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Brian Doherty on the Trouble With Governments and Benefits of Anarchism
With Anthony Wile - October 21, 2012
The Daily Bell is pleased to present this exclusive interview with Brian Doherty
Introduction: Brian Doherty is a senior editor at Reason magazine and Reason.com. Doherty is author of the books This is Burning Man (2004, Little, Brown; paperback BenBella, 2006), Radicals for Capitalism: A History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement (PublicAffairs, 2007) and Gun Control on Trial (Cato, 2008). From 1994 to 2003, Doherty worked as associate editor and reporter for Reason, writing a variety of stories on topics ranging from the Americans with Disabilities Act to pollution-credit trading to the independent rock scene. Doherty's work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines. He has been a commentator on hundreds of radio and TV shows and was the Warren Brookes Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in 1999. He served as managing editor at Regulation magazine from 1993-94.
Daily Bell: Tell us about yourself and your background. Where did you grow up and go to school?
Brian Doherty: While born in New York City, I left at age three. Spent my school and college years all over the state of Florida.
Daily Bell: You received a Bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Florida. What do you think of Western mainstream journalists and media?
Brian Doherty: First, I advise strongly against journalism school, even though I graduated from one. It's unnecessary, since any alert and careful reader of journalism should be able to figure out the secrets of the trade, such as they are. It is not a technical school such that specialized education is necessary for it. That said, and although the business end of traditional journalism is in a panic these days for justified reasons, the amount of information and analysis available to consumers of news thanks to the Internet is huge and growing and of quality at least comparable to if not exceeding that of some imagined golden age of American journalism.
Daily Bell: You live in Los Angeles today. What did you do after you finished university?
Brian Doherty: I was a libertarian movement fan and activist in my college years, and my first work out of university was an internship in the Cato Institute's P.R. department, which turned into a job there, which turned into a job as managing editor of Cato's Regulation magazine. I worked for Cato in D.C. from 1991-94 before moving to L.A. as an assistant editor at Reason, where I am now a senior editor and writer.
Daily Bell: You were the Warren Brookes Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in 1999 and served as managing editor at Regulation magazine from 1993-94. What was that like? How did you receive your award?
Brian Doherty: Editing Regulation was a great immersion in every aspect of the world of journalism, both editorial and business; while my bosses, Bill Niskanen and Brink Lindsey, chose the manuscripts we would run I did both most of the large scale and line editing and proofing for a while there and ran the circulation and ad end of the magazine for a while as well. But the subject matter was a bit too specialized for my tastes, and I was glad to get to work at Reason. The Brookes Fellowship arose from the people at CEI being impressed, I suppose, with my proven ability to report and write from a free market perspective on a variety of issues, including environmental ones.
Daily Bell: Is the world growing warmer? Are humans responsible for it?
Brian Doherty: I think the jury is still out on the causes of global warming, though there is certainly some reason to believe so, as far as I understand the data, which I am not expert in by any means. This is not an issue I've ever written about. The most important issue regarding global warming is not really whether it is happening, but the relative costs and benefits of government imposed solutions. Global warming does not equal an excuse for government control of all human activities.
Daily Bell: From 1994 to 2003 you worked as associate editor and reporter for Reason, writing a variety of stories on topics ranging from the Americans with Disabilities Act to pollution-credit trading to the independent rock scene. Can you summarize your point of view?
Brian Doherty: My point of view is libertarian: I think the best social and political order is that which relies the least on violence or threats of violence to get people what they want.
Daily Bell: How did you get to Reason?
Brian Doherty: I had been writing some freelance articles and reviews for them in the early 1990s while working at the Cato Institute. When they advertised for a staff position in 1994, I applied and they knew my work and editor Virginia Postrel hired me.
Daily Bell: Tell us more about Reason.
Brian Doherty: Reason is the longest lasting and most wide-ranging and widely read policy magazine looking at politics, culture and policy from a libertarian perspective, defending the notion that freedom and choice tend to lead to the richest and most lovable world and culture.
Daily Bell: Does government work?
Brian Doherty: That depends on what you think it's supposed to be doing. It works to redistribute wealth and manage choices according to the dictates of a small group of people, that's for sure.
Daily Bell: What would work better?
Brian Doherty: I believe markets and liberty are the most just and effective way to give the greatest chance that people's needs and desires will be met.
Daily Bell: Are you an anarchist?
Brian Doherty: Yes.
Daily Bell: What is an anarchist?
Brian Doherty: Someone who believes a single institution claiming a monopoly on violence and making choices for others isn't necessary for a healthy and wealthy human culture. That all human needs can be met through freely chosen trade and contract.
Daily Bell: Do you believe in SOME government? How much is too much?
Brian Doherty: I do not currently believe any government as people currently understand it is necessary to have a healthy and functioning human culture. It helps to remember utopia is not an option; anarchy will certainly have its troubles and discontents. I still think it will be a better, freer, richer and more just world than one with government as we have come to know it.
Daily Bell: How did you come to write This is Burning Man?
Brian Doherty: I had been attending the Burning Man festival since 1995, wrote about it for Reason in 1999 (though the article didn't appear until 2000) and realized the story of the event's history was colorful and fun enough to deserve a book. To my good fortune, the publisher Little, Brown agreed and the book came out in 2004, the first narrative history of the event.
Daily Bell: What was it about?
Brian Doherty: Burning Man is a temporary community and arts festival dedicated to free expression and participation in an atmosphere that is in effect very anarchistic; I think it's a great political story as well as a great human one. It still happens every year the week before Labor Day in Nevada's Black Rock desert.
Brian Doherty: I've been a devotee and participant in the American libertarian movement since college, and always thought it was a terribly undertold tale of American ideological evolution. I was well positioned to do the more than 100 interviews and hundreds of hours of archival reading to be the first person to tell the story of the people and institutions who pushed the ideas of radical liberty in America, focused on the 20th century. It took nearly 12 years of reading, interviewing, and writing before it came out in 2007. Of course, I was working on other things as well during those years.
Daily Bell: Give us the backgrounds of some famous libertarians.
Brian Doherty: The five key figures in 20th century American libertarianism are Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard. The first two were Austrian exile economists who ended up teaching in America after World War II, and provided the basic understanding in the richness of free markets and the assured economic chaos of socialism for both the libertarian and conservative movements in postwar America. Friedman was an American economist, of a different intellectual school than the Austrians, but in his combination of academic respect and popular polemics was the most effective libertarian in actually shaping policy, whether it came to ending the draft or at least for a while making policymakers aware of the dangers and monetary causes of rampant inflation.
Rand was a Russian novelist and philosopher who dramatized the dangers of statism and glories of individualism in her novels such as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged in a way that sold millions of novels and changed hundreds of thousands of people's attitudes about government control of lives and the economy. Rothbard was an American economist, historian and philosopher, a student of Mises, who brought together all the strands of libertarianism in one energetic, prolific, institution-building man: Austrian free-market economics, natural rights ethics, anarchistic politics and an interest in the actual history of states and elites and how they harm most of us while benefiting themselves.
Daily Bell: What about Gun Control on Trial? Tell us about that book.
Brian Doherty: The revival of the Second Amendment and its eventual vindication in the 2008 Supreme Court case Heller v D.C. was an inspiring story of how ideological activists in the legal academy and think tanks, and in everyday citizenry, were able to actually change both ideas and policy in a vital area of human freedom: the freedom to defend yourself. It was a story I was very proud to be able to tell in my 2008 book Gun Control on Trial, how think tankers from the libertarian world united some D.C. citizens of varied ideologies in a well-crafted civil rights suit that got the Supreme Court to declare, for the first time, that the Second Amendment indeed protected an individual right to self-defense, at least with commonly used weapons in the home.
Daily Bell: Your work has appeared in many mainstream publications. What do you write on mostly?
Brian Doherty: I have had the blessing of being a generalist within the libertarian world, writing about a variety of issues from the perspective that freedom is better than coercion, that choice is better than control. I've written on libertarian history, gun law, environmentalism, cultural criticism, building codes, private property, education and other topics for numerous publications.
Daily Bell: You've also been a commentator on hundreds of radio and TV shows, including Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor" and CNN Headline News's "Glenn Beck Show." What was it like to work on these shows?
Brian Doherty: TV and radio is always fun but always nerve-wracking, especially when you are arguing with people like O'Reilly or Beck. But just know what you want to say, know your topic, and be bold and it generally works out fine.
Daily Bell: What broadcaster do you admire from a libertarian perspective. Any you don't?
Brian Doherty: John Stossel and Andrew Napolitano are the only broadcasters on widely available cable networks who I think are sharp from a libertarian perspective. The rest I may enjoy or not enjoy for various reasons but they fail from a libertarian perspective; both Fox and MSNBC with their fealty to major political parties are the worst in this regard.
Daily Bell: Let's look around the world. Is the world growing freer?
Brian Doherty: More markets, less outright state management of the economy has been a great booster for liberty and wealth. I am by no means expert in the specific as-life-is-lived effects of government on the daily lives of most of the world, though. Certainly one hears of lots of petty bureaucratic control and thought control in Europe and in China the Party still has far more control than a freedom-lover can tolerate.
Daily Bell: Is there a specific elite leading the world with plans for world government?
Brian Doherty: There are lots of people who seem to think one-world government would be a good idea. I see no signs that we are anywhere near seeing that, though.
Daily Bell: What's going on with Europe? Will the euro shatter? How about the EU?
Brian Doherty: Europe is having to deal with the same problem we'll soon be facing [in the US]: how to manage the transition from government's taxing and spending too much to a more sustainable future. It will never be an easy transition. I don't expect that they will be able to maintain their current level of monetary and economic unity in the face of these pressures but it's not an issue I've ever written about in any depth.
Daily Bell: What about China? Is China growing freeer?
Brian Doherty: I am not expert in Chinese policy; from what I read in the papers they seem to be recognizing that buying and selling is a better means to wealth than government redistributing and managing but, again, it's not a place I've studied or written about in any depth.
Daily Bell: What about the US? Is the US growing poorer?
Brian Doherty: The actual wealth of the world is always growing; how that is measured in government paper is always shifting and will shift more in ways that probably won't be pretty. The US desperately needs to stop going into debt and printing money to meet government's short-term needs.
Daily Bell: Would the US be better off abandoning the war on terror?
Brian Doherty: Yes.
Daily Bell: Is the war on terror real?
Brian Doherty: It's spending trillions of real dollars and really affecting our liberty, privacy and freedom to travel. It's not really fighting an actual significant threat to US citizens, as near as I can tell. Every domestic terror story is rooted in government provocateurs ginning up a fake threat.
Daily Bell: Who will win the upcoming elections in the US? Will it make a difference?
Brian Doherty: I don't know and in the big picture it won't make much difference. Both will overspend, allow the Fed to run rampant and unnecessarily extend our footprint around the world.
Daily Bell: Did you support Ron Paul? What happened to his campaign?
Brian Doherty: I wrote a book about Ron Paul, Ron Paul's Revolution, and consider him the most interesting politician around, and with the best ideas. He helped create hundreds of thousands of new activists for liberty, both within and without the Republican Party. In 20 years everyone will see that he was the most important political story of 2012, even though he didn't win the presidential nomination.
Daily Bell: Do you support the idea of competing currencies?
Brian Doherty: Yes. People should be free to choose what they use to exchange with, unencumbered by legal tender laws of taxation on their monies of choice.
Daily Bell: Is gold money? How about silver?
Brian Doherty: Historically, yes, and their greatest virtue now would be that governments can't freely and easily create more of them.
Daily Bell: Can a pure fiat currency prosper as money?
Brian Doherty: For a while. We are now seeing, I think, that system begin to crumble, and I think it will get worse.
Daily Bell: What will happen to the US dollar? Is it going down?
Brian Doherty: It is hard for me to imagine that the world will continue to treat the US dollar as a great store of value if US debt and monetary policy continues; I do see it going down.
Daily Bell: Is the world headed toward a depression?
Brian Doherty: Likely, but economic predictions are an easy way to make a fool of yourself. The economy depends on the choices of billions of people over what to do with their knowledge, skills and property and is thus inherently impossible to make specific predictions about.
Daily Bell: What can people do to protect themselves?
Brian Doherty: Whatever they see fit to. I recommend having a fair amount of your accumulated wealth in things other than that dependent on the continued value of government currencies.
Daily Bell: What would a prosperous society look like?
Brian Doherty: One where the most people have the most control over their environment and their justly acquired property. To name specifics would be to fall for the folly of the central planner; it would look like what the people living in it wanted it to look like.
Daily Bell: Did Ayn Rand predict it or was she a bit too doctrinaire?
Brian Doherty: I am a great admirer of Rand and think she had a deep understanding of the motivations behind statism, and produced a brutal and scary look at a world run on statist principles in Atlas Shrugged. I have philosophical disagreements with her but that does not lessen my appreciation of her novels or impact.
Daily Bell: What do you think of the idea that Austrian economics and human action are part of an elite Hegelian plot, as has been suggested?
Brian Doherty: I think there is no evidence for that idea.
Daily Bell: What is the future of freedom and free society? Are you an optimist?
Brian Doherty: I am a long-term optimist; I think liberty is just and right and will make for the richest and best human society, and I think more and more people will recognize that. However, the fight against the human desire for power and to commit crime will never end; the fight for liberty will go on forever.
Daily Bell: Is the Internet an important part of this fight for freedom?
Brian Doherty: Right now it is a great arena for the free and easy spread of information and ideas and the ideas of liberty have certainly benefited greatly from its existence in the past decades. In and of itself, it is a great addition to the wealth of the world—to our ability to meet our needs, something above and beyond the measures of money per se. That is, while the Internet may have made many people "rich" who, say, own Google or Amazon stock or whatever, it has made ME richer because it gives me things I want at little or no effort on my part, the goal of economic activity.
Daily Bell: What do you have planned professionally? Any more books?
Brian Doherty: I have at least three ideas for books, but have not yet tried to sell them and am now focusing on my daily and monthly work for Reason magazine and at Reason.com.
Daily Bell: Thanks for your time!
Brian Doherty: Thank you.
The Daily Bell
Thanks to Brian Doherty for an interesting interview. One answer seems especially appropriate to comment on since it touches on an incident now in the news.
Mr. Doherty points out that the war on terror as reported in the states was not "an actual significant threat to US citizens .... Every domestic terror story is rooted in government provocateurs ginning up a fake threat."
This is a pertinent and courageous insight, especially given that just last week US authorities once again entrapped a terrorist. This time he was supposedly planning to bomb the Federal Reserve and influence upcoming presidential elections.
From what's been reported – and as with other such arrests – Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis received ongoing encouragement to pursue his terrorist act and a good deal of specific support.
In reading about such cases it is often evident that lacking the resources US officials bring to bear on behalf of these misguided individuals, such plots would be merely evanescent bar-room talk.
Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis was supposedly a supporter of American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who has been called "the spiritual leader of the alleged 9/11 hijackers." Yet, as has been pointed out, Pentagon officials reportedly met with al-Awlaki AFTER 9/11 ... which doesn't make much sense if al-Awlaki was a 9/11 kingpin.
Now there are calls to give US military and civilian police even more powers to ensure these sorts of incidents will be properly combatted with maximum available resources. Such false-flag events are a prime manipulation of out-of-control governments determined to inflict authoritarian rule on their citizens.
In response to our question, "Is the Internet an important part of this fight for freedom?" Doherty replied, "Right now it is a great arena for the free and easy spread of information and ideas and the ideas of liberty have certainly benefited greatly."
Governments generally – and especially, it seems, in the US – may be intent on repeating past repressions, but as Doherty pointed out, the Internet itself is a new and inoculating factor.
Despite many discouraging signs for freedom, we are fortunate to live in such an era.