The first interview I ever did on my radio show with Jeffrey Tucker was so compelling and, for want of a better word, important, that he and I immediately decided we would have to do a second, to expand on the themes discussed. I couldn’t have expected that the second interview could have been better than the first – but I think it was. The evidence is below, in the transcript of my second interview with Jeffrey Tucker.
ROBIN KOERNER: … The largest audience figures that Blue Republican Radio has had so far … was when I interviewed the awesome Jeffrey Tucker. We finished that interview excited about the possibility of continuing on some of the themes that we discussed. I think it’s fair to say—and I will invite Jeffrey to disagree with me if I’m wrong there—that he and I see much of what we need to do in the Liberty Movement in the same way, so I’m delighted to say he is back to carry on where we left off last time, a month ago. Jeffrey, welcome back and thank you.
JEFFREY: It’s a pleasure, Robin, thank you so much. You know what? It’s interesting that you say that we see things in a similar way because—I’m not sure if I’m right about this but—I tend to think of you as more of a more traditional-classical liberal and I’m an anarchist. However, I don’t really see these views—and I hope you agree with me—as antagonistic. I think the difference is a matter of application and probably you’re not entirely convinced of the viability of a stateless society where I am. That probably sort of defines the differences, but the spirit of the views I represent, which the core order of society sort of grows out of our associations with each other, that perspective is rooted in the history of liberalism itself. I don’t see it as a radical departure, but a kind of organic and gradual outgrowth of that tradition. I don’t think it should be severed, if you know what I mean.
ROBIN: Absolutely. Well, I agree obviously with everything you said there. The reason I said I think that we see what we need to be doing in the Liberty Movement in the same way is because underlying, perhaps, our different political positions—my classical liberalism versus your anarchism—we have the same concerns about how to approach our philosophy, how to come to a good philosophy, and what indeed a good and effective philosophy is. Epistemologically then, I think perhaps we’re cut from the same cloth.
JEFFREY: Yeah, I think so. It’s interesting for me to read in the history of classical liberalism and see the themes that animate my perspective on the world. What was the key insight of liberalism as it grew up in the late middle ages, renaissance, and enlightenment? To me the theme is that there is a sort of self-ordering dynamic to society. That order is not something imposed by a leviathan but rather sort of extends out of our associations and trade—that’s the expression “laissez-faire,” right? If you let it alone, then everything will work itself out for the common good. I think that is a good way of summarizing the essential liberal insight.
ROBIN: Absolutely. Now, you ended the show last time, raising a question that sounded a little over-dramatic, but then you pointed out that it certainly wasn’t: that it was actually a question that, as a practical matter, we need to answer, which is: “Do we in the Liberty Movement want to improve society or destroy it?”
ROBIN: And this came out of an hour of discussing the self-falsifying brutalist approach to Libertarianism that you so eloquently conveyed in both the interview that we did and that article that prompted these interviews. Let’s just go from there.
JEFFREY: I’m trying to think of a kind of a good way to approach this topic from a fresh perspective, and I keep going back to a beautiful book—I wonder if you’ve read it. It’s 1927 by Ludwig von Mises called Liberalism.
ROBIN: I’m glad you raised it because you mentioned it last time, and I wanted to talk about that again.
JEFFREY: He has this really—and I probably mentioned this last time too—but this last chapter. It’s really interesting. He’s looking at ways in which the sort of modern leviathan state has distorted society and distorted our outlook on life: how leviathan has created social divisions and made us all annoyed with each other. He actually has a phrase for it; he says that the leviathan has encouraged warfare sociology—I’m going somewhere with this. Here’s the deal: because there is so much at stake like imploding outcomes, there’s despotism—it lives parasitically off the rest of the social order, turning against each other in a Hunger Games sort of way. What effect does this have on liberalism? Mises answers it this way in the last chapter, he says there’s a tendency on the part of public communion in general and even in liberalism to regard itself as a particular party, as a kind of an interest group that favors its interests over somebody else’s interests. And he says that this is very wrong. This is a wrong turn for liberalism. In other words, classical liberalism or my more radical Libertarianism shouldn’t regard itself as a special interest with a particular slate of demands that come at the expense of somebody else’s demands. He says that liberalism has no party; it has no songs or uniforms, no sort of list of demands that it wants for itself, that liberalism is the only political outlook that actually seeks the general good of everyone. It seeks the common wellbeing of all peoples and all places.
ROBIN: Now surely though, my friends on the left would say that they’re trying to do that, but they’re trying to use the state as a tool in so doing, were they not?
JEFFREY: Yeah, so this is the problem with the left, right? It’s not so much that their ideals are wrong—although they often are—what’s really wrong about the left is the means that they use to achieve their ideals, and their means are violent. They always have to resort to the state, meaning aggression on people’s lives and property. They never really want to talk about this, or recognize it, or even admit it. But if you’re going to the state to ask them—the state apparatus—to achieve your ideals, you’re essentially favoring rapping up the use of violence in society and coercion and regimentation. I was just reading this recently – some late nineteenth century classical liberal was talking about the socialists at the time—not the radical Marxists but sort of the more civilized socialists of the U.S. and England—that the problem wasn’t especially with the ideals but the means by which they sought to achieve them. I would say that this is the core problem with the left more than anything else. There is a tremendous confusion that bled into the left space at some point in the nineteenth century – I’m not sure entirely when this happened—it came full flower in the progressive era and the New Deal. But just a kind of nonchalant willingness to resort to that political machinery in order to sort of make society conform.
ROBIN: Now, we’re going in to a break in just about, I don’t know, 20 seconds, so I want to just throw out this question that we can answer in the next segment: Are we in some way not forced to form ourselves into things like parties, a kind of broad interest group, just by virtue of the fact that those who oppose our approach are so formed, and they are so in a democracy?
JEFFERY: That is a brilliant question, Robin – thank you.
ROBIN: We’ll go into the break and we’ll discuss when we come back.
ROBIN: Welcome back to Blue Republican Radio. When we went into the break, I was asking Jeffrey a question. Even though liberalism—classical liberalism—doesn’t seek to operate through a party or to form an interest group that fights against other interest groups, are we not—just as a practical matter—in some way forced to do so? Because we operate in a context where such groups do move the political dial and we need to move the political dial, so there’s a kind of tension between the fact—and I actually talk about this when I introduce classical liberalism to some of my student groups. For me, what’s compelling about classical liberalism is that it actually isn’t a political philosophy. It’s almost an apolitical philosophy, or a meta-political philosophy. You kind of don’t actually have to believe in anything except your immediate experience of liberty – and that can inform your approach to politics in a completely general sense. It doesn’t in any way cause you to want to hold tight to an institutionalized party with a certain name, but here we are – pragmatically. There’s obviously some benefit to identifying oneself into political groupings and operating with the benefits of so doing in a democracy – when it is a democracy we’re trying to influence. What do you think about that, Jeffrey?
JEFFREY: I think that it is inevitable. Of course, it’s never going to go away. I would say that there are two big problems with political activism. One is that tends to not be as practical as advertised. Quite often it just doesn’t work; it hasn’t really worked for a better part of a hundred years. We saw how it worked in the eighteenth century and nineteenth century to some extent, but it’s been a long while since it truly worked well for the liberal cause. There are some exceptions that I can name—maybe the repeal of prohibition, some other issues that have led to the liberalization from the top-down through politics, but it’s pretty rare. The other problem I really have with it—and this worries me very much—is it quite often leads to despair. People get really, really excited about politics; back their man; throw themselves into it; give money; become passionate about it, almost with a level of religious fervor. And then they find that their man loses, or their man gets elected and betrays them or something happens to demoralize them and then they think, “This whole political thing is just a complete waste of my life;” and they go away through despair. That worries me more than anything. I would say that if you’re going to get in to politics, then do so with your eyes wide open to the realities you’re confronting—without naivety, really. I think it is actually extremely important, with a real wisdom, that you certainly aren’t going to win the whole thing—you might not win anything at all. In fact, the most you might be able to hope from political activity is to prevent the system from becoming worse than it is as fast as it might otherwise have, which is pretty slim pickings as far as victories go.
ROBIN: Okay, but that’s not to deny that historically we have seen—going back a thousand years—a trend in the right direction, let’s say, in the Anglo tradition.
JEFFREY: Yeah, I know. There was a gigantic liberal revolution at some point that sort of swept the world, and as many books as I’ve read about this topic, it’s still the cause-and-effect that is unclear. If we could repeat that experience, it’d be a lovely thing. I don’t think it’s repeatable though; I think we have to find new and creative ways. To me, the most freeing thing that we can do for the world right now is be creative and innovative from a technological point of view. That doesn’t mean reforming the system from the top, but rather sort of building it from within and out, making new institutions. I just reread Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and I think everyone should just reread this every few years. If you haven’t read it, it’s just absolutely brilliant, but he talks about how the Americans claimed their liberty. It wasn’t through revolution, it wasn’t as if there was despotism, then there was a violent revolution and then we got liberty. That wasn’t it at all. He talks about the building of liberty all throughout the colonial period. That it sort of already existed. Very robustly, it was embedded in the culture, embedded in the institutions. It was everywhere! It was part of the practical reality of people’s lives. Then, the Declaration of Independence and the subsequent Revolution of the United States comes about because of an intolerance towards impositions. So people were claiming and securing what they already believed that they had and that they had a right to. That’s a different kind of conception of how liberty is obtained.
ROBIN: Jeffrey, this is music to my ears! This is what I go around saying to my American friends! I come from Britain. I come from where the history comes from: I come from where the liberty comes from! It’s really important to understand, I think, that the so-called American Revolution as you’ve just said—you’ve explicitly said—they didn’t think that they were being revolutionaries. In a sense they were conservative – they were conserving their birthright. It was already in the culture.
JEFFREY: That’s it!
ROBIN: Which goes back to your earlier point, I think. You said that political activism can be so very disappointing, but I think that’s because if that’s where you—as it were—exert your force, you’re exerting your force on the tail rather than the dog. The dog is in the culture, and that wags the political tail. The politics always follows what is mainstreamed, normalized in the culture.
JEFFREY: That’s a very important insight. That’s gigantic! If we think that politics is the first front that we should face—the thing that we should primarily and even exclusively dedicated to through some sort of ramped up hysteria—I think we’re going to fail.
ROBIN: Absolutely. I think history shows that quite clearly.
JEFFREY: It does. Again, if we go back to Tocqueville here – he describes in such detail the way liberty was embedded in institutions and in peoples. It’s very interesting. He talks even about—because I guess in his nineteenth century world there was an impression that the American Puritans were an intolerant, sort of Taliban-ish force (in modern terms)—but he actually marshals a tremendous amount of evidence from the sermons that you hear, even from the most severe Puritan ministers that were basically Lockean in their outlook. It was a beautiful thing that the love of liberty was so pervasive that it took many different forms all throughout American society, and there’s a beautiful quote he has somewhere in Democracy in America where he says something like, “I would completely oppose the imposition of only one form of liberty all over the world.”
ROBIN: There you go, and that’s what the brutalists…
JEFFREY: There should be many, many different expressions of liberty based on time, culture, and people. He’s a very interesting guy because he’s sort of an aristocratic libertarian in a way, and not an anarchist in any sense, but we have so much to learn from him. There’s not an imperialistic liberalism about him at all, or an imperialistic libertarianism, or a top-down central plan—a “we know what’s right for society” kind of approach. He really believes that liberty grows out of the embedded experience and belief structure of a people and a particular time and place. Anyway, I think all of this matters for us now. This is not just a history lesson. It really matters for what we’re doing today.
ROBIN: Yes. You talked about these ideas, pre-revolution for example, being pervasive in the culture. We can cause these ideas to become pervasive in an incremental way, such that when tyranny strikes (as it kind of is now in this moment of American history), what is in the culture will inform the reaction. It can make the reaction against tyranny one from liberty. I think that is how liberty has stepped up throughout history: political overreach into the culture occurs; there’s something good already in the culture; people sense that something they already have is being taken away by tyranny, and then they react.
JEFFREY: That’s right. The culture builds real institutions, real relationships and communities.
ROBIN: We’ll talk about that when we come back from the break, Jeffrey.
ROBIN: So when we went into the break there, Jeffrey, you made the point—a very important point—that culture builds real institutions and communities, things that—if I can use your word [from our earlier interview] again—brutalist Libertarians don’t spend any time talking about. I think that may indeed make us, as a group of Libertarians, appear alien to those who are just living in mainstream culture.
JEFFREY: It is certainly right. Here’s the thing: what I described as “brutalistic Libertarianism” is a form of Libertarianism, and I don’t want to take that away from them. My real hope is not so much to condemn but to elevate, you know? And to draw attention that it really is about more than just your rights to do what you want. It’s about more than just the freedom to have no social graces—which I certainly would argue for. That’s okay.
ROBIN: Do you actually mean that literally, Jeffrey? Do actual mean that Libertarianism is about more than those things, or do you mean that life is about more than those things?
JEFFREY: Here’s the thing—and I don’t want to get caught up in definitions like “what is Libertarianism?”—I mean liberty and life. Libertarianism is not much good to us unless it can point to a larger, more beautiful result of a flourishing human life under conditions of liberty. I think we need to broaden our minds and look at that possibility. One reason I think that brutalism exists is because don’t believe that liberty can exist anymore. People are despairing as a result of the leviathan state: they think, “I’m never going to be able to exercise my rights really; we’re never going to get a free society, so I might as well just take what I can get right now.” I think that is a kind of unidealistic way to look at it. It’s inconsistent with the dreams and the longings of the old liberal tradition, which really sought the best not just for oneself, but for one’s community and for the whole world.
ROBIN: Here’s a question, then, that this raises for me: does the liberal tradition itself—or indeed Libertarianism as we currently understand it— provide the means, the metrics, the paradigm to actually determine what is the good life, what is more beautiful, what is better? Or is that a completely different project that falls outside whatever it is that we do as liberals politically—classical liberals politically? That we’re going to do not because our philosophy necessitates it, but if we don’t, we’re just not going to get anybody else to like us? Which of those is it?
JEFFREY: I like to go back to Hayek on this. Hayek thought the most important agenda was to create to a space of choice, human volition, and freedom for institutions to develop, and develop the tolerance for a wide diversity of those institutions. That was the essence of the liberal project more than anything else. It wasn’t to achieve certain designed and rationalistic ends; it was to create a space and a template—a sort of civilizational template—to allow the full, multifarious flourishing of the best of human life in every way you can imagine that. In Law, Legislation, and Liberty, he actually uses the words, “the good society,” which was an interesting phrase for him to use because he’s writing—probably at this point—8 to 10 years after Lyndon Johnson imposed what he called the good society, which was just a bunch of welfare programs actually. Hayek sought to take back that term for the liberal cause. A good society is not something you impose through legislation, transfer programs, and redistributions. It is something that emerges out of the decentralized choices of individuals where they are in their time and in their place, doing what is in the best interest of themselves and others in a cooperative way. That’s what builds a good society. I just think that is a beautiful image.
ROBIN: Definitely. Some pure Libertarians would say, though, that our responsibility as Libertarians is just to make sure that politically that’s allowed, and that we don’t have to care too much about what society then does with that freedom. But I think you would say—and correct me again if I’m wrong—that some institutions, some choices taken with freedom are better than others, and make for better lives. Is it important that we, as classical liberals or Libertarians—even anarchists—have anything to say about that even as a political matter?
JEFFREY: I would say that there is a really interesting give-and-take relationship between freedom and the longing for the higher angels of our nature. There’s an inter-relationship between these two things: the larger the state grows, the worse we become as people; and then the worse we become as people, the larger the state grows. I think the reverse relationship works there too. It’s like, if we can get busy building our own forms of freedom that are based in benevolence, cooperation, creativity, and love, we will become less dependent on centralized forms of impositions and leviathan state control.
ROBIN: Thank you for using the word, “love.” I’ve been trying to introduce the word, “love,” into politics since I started on this. One of the ways I understand liberty is that it is the political realization of love because love says “as you wish.” To your loved one you say, “As you wish;” you want for him or her what he or she wants for him or herself. A liberal politics does the same thing politically.
JEFFREY: I think that’s right. Robin, all beautiful things in the world extend from love. For me, love is the great creative force; it is the thing that gives birth to new life. It’s a creative force in the sense that it takes the existing substance that’s around us, merges it and mixes it together and creates something new, surprising, beautiful, exhilarating – and it is the reason we wake up. It is the reason we have hope. It’s the reason we look forward to tomorrow, so we can discover new, wonderful things—all of which extend out of love. Without love, all of history is just data: it’s boring; it’s not creative. A civilization of love is a prosperous, flourishing place. I think it’s a beautiful word. I agree that there’s a political economy of love.
ROBIN: “Political economy of love.” Yeah, wow! Here’s a thought then, which speaks to your brutalism idea and my purism or orthodoxy idea. I don’t think anybody would ever make, or has made—I might be wrong—a serious attempt to systematize love. To actually write it down what it entails—whatever the axioms of love are and then consequences. Love is necessarily more fluid, more amorphous. I can’t remember who said it, but I am reminded of that line: “If the soul speaks, then alas, it is not the soul that speaks.” It can’t be what’s ultimate. Ultimate reality can’t be spoken. If that’s true—if love is the bottom line—then isn’t that the denial of all attempts to dogmatize, or even, frankly, at the bottom line, systematize liberty? Define it even?
JEFFREY: I think that once you feel like you’ve understood the whole of it, you probably haven’t understood its most important thing. It’s a mystery. Why do we say the word, “love,” with such tenderness? Why do we always have a sense of awe when we just say that word? I think the reason is that—there are several reasons—it’s ultimately mysterious, we really can’t take it apart, we can’t fully understand it. Another reason, too, is that it’s very fragile. When it appears before us, when we possess it, when we hold it, when we feel it – we should treasure it, guard it, and protect it because it can shatter so quickly, and in so many ways, I would say that the state (in the 20th century in particular) has shattered our capacity to love. The death, the violence, the imposition, the regimentation, marching around in lockstep to the dictators and the plan…
ROBIN: And by, indeed, taking over most of those human transactions that come out of love – that we, out of love, perform for and on each other. The state has taken them over and eliminated our space to actually realize our love – to be loving towards each other.
JEFFREY: That’s true and really gets us back to the core reason that we wanted to speak, that has to do with this issue of brutalism versus humanitarianism as I conceive it. I really think that it’s extremely important for classical liberals, libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, left libertarians—I don’t care what you call us—people who favor the cause of human liberty—to not just hate. There’s a just hate that we have for terrible things in the world, but that doesn’t get us all the way. I would like to find ways for us to fall in love with the idea of human liberty, and for that to be our animating driving force. That’s not to say that we have a particular agenda that “I know the answers,” and, “Here’s what we should do;” but I do think that if you’re driven by a love for liberty—really—then you start to get creative. Then you can have a benevolent spirit; then we can have civil discussions; then we can have lively, robust, lasting institutions that can build the kind of society that we all long for.
ROBIN: Perhaps we can even go one step further—it’s not just about falling in love with liberty, it’s about using liberty to fall in love with each other, isn’t it?
JEFFREY: That is such a lovely way to put it. I agree with that. In any case, it’s a pre-condition. It’s something that we shouldn’t forget about. We’re not just about fists up in the air—that’s not enough. Sometimes that’s necessary, right? These days there are so many horrors in the world, but you can’t go to bed every day with hate in your heart. That’s just not going to get us from here to there.
ROBIN: Even for the statists.
JEFFREY: Even for the state.
ROBIN: For those who would use force.
JEFFREY: It’s fine to have a passion for justice—I think we all feel that. But the question is: what’s the next step? What are the ideals that we’re seeking? What are we being called to achieve—not just to oppose but to build? I think it’s good for everyone who is liberty-minded to do an examination of conscience in that sense. Like in my case—gosh, Robin, it’s a little bit autobiographical but—I fell in love with the idea of innovation, creativity, cooperation, and exchange. Just the magic that’s associated with the capacity of human beings to get along and work out their problems for themselves. When this started happening to me, it gave me a really different outlook on life. It is very fun now for me to enter into social spaces and observe what’s going on. I’m thrilled; I’m thrilled by so many things that I’m part of. Just the other day—I was getting off the plane—I kind of watched very carefully at the process of deplaning, how people get out and get their luggage from the luggage racks, move in front of each other, defer to those who are disabled, let those who have connecting flights get ahead of them, look down upon those who cut in line. It lasted only 10-15 minutes, and I’m sitting there in my chair, watching this extremely complicated social structure emerge out of this microcosm in just a matter of minutes. I found it just magical and marvelous to observe the capacity of human beings to organize themselves imperfectly but beautifully—even in the absence of stated rules or statutory rules. The rules emerged out of etiquette and manners, and there was like a court in operation at the same time out of a complete diversity of people from everywhere, who had never met each other before. It all happened in the course of minutes, it took place over 10-15 minutes, and then it was over. If you can look at a scene like that and say, “This is beautiful. This is magic. This is lovely. This is how liberty can work.” I think that’s a great way to look at our project, really. We want a world which that level of spontaneity and informal organization of humanity takes place with compassion, love, and mutual understanding.
ROBIN: Liberty as a means to allow people and to encourage people to express their higher selves. Higher selves that, by the way, they can access without having any political ideas at all— just by virtue of their humanity.
JEFFREY: That’s exactly it, Robin. Don’t you think…? I’ve begun to realize recently that we have a slightly exaggerated attachment to this idea that there should be some sort of universal political ideology held by everybody that which so happens to be ours. I don’t actually believe that really. If we have the right kind of institutions, it shouldn’t be necessary to “convert” everyone to every aspect of our belief system.
ROBIN: What we’re arguing for here, I think, is essentially a very optimistic—and I would say, true and spiritually accurate— understanding of what a human being is. In a way, if you’re Christian, you might say we’re made in God’s image. I would probably prefer to say that we all participate in the divine, we all manifest the divine—whatever way you want to put it. It is a very positive view of humanity that has been borne out by what people do when they are given the kind of liberty we’re talking about. I see now, Jeffrey, that we’re going in to another break, so we will carry on when we come back.
ROBIN: This has been a very moving hour for me in discussion with Jeffrey Tucker. Jeffrey, in the interview we did before—the first one we did—you said the “purpose of liberty is to serve real people in their real lives.” The brutalist paradigm had a very different purpose—if any at all—right?
JEFFREY: I didn’t understand when I wrote my first article; I just assumed that brutalism was made up like any other theory, like, “Oh, to hell with beauty, to hell with accoutrements, to hell with loveliness.” Brutalists go, “Here’s your damn building.” That’s not actually true. What happened to the brutalist school of architecture grew out immediately of the World War II experience, which was shocking to all of the artists and creators in the world. So you’ve got the bombing of Dresden; London’s being aerial bombed; you’ve got Nagasaki and Hiroshima; you’ve got governments’ destroying major monuments of civilization all over the world, so one school of architecture said, “You know what? To hell with it.” If you think that civilization and beauty are that dispensable that you just push a button from the air to smash it up to smithereens, we’re not going to build it—as kind of a protest. “Here’s your damn building. It’s not beautiful; it’s ghastly. It’s just purely functional – destroy it if you want. No great loss.” Do you see? In other words, the brutalist architecture school represented a kind of nihilism or absence of hope completely. It was a despairing worldview that they adopted, and I think the ideological brutalism is in the same sort of cap. It’s a tendency to look around the world and say, “There’s no hope; there’s no chance for beauty; there’s no chance we’re doing anything good at all, so let’s just grab the minimum-most that we can, run with it, assert it, and shove it down the world’s throat.” There’s an analogy there. What this story, to me, about the origin of brutalism does: it makes you slightly, a little more sympathetic. This grows out of world experience, grows out of a historical experience that was ghastly. The brutalist architectural school was in a way the victims; this is what emerged.
ROBIN: Jeffrey, this is the end of the show. We’re going to have to carry on in a third, I think.
JEFFREY: I’d like to do that very much.