Nick Gillespie is the editor-in-chief of Reason.com and Reason TV, the online outlets of Reason, the nation’s foremost libertarian magazine. From 2000 to 2008, he served as Reason editor-in-chief, winning the 2005 Western Publications Association “Maggie” Award for Best Political Magazine. The Daily Beast named Gillespie one of “The Right’s Top 25 Journalists,” calling him “clear-headed, brainy, and among the foremost libertarians in America.” He spoke at Hillsdale College on March 19.
How did you come to libertarianism? What’s your story?
I would say it was a couple of things. One is that I when I was in high school, my brother went away to college and started reading “Reason” magazine. He started sending it home to me, and I thought it made sense. I was always anti-authority. And also I stumbled across a copy of “Free to Choose” by Milton and Rose Friedman that my parents had. I started reading and I thought, this is like a secret history of how things really work and nobody’s talking about it. It rang true with me. By the time I got to college, I called myself a libertarian.
Who are your main intellectual influences?
People like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek are certainly up there. Leslie Fiedler, who is a literary and culture critic. Also people like former Reason Editor Virginia Postrel, my predecessor, had a massive impact on me. These were people who were engaging the world with a bias toward liberty, and figuring out what works.
Hayek or Mises?
I would have to say Hayek. What I like about Mises is his axiomatic beliefs about certain things, but what I prize about Hayek is his emphasis on the limits of knowledge. This seems to be a really important concept that is constantly forgotten by people in charge.
What do you see as the primary policy goal of libertarianism?
Things that move us toward decentralization of power. The way I used to talk about it when Windows was still a dominant operating system is that the way a computer operates, what you want is an operating system that allows as many different apps to run at the same time without crashing the system. That’s what classical liberalism really does.
How do you think libertarianism as a third party helps achieve those goals?
I’m not particularly interested in electoral politics. Where I think public choice economics is hugely important is what it asks is not simply what the rhetoric of people is, but what are the outcome of their actions. In that way, it gets to what actually matters as opposed to people sprinkling magic words. It’s amazing how much slack people will give if you say the right words as you’re repressing them.
Libertarianism is a pre-political attitude. It can inform you if you’re in the Republican Party or the Democratic Party or the Libertarian Party. It can express itself in a lot of different ways, like through Jimmy Carter, who is the great deregulator of the American economy, not Ronald Reagan. He deregulated interstate railroads, trucking, airlines. That all happened under Jimmy Carter and he was abetted in it by people like Milton Friedman. Libertarianism is an impulse, not a set of beads on a string.
Another controversial person here is Ayn Rand. What do you think of her message?
I’m not a devotee of Ayn Rand. But what stands out about Ayn Rand is that she and Jack Kerouac are the only fiction authors from the 1950s who still have mass audiences that sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year and rock people’s worlds. Many of the questions that she raised are still relevant today. She probably had as big of an effect on the left as on the right, foregrounding individualism. One of her characters says “I’ll never live for another person,” and, on a certain level, that’s grotesque for anybody who is a parent. On another level, saying that in a world of big government and big business, that’s a powerful statement.
Do you think Rand Paul should be president?
I don’t think anybody should be president. I think Rand Paul is the most interesting politician to come on the national scene in a very long time.
Hillary Clinton just endorsed gay marriage. What do you think is the future for that issue?
I think gay marriage is over as an issue. When you look at public opinion polls about gay issues, the moral approbation toward the issue has faded. The larger questions are: what is the connection between the state and individual choices? It’s as big of a deal as it is because the state is involved in bestowing certain benefits such as tax incentives. I think what we’re starting to see is that if you want to live in a society that is truly pluralistic and tolerant, and that doesn’t mean everyone agrees every lifestyle is morally valid, but just tolerant, then we have to start shrinking the scope and the size of the state. The state should recognize all people as equal.
The title of your talk is “Tonight you’re young, tomorrow you’re unemployed.” What should young people do professionally and personally to handle this?
Students today are much more professional than they used to be. That’s mostly a good thing, but often there’s a sense that everything has to be programmatic. I think I benefitted ultimately from not being like that; it was just the world I was born into. The best thing you can do is recognize that you should live your life as a work of art. You should do things that are interesting to you. You should follow what you find interesting and figure out how to pay for it.