefly about the satisfactions of life earlier, the question at the end of The Bell Curve that concerned Dick Herrnstein and me was: forget about economics for a minute and ask yourself how it is that people who have the short end of the stick, whether it’s in terms of intelligence, industriousness, charm or whatever else—How do you have a society in which there are a rich number of roles for those folks to fill—authentically important roles, we call them “valued places”—so they can reach the age of seventy and look back on who they have been and what they have done and be authentically satisfied with their lives?

And we argued then, in The Bell Curve, and I argue in this book and I also argued in In Pursuit, that in order to do that you come down to a few core roles. You come down to the core role of spouse, parent, neighbor, friend. The only way to enrich those roles is to decentralize the kinds of functions which have been sent down to the bureaucracies. If you were then to say to me, “Oh, this going to cause people starving in the streets and all sorts of other kinds of physical miseries,” then I would say, “Okay, you’ve got a point; maybe we’d have to re-think whether we’re going to do this.”

I will argue that not only will that not be the case, it is precisely by this kind of free society that you are once more, in a post-industrial age, going to have places that people can fill, that you are going to provide sources of satisfaction, that it is the people in this room who de facto live lives that are free enough already and it is precisely these other people from whom freedom has been denied and for whom the denial of that freedom has been most tragic. Thank you very much.


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