Over the past 40 years, Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch have watched society become more open and free. Except when it comes to government. In The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong With America, they diss big-spending Republicans and Ken Burns documentaries while praising the Velvet Underground and statistician Nate Silver for making the world better. And it’s all because they believe “you should be able to think what you want, live where you want, trade for what you want, eat what you want, smoke what you want, and wed whom you want.” We asked Gillespie, a part-time Oxford resident, how it all applies to Cincinnati and what’s ahead for the big two parties.
Did you grow up a libertarian? We weren’t breast fed Ayn Rand or [living] in a household run on Milton Friedman economic dictums or anything. But there’s a certain dimension of pushback and anti-authoritarianism that’s common among kids, and that often gives rise to a kind of libertarian sentiment. I was growing up kind of catching the tail end of punk, and it just clicked. My older brother went to college and found Reason magazine and started sending it home. And I was like, “Wow, that makes sense.”
Why did this moment seem like the right one for this book? I really looked forward to the 21st century. I remember thinking it was going to be awesome. It’s going to be The Jetsons plus Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space plus maybe a David Bowie song. And the plain fact is that the 21st century has been a complete fucking bust from every level and from any perspective. It really seems to have sucked in many ways.
But in the book you spend a lot of time talking about how great the world is. In many parts of our lives, things are getting much better and freer. You can buy virtually anything you want and have it delivered very quickly. And even more important, you can meet up with people that you never would have stumbled across and build communities and have conversations that extend relationships that would have ended when someone moved out of town. When you go to the grocery store, instead of going to a crappy produce section with one eggplant, you’re likely to encounter three or four varieties of eggplant. More important, there’s the ability to express yourself not just through creative expression but in terms of your gender and your race and what you like to do.
But not so free politically? But not in politics. When you look at K–12 education and healthcare and retirement, there’s a complete disconnect. On one hand, you have this never-ending proliferation of choices and options. On the other hand, the great long-term trend of the past 40 or 50 years is people refusing to identify as either a Democrat or a Republican. And we decided the reason people are leaving those labels and calling themselves Independents is because they don’t like what they’re selling, which are rival visions of top-down control systems. The book is an attempt to talk about what was working in the non-political arenas to bring people these choices: the airlines, the deregulation of the workplace.
So do these independents take a particularly libertarian standpoint? Or is it a mixed group? I think it’s a mixed bag in the sense that to say you’re an independent is not to say you’re a libertarian, and we’re talking small l, not related to the Libertarian party. We have large majorities of people saying they want a government that does less and costs less. We don’t need to go all the way to some kind of a utopian wet dream of an Ayn Rand fanatic, but people generally understand that free enterprise works pretty well. At the same time as we get generally wealthier and more educated, we get comfortable with the idea that there are a lot of different people out there and a lot of different viewpoints. We want to be able to express ourselves in how we speak and also how we live. It’s like pop music. There is no mainstream. There is no Top 40 that matters. It’s like that in America. There are only alternative lifestyles now, so in a real sense I think we’re living in a semi-libertarian world.
You guys take on education, healthcare, and social security in the book. The one big issue you didn’t address is the environment. We’ve talked about how there are certain common problems that need be solved through collective action. The main reason why air quality everywhere in America is phenomenally better than it was in 1970s was a government mandate that said we are no longer using leaded gasoline. In Los Angeles, there are now fewer smog alerts than 25 or 30 years ago, even though the level of pollution that triggers an alert is lower and there are more people in the area. There are places where government is not only effective but is the only resource available to control certain things. But it’s risky with political control. The government in the 1970s locked into catalytic converters to take pollutants out of the air. And that’s a bad idea. If you lock in a particular technology that everybody has to use, you stop the innovation that leads to better results.
Which is similar to your critique of public education. What we’re looking at now, and this is not liberals, it’s conservatives, are national standards where there’s one curriculum. And that’s placing a really hefty bet on a couple of people in a given time to know what’s going to be best for the next 50 years. That rarely works out. It’s much better to figure out how you can run as many simultaneous experiments where people can learn from each other and tweak things instead of betting it all on black even though there’s only a 5 percent chance of winning.
You guys use Cincinnati and Ohio as examples in the book. What’s your take on our fiscal situation? The people who are in charge of Cincinnati, and this includes the business establishment and corporate overlords as well as the elected officials and other interest groups, will do anything other than address absolutely basic issues. Cincinnati will talk forever about the Bengals and Reds and University of Cincinnati sports teams. They will not talk about how we are losing jobs and people at historic rates. Cities make basically an overall offer to people. They say for you to live here we’ll give you this level of amenity and we’ll charge you this much in cost of living. And Cincinnati has not offered people in the area a good deal for a long time, in terms of actual money. That’s what Cincinnati should be dealing with, not with disrupting the view of the river even more than the big white elephant stadiums that every economic study has shown are not just a zero addition to a local economy but actually drain money and capital out of an economy.
You’re not fans of the streetcar, either. There are no places in America where this type of redevelopment has worked. What works is the less glamorous stuff. What politicians have to do is make it so every new person who wants to open a small business or large business doesn’t have to come and kiss the ring of the pope of the moment. At the same time, you give up on the fantasy that what we really need in Cincinnati is an opera house or more classical music or a better museum. I generated an axiom that anytime you ask somebody about a city, if they mention a symphony orchestra in the top three or five attractions, you know you’re in a totally dead town. Nobody says what’s great about New York is Carnegie Hall or the Philharmonic. These are not the things that make a city great. They are reflections of cities that have vast amounts of wealth, which is always generated from much more humble activities. With Cincinnati, are people really going to say, Oh you know it’s great now we have this fucking streetcar? No. What they’re going to say is that we have great businesses and great restaurants and schools that are responsive. That’s not going to come from white elephant Oedipus-complex projects that politicians and local business leaders always want.
It does seem like Cincinnati does a lot of public-private partnerships, though. What are your thoughts on that type of cooperation? If a project makes sense, private money will be there. Even in the worst economy, there’s a lot of private capital available. If the government is coughing up dough, it’s a sign that this project is bullshit. The market is telling you that this cannot pay off on its own. And so once the flow of free or reduced money stops, the project is going to go down the tubes. Where the city and regional governments can play a role is to streamline the process, not so that you can take whatever property you want as a private developer, but to facilitate and minimize the red tape that’s going to get in the way.
Looking to the 2012 elections, what role do you see libertarian-leaning independents playing? The Democratic Party and the Republican Party are becoming less important. When you see the Tea Party, when you see the online swarm around Howard Dean, it’s time for us to grow up as Americans and realize we don’t need a maximum leader to get things done. The parties were nice while they lasted. They’ve been around for 200 years, and their day is gone. What you have now are independents who refuse to say, I’m Republican, so because I want lower marginal tax rates I’m going to go along with your fucking idiotic need to say the Pledge of Allegiance all the time. Or I’m a Democrat, so I’ll put up with a bunch of bullshit that doesn’t help anybody because I believe in abortion rights. That’s the power of the independent. The people who want power have to do what the people want as opposed to make them buy a whole package of positions and goods that have nothing to do with each other.Illustration by Pablo.
Originally published in the August 2011 issue.