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Interview with Tyler Cowen, host of Marginal Revolution

Tyler Cowen is an economics professor at George Mason University. He hosts the blog, Marginal Revolution, and writes for numerous outlets including The New York Times, Bloomberg View, The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal, and more. Additionally, Mr. Cowen was ranked #72 out of Foreign Policy Magazine’s 2011 “Top 100 Global Thinkers.”

The Politic: An asteroid’s about to hit NYC and you want me to die a libertarian, what’s your best pitch?

Tyler Cowen: If an asteroid is coming, then libertarianism ceases to be true because we’ll need some pretty extreme, collective coercive measures. My best pitch is forget about the idea– let’s figure out what horrible impositions we need to place on ourselves. That’s my best pitch.

If there’s no asteroid period, at the margin, peace is highly valuable and social liberties– we should have more of them. People shouldn’t be thrown in jail for private decisions they make. And economic freedom boosts the rate of growth. And you should be a libertarian. That’s my quick elevator pitch– minimalistic, but there you go!

What would you find to be the most compelling argument against that?

Maybe that it’s not specific enough. Or that the culturally-specific question of how is it you manage to have public sector institutions that can stand to do that is maybe the more important question, and that’s a kind of anthropological, sociological question, rather than the kind of political question that libertarianism focuses on.

How do you grapple with that specifically?

Grapple is a tricky word. I think that criticism is probably largely correct– I don’t think it means you’re not a libertarian. You just need to be a very broad libertarian and be curious and think about these other questions and realize that libertarianism is a relatively small part of what you believe or what you stand for.

What corollaries to libertarianism do you hold then?

Various theories as to why some governments are better than others– I’m not sure those theories have simple labels. But having a good understanding of that is at least as important as libertarianism. Whatever your system is going to be, whether your government does better or worse is a big difference.

One prevalent concern is that libertarianism can’t grapple with the increasing focus on identity and identity politics. How do you think the movement can move forwards in the 21st century?

I think identity politics is inescapable– now you might have too much of it or the wrong kind in some settings. But I really don’t want to toss it out, and I don’t think that’s feasible. But the more you have government coercion involved, the more likely you are to end up with a very messy solution. There are numerous examples: former Yugoslavia would be one simple example. If you can keep things relatively voluntarily and have a capitalistic economy, I do think that’s correlated with higher levels of tolerance throughout history. It’s not a knock down proof, but overall I do think it cuts the right way.

I looked at your interview with David Brooks. I liked when he said that “our conversation is overpoliticized and undermoralized.” Do you think you can separate the political from the moral? If so, what specific areas do you think that’s a big concern in?

I like that a lot. They may not be separate, but they are distinct– that’s how I would defend David’s point. My own version of that point would be a little different. I think we over-politicize and under-deploy anthropology– why people have the views they have, what is it people really about the structure of the world, what kinds of religions in the broad sense are built into every social system. People at one level quite agree on morality, but on another level they don’t, and I’m not sure if the vague terms on which we might mostly agree are important, or the ways in which we don’t when we get to nitty gritty. And if it’s the latter, then I’m not sure that switching from politics to morality helps us that much. In some ways, it might just piss people off more.

That reminds me about the debate about ideal theory and non-ideal theory. What’s your take?

I’ve moved more and more to non-ideal theory. I’m somewhat of a historicist. You start with a time and place and you ask, “is it working okay?” If it’s working okay, what made it work okay or pretty well? What can we do to strengthen those forces? What can we do to ameliorate the parts of the system that are dysfunctional? I’m not opposed to ideal theory, but it needs to be put in its place.

There’s an interesting view that, in terms of being technically correct, maybe libertarianism isn’t the right theory. But perhaps we should treat people as if they’re autonomous individuals, and that they deserve the product of their labor, and that a world in which we treat people as such is preferable.

That’s what I call Straussian libertarianism. Now it’s quite possible that some version of extreme determinism – I don’t even mean compatibilism – but just flat out right determinism is true. But it’s still better that we don’t believe it. So I’m open to Straussian libertarianism, but I don’t think we need to commit to it. Free will, voluntarist libertarianism is enough– and that might be true too. If they give you the same, more-or-less, implications, there’s a kind of consilience there and you don’t have to really figure out – you’re never going to figure out – how much is determinism, the actual underlying truth.

You mention in your article, “Holding up a Miracle to Intellectuals on the Left,” Paul Krugman’s quote that there’s no “serious, honest conservative intellectuals with real influence.” If you think there are, which three would you pick and why?

Well I think he’s trolling with that. I’m not sure he really means it, and he has a funny notion of influence. So just a simple question: which intellectuals, period, have influence. I’m not sure I really have a good answer for you, Conservative or not. So if I can’t come up with Conservatives, but I only talk about Conservatives, that’s giving the wrong impression. I think Charles Murray has changed the way a lot of people think. I think Paul Krugman has.

But if you’re talking about influence, the Republican party controls all the major branches of government right now, whether one likes it or not. So maybe the people without influence are bit more to the side. But there’s also mean reversion and short-run versus long-run influence- it’s so tricky. It’s such a minefield to start playing that game.

Andrew Sullivan – not exactly a Conservative – but if I had to put him somewhere, I think you can call him one, he had a lot of influence over the gay marriage debate. Krugman in a funny way considers himself a conservative, so there are so many slippery distinctions here. I don’t think we understand very well what is influence period.

Who do you think should have influence?

Most smart people should have more influence as a general proposition. So I should have more influence–how about that! I think I influence how some people think, and I enjoy that. But I don’t think that’s the same as influencing outcomes– I don’t know how much influence I have over outcomes. I’m certainly not super bullish about it.

Jordan Peterson points out that we have a way to differentiate reasonable and unreasonable people on the Right, but there’s an asymmetry on the Left where we don’t know when someone’s gone too far. He thinks we should separate reasonable Leftists who believe in equality of opportunity from unreasonable ones who believe in equality of outcome. What do you think of that?

I don’t think equality of opportunity is well-defined. My distinction would be something more like leftist sympathies motivated by a true benevolence. That’s important– this country has always, and especially now needs, a very good, strong, powerful, humane left. And then there’s another branch of thought on the Left – as there is on the Right too – where it’s more about raising and lowering the social status of different groups.

There was a recent poll: only 43-percent of Democrats admitted it was a good thing that America had rich people. Now I know they didn’t quite mean that literally the way they answered it, but I think it’s reflecting a pathology of Left intellectuals– the idea of you’re putting down Republicans, or rich people, or Trump supporters, or people who have all these qualities. It’s almost like a new racism but not about race. And these people, whether you agree with them or not, they are highly, deeply flawed in fundamental ways. Even if you’re on their side. But just the act of this extreme classification and talking down to them and rallying all the others to put them down. To me, that’s the unreasonable side of the Left. Even when, quite often, the things they want to put down, they’re completely correct about– like some of the more outrageous things Trump has said or done. I certainly agree with the critics, but I’m uncomfortable with how they go about it.

David Brooks mentioned learning from Milton Friedman, and I read your short blurb on “Twelve Rules for Life” which mentions the importance of finding a mentor. How have you benefitted from mentors?

David also had mentors at National Review– I think he understood that early on very well. I feel I’ve done very well with mentors. I had some chess mentors when I was just a little kid. Then I met a person named Walter Grinder, who’s not well-known, but he was a person who really spent his whole life reading books, trying to understand them, and being curious. I was so taken with that – I think I was 13 at the time – and I just saw that was possible as a life. And that had such a huge influence on me. And Walter would recommend books I would read, or if I ran into him, we would talk about them. I would see him periodically– he was a friend of my fathers. And just knowing this was possible. It’s hard for me to underrate how significant that was. And that Walter seemed to think that I would be capable of having such a life and indeed I do!

I had a lot of wonderful professors. Richard Fink, I learned a great deal from. Your whole life you have mentors, and I have mentors now that I learn a lot from. I have people I know in tech who are mentors. Patrick Collison is now a mentor for me, and he’s what, 29 years-old? I learn a great deal from him. Always, always invest in mentors and what I call “mini mentors.” A mini mentor might be someone you just deal with for 15 minutes and then it goes “poof!” you never see them again. But still, they taught you something– like how to think about something.

If someone wanted to be the next Tyler, what would they do aside from the conventional advice?

I’m not sure what the conventional advice for being the next Tyler is. I guess, get to know the current Tyler– start with there. But these formulas – how to be the next David Brooks or Milton Friedman – they’re really changing a lot. I think in a funny way actually how to be the next Tyler is changing less. Such a big part of it is just accumulating this enormous stock of information– like becoming good at collecting information. And that’s changed a lot with the internet. I think it’s a bit more formulaic than how you would rise to be a New York Times columnist or the next Milton Friedman. Those things are changing a lot with the internet–  internet was a huge change for what I do.

Overrated/underrated. The issue of fake news:

It’s always been with us. I’m not sure that’s it’s worse now than it ever has been. So I think it’s overrated most likely.

William F. Buckley Jr. and the Firing Line debates:

Well they’ve become a kind of cult thing again. They’re still underrated by most people. And they’re fun to watch, and there’s something campy about him which is admirable and engaging. But my daughter watches them, and she doesn’t watch them cause I told them to– so that’s a sign they’re being properly rated by more and more people– so maybe they’re not even underrated anymore.

Have you ever seen the one with James Baldwin?

Yeah, that’s one of the very best. And it’s one where Buckley is somewhat speechless in response to Baldwin, and Baldwin gets him in a way that most other people did not and it’s really quite striking.

The role of a coach:

In basketball, it’s actually still underrated. In baseball, it’s maybe a bit underrated. In football, I don’t feel I can say. But the coaches are motivators and they get the players to cooperate, they anoint and they elevate team leaders. And those are clichés, but you certainly hear them when you watch ESPN. Still, managing at the end of the day is underrated, and coaches are managers.

The pardoning of Dinesh D’Souza:

All the pardons I’ve heard or read about are good things. Trump may be doing it for weird reasons, but the idea that a lot of people who’ve been charged or sent to prison– that it was either the punishment too high or done wrongly in some way, I like that being in the public agenda. I think there should be more pardons in general.

So you like the idea of pardons– how do you work through that one?

I don’t even firmly believe that punishment is justified morally. Maybe it’s necessary, maybe you just can’t do without it.  But the mere fact that someone has wronged another, I don’t think causes them to forfeit their rights in the way that was claimed in classic, early modern political philosophy. Once you think wrongdoers still have their human rights, on what grounds do you punish them? Could be that you simply have to– either the public won’t accept another option and they would overthrow your non-punishment regime and bring in fascism, and something with a lot more punishment would come about.

I get that– I’m not saying you can just toss away the keys to all these jails. But insofar as you have options of not punishing people – who in the cases I’ve read about it seems they’re not going to go out there and continue their serial killing sprees – I think we just simply ought not to punish them. Martha Stewart, again, that seems to me a very clear case. Undo the wrong. If I were a president, I’d consider just only pardoning people and then resigning. I know I couldn’t get away with it forever, but it’s one way to think about the job.

Rapid Fire Questions. If you weren’t in your current job, what would you be doing?

What can I do? When I was young, I worked in a supermarket in the produce department, but my guess is a lot of that has been mechanized. Maybe I can do public relations or communications for someone. But it’s not up to me, it’s up to the world. How about President of the United States? Then I could pardon people. But of course, I’d have to get elected– so I’d say it’s up to others, not myself.

Not a food critic or TV critic?

I think those people lose their enjoyment along some margins, and I would find that quite tragic. If it’s that or starve, I would do it. But I might prefer to have an awful job where I could just eat where I wanted to with my actual life than have to be a food critic, which seems highly regressive to me.

Which living person do you most admire?

I said this on a not-yet-released podcast, but his name is Juan Pablo Villarino. He is sometimes called the “world’s greatest hitchhiker.” I don’t know if admire is the right word– I would say I envy him, or look up to him. I don’t know deeply how good a man he is– he seemed like a very nice guy to me. But he’s the one guest I had on and I told him this to start the episode: “you know, I meet a lot of these people, but I meet you and I think ‘wow, I wish I’d been doing that.’”

If you had more leisure time, what would you do with it?

If I had more time, I would travel more. For me, leisure time is getting up in the morning and writing. It’s an experience I enjoy; I could more-or-less completely control it. I sort of know at the end of my writing I’ll have something– a book or a column. It’s something I’ve repeated a lot– it’s very satisfying in a predictable way. Travel– you can often be somewhat unhappy. I think if you just measured affect, people are less happy than when they’re at home. At least, for some class of white collar jobs.

I guess if I had more leisure time, I would work more and travel more with that time because the memories are worth it and I just feel I learn things and that somehow is big for me, even if I’m not having fun. What really surprised me was going to Ethiopia. I was a little worried before the trip it would somehow be difficult. But it was just so much fun, in the easy sense, almost like writing every morning. I had no hassles, no big traffic jams, no big fear of crime, all my planes were on time– and I don’t think people connect that with Ethiopia. That’s one of the messages I’d like to leave people with– that going to Ethiopia is nice, and easy, and pleasant as far as I can tell. I hope people will take that seriously and go there!