Dave Smith: What Is a Libertarian?

Podcast thumbnail for Dave Smith on Just Asking Questions
Lex Villena
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

In this inaugural episode of Just Asking Questions, podcaster Dave Smith joins the show to tackle a fundamental question: "What is a libertarian?"

Smith spearheaded the Mises Caucus takeover of the Libertarian Party (L.P.), telling Reason's Nick Gillespie at the party convention in 2022 that the new L.P. needs "a game changer," someone capable of "re-sparking the Ron Paul Revolution" in the lead-up to the 2024 election. 

In this episode, Smith discusses what has transpired in the Libertarian Party since the convention, his past and present disagreements with Reason-style libertarians, whether politicians are incompetent, evil, or both, and his greatest libertarian "white pill" for the future.

Watch the full conversation on Reason's YouTube channel or on the Just Asking Questions podcast feed on Apple, Spotify, or your preferred podcatcher. 

Watch the full video here and find a condensed transcript below. 

Liz Wolfe: So for our first question: What is a libertarian? What beliefs are disqualifying for libertarians to hold today?

Dave Smith: To me, libertarianism is the belief in self-ownership, private property rights, and the non-aggression principle. I think that's the best philosophically sound definition of it that isn't circular. It's not just a definition like someone who believes in freedom or maximum freedom or something like that. So a libertarian would be someone to me who believes in that. And I would argue that almost everyone who calls themselves a libertarian, whether they would agree with my definition or not, whenever they're arguing for a libertarian position, it's completely consistent with all of that. 

Now, what beliefs are disqualifying to you is tough to quibble about, because, I don't know. Gary Johnson wanted to legalize pot, but not any other drugs or not any harder drugs. I'm not going to say he's not a libertarian, but I would say he's not a libertarian on heroin, if that makes sense. That just completely contradicts what libertarians believe. So I don't know exactly. 

Although I will say there are certain things, to me, like war and peace is the biggest issue. And people who support wars, I really do not consider them libertarians. I just think that if you are for freedom and against the government, there is no worse government policy in the world than war. There's not even a close second. And that tends to violate more freedom than any other policy. 

Wolfe: Where do you encounter pro-war libertarians?

Smith: If you want to listen to Ted Carpenter, who just left Cato, he gave like a 45-minute speech on how much there is at some of these libertarian organizations. I just had a debate with Austin Petersen, who was an L.P. candidate for president years ago. I mean, I think they're out there. Certainly, during the Ukraine war, there were a lot of people who called themselves libertarian who were very quick to say you are a Putin propagandist for bringing up the fact that us giving a blank check to this war has done nothing but kill hundreds of thousands of people. So they exist. 

Zach Weissmueller: But there can be wars that libertarians would support, right?

Smith: Yeah. I think the American Revolutionary War would be legit, yes. If you're invaded by an army, you have a right to violently try to get them out. But not too many of those.

Weissmueller: That's where it starts. You put the non-aggression principle at the center of libertarianism, and that's where it starts to get a little murky for me because I think that there would be legitimate wars of self-defense. But how would you square that with the non-aggression principle?

Smith: If there's an invading army, I think that, by definition, they are the aggressors. I think it's reasonable. Am I going to split hairs down to the point that like this other soldier in that uniform hasn't fired a shot yet, so is he fair game? I would say, yes. You rolled in with an invading gang and you've given up your rights.

Weissmueller: With the Ukraine-Russia war, for instance, the libertarian-type people who were siding with Ukraine in that war saw Ukraine as repelling an invader. I presume your objection to that is more so about America's involvement, not necessarily the Ukrainians?

Smith: To be clear, I think that Ukrainians have a right to self-defense and they have a right to stay and fight for their territory if that's what they wish to do. But there's a lot more to that picture. 

My problem is American involvement and NATO's involvement going way back for decades. This intentional policy of trying to needle the Russians over and over again and then finally being surprised when it resulted like this. 

Ukrainians have a right to defend themselves. If someone pulls a gun on you and asks for your wallet, you have a right to fistfight that guy. It's not necessarily a good idea. And so that's more been my thing with Ukraine. You're fighting a fight you can't possibly win. This was blasphemy for me to say for the last couple of years, but now everybody has come around to acknowledge that even with the blank check from America over these two years, they just have no shot of winning. So now we're right back to negotiating time. And yeah, I'd be against Americans being forced to fund a war which both armies are being forced to fight because these are two conscripted armies, after all. So there's nothing libertarian about that. 

Weissmueller: Where it starts to get complicated for me is when you're talking about the role of America's military. You and I share a libertarian genesis. I became a libertarian a few years before Ron Paul made his run. But Ron Paul's 2008 run was certainly energizing for me. However, there are times when it seems as if some libertarians automatically choose the side that America is not funding like in the case of Ukraine. However, there is a self-interest for America's defense to make it costly to Russia. Is there not something to that? 

Smith: That is the thinking in D.C., at least for the most part. Putting some type of penalty on Russia for invading is in America's interests. Let's just be really brutally honest, the cost of that is hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian lives. If that's a cost you're comfortable paying, fine, but maybe take that Ukraine flag out of your Twitter bio because you're really the most anti-Ukraine person. 

But then again, maybe it would have been in America's best interest if democracy had swept the region in the Middle East. And then they were all like Jeffersonian Republicans or something like that. But that plan doesn't seem to be working out too well. I think that the U.S. dollar as the reserve standard of the world is probably in more jeopardy right now than at any point in my lifetime. This has driven Russia and China to be much closer allies. You've seen almost a real crack to the unipolar world, where it's not even clear that we really are in a unipolar world anymore. 

My perspective on the Russia thing is that obviously that Vladimir Putin is wrong to invade and the war has been horrific. I do think that not living in a libertarian universe, living in the real world, and trying to have some type of reasonable modern expectations for what governments are going to do, is the idea that Vladimir Putin said for years, "You cannot expand your military alliance to Ukraine, that is off the table. That is my red line." And they knew this. I mean, there's that great memo. If you've never read it, "nyet means nyet", where the current CIA director privately writes to Condoleezza Rice and is like, listen, this is for real. This is their red line. And there is just no way America would tolerate that. I mean, can you imagine if Russia was like, "We're bringing Mexico into our military alliance?" What do you think the reaction from Washington D.C., would be? "Absolutely, you are not." And we would send troops there in a second if that was the plan. 

Just before the war broke out Vice President Kamala Harris was over there saying we're still bringing NATO in and it's still the plan. There is no powerful country that would have reacted differently. That doesn't mean it's good or it's right, but my takeaway from that is like, why would we be so stupid as to keep doing this for no benefit other than, like, world domination?

Weissmueller: Look at what just happened in Israel, what did the U.S. do? The U.S. sent one of our largest aircraft carriers to the Mediterranean to prevent all these other players from getting involved. The idea is to stop this from escalating into a regional war. That would seem to be in America's self-interest, to stop that escalation. And it's relatively low cost—we're just going to park this carrier here. Would that fall within your definition of conforming to the non-aggression principle?

Smith: Well, I mean, no, not really. I'm a complete noninterventionist on all this stuff, so I don't support that. It's not the most egregious thing that the American military has ever done on the scale of things to be outraged by. But look, you're looking at one tiny little element of this huge conflict and being like, "Well, look, this one thing here was done, you know, that could prevent a wider war."

The whole thing only exists because the U.S. has been propping up this status quo for 60 years. And the fact that we think we're going to maintain this thing where we say, "We're going to prop up Israel, we're going to make it so that the entire global community, which has been outraged about the treatment of Palestinians since 1967, we'll veto everything at the U.N. We'll ignore all of these global human rights organizations. We're going to prop up dictators in Egypt and Saudi Arabia." And then it blows up. The takeaway to me isn't we do have to sometimes prevent these wars from happening. The truth is that none of this should be America's business. If you're anything that considers yourself a libertarian, or you 70 percent agree with me or whatever, that doesn't come with being the world empire. 

There is no such thing as a restrained, constrained constitutional republic that is also the empire of the world. War is the health of the state. War always grows the government for other purposes other than just the war. Civil liberties are lost the most during times of war. 

Wolfe: These are themes that we were touching on in a recent stream where we interviewed Russ Roberts, who I think comes at this issue from a very different perspective than you do. But the thing that I wish more libertarians would grapple with is the difference between the aspiration of the role America plays and figuring that out from where we currently are. What is the appropriate approach to get to where we want to be? 

I think we can all recognize that the U.S. has been funding Israel and supporting Israel for a very, very long time. And I think many good libertarians would say, "Hey, you know, it's long past time to cut Israel off and allow them to really stand on their own two feet. They have the ability to do that." But realistically, that's not something we can do right now. We can't just fully cut off funding right now and expect there to be no awful ramifications that would stem from that. So the thing that I always struggle with is, how do you get from point A to point B?

Smith: I think I kind of reject the assumption that it would be some type of disaster if we were to cut off aid to Israel right now. It would put enormous pressure on them to negotiate. That's really what they'd have to do. This isn't 1948. Israel isn't in a state of war with all the Arab surrounding nations.

Wolfe: This is the precise argument that many people make for why we should have cut them off from U.S. funding and support before. But if we do that right now, surely that does have ramifications beyond what they would have been had we done that in 2019, right?

Smith: No, I agree it has ramifications, but I'm just saying that like they might be very positive. Israel has been at peace with Egypt since the 1970s. They're at peace with Jordan. They're at peace with Saudi Arabia. They bomb Syria constantly. Syria never responds to them. It's not even like an issue. Iran might funnel some money to Hamas, maybe some to Hezbollah. Israel, if they didn't have the backing of the United States of America, would be heavily incentivized to actually deal with the Palestinians to actually work out a real peace process, not this pretend one, to grant them their independence, and to stop occupying their areas. 

Part of the reason Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and now Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are so willing to be provocative is because they know they have the baddest bully in the world that has their back. And if they didn't, they might be like, "Okay, well, look, we really got to think about this." Maybe we shouldn't just bomb the hell out of Gaza right now because that might actually piss off the world, you know? And so, there's this tremendous moral hazard that we create when we, as the strongest country in the history of the world, are like, "We have your back."

Weissmueller: Israel is making very tough moral choices right now and they're making choices that I don't always agree with. And to have us being perceived to be joined at the hip with every bomb that they're dropping is a very bad situation. So I would like to see us get disentangled. On the other hand, I think that at the moment, they have my moral support. It's not a war crime to root out Hamas to the degree that that's possible.

Smith: I don't think there's reason to believe that Israel is going to really take the gloves off if America stops backing them. I think it would be much more reasonable that they would be more concerned coming from a slightly more vulnerable position. Israel won a war in 1967 and they've been holding these people ever since. And they just don't have a right to do that. 

Wolfe: You mean the West Bank. It's worth noting also that the situation in Gaza has changed in the last 16 or 17 years. 

Smith: Yes, absolutely. But I'm just saying, they won the war in 1967. They have literally not granted these people their independence since then. If you want to talk about what's happened over the last 15 years or so, they then took on an intentional goal of supporting Hamas specifically so that Palestinians could never get their independence. So they could never get their state.

In their own words, Benjamin Netanyahu and all types of top government-level people said "This is our plan." And for this reason, we are going to support Hamas because no one will ever grant them statehood as long as Hamas is in control. 

Wolfe: If you are making a case that the Israeli government errors and fucks up in a million ways, I totally agree with that.

Smith: I'm coming at it from the point of view of being like, "Oh, well, listen, I do kind of root for them and they do have the moral right to do this." But we're talking about the guys who had an intentional policy of propping up this terrorist organization to use them so that they could never grant the Palestinian people who, just like the Israelis, are separate from their government, so that they could never grant those people their own independence and autonomy. And then it blew up in their face. 

If you look at the numbers, they've dropped more bombs than we did in a year in Afghanistan, in Gaza over a few weeks. And so, no, I don't look at that situation and go like, "Oh, well, they do have the moral right to root these people out." The people who did October 7 all deserved to die.

But I'm sorry, when your plan was to prop up a terrorist organization so that the people in Palestine never get their autonomy, and then you use that as an excuse to then just start slaughtering them. 

Wolfe: I do want to stifle some of my greatest Zionist shill thoughts and move us back in the direction of actually what libertarians should aspire to be. I think we have established that libertarians aren't generally war hawks and we are not generally Hamas shills or even Zionists. Zach, how do you look at this question of what is a libertarian defining yourself totally independent of Dave's or perhaps in response to it?

Weissmueller: There's a lot of overlap. Unsurprisingly, I see libertarians as extreme skeptics of state power. And the reason for that is that we are against violent monopolies and for voluntary association to the degree that it's possible. And that is because of self-ownership. We believe in the idea of self-ownership, self-authorship, you control your own destiny, and you write your own story. 

The way I like to think of it is this phrase: "right to try," like you should have the right to challenge monopolies. And that is something I think libertarians across the board recognize. The state is a monopoly on violence and they use that monopoly to create other monopolies. We've got Elizabeth Warren out there always talking about monopolies. I think she was just tweeting about a sandwich shop monopoly that she's going to break up. But the real monopolies are created by governments. 

I think where the differences come in is that we have different reasons for thinking that monopolies are bad. But my reason for thinking monopolies are bad is because I believe that experimentation and competition create progress and prosperity.

Wolfe: I agree. And my definition is perhaps even simpler. Libertarians don't look to the government to fix what ails us. I think libertarians ought to have and generally do have a high degree of comfort with voluntary action existing in civil society outside from government. Libertarians, I think, frequently gravitate toward voice, but also I love the strain of libertarians that gravitate toward exit, trying to exist outside of government institutions.

I look at people living off the grid and people choosing to homeschool. There are so many ways that people can just kind of prove out the idea that we actually don't need the government to take care of us in a gazillion ways. We sometimes prosper far, far, far outside of the purview of the state. And in fact, people can be so much freer to live better lives that way. 

Obviously, the non-aggression principle is pretty core to all of this. But I think libertarians just positionally tend to be people who take incentives seriously and second-order impacts consequently unintended consequences. And I really appreciate how libertarians are so frequently asking this question of government policies. Well, what are the alternatives or what are bad incentives that could possibly be created by this? I love how libertarians focus on tradeoffs, and it drives me absolutely insane that so much of the left and the right seem to never entertain the possibility that a government policy could actually lead to awful unintended consequences.

Smith: I pretty much agree with what you guys are saying. The definition I give is the core of the philosophical belief. But I agree with everything both of you guys said. And I just think that the fundamental libertarian insight is that what the government is, as you said, a monopoly on violence. I don't even know if that's the perfect way to say it. 

They have a monopoly on the legal initiation of violence. They can do it legally. To me, it's like, if you believe in morality at all, which almost everybody does, and there are some people who just reject it entirely, but almost everyone in the political realm agrees. If you listen to Bernie Sanders, he'll say it's immoral that there is this income inequality.

But if you believe there is such a thing as right and wrong, then I would say inherently morality has to transcend what organizations we create. In other words, if you think murder is wrong, and you were on a deserted island and there's no government and there's no rules and someone murdered somebody, that would be just as morally wrong there as it is here. There just doesn't happen to be a legal system or police or whatever. But the morality has to be the same. Otherwise, we're not really talking about morality.

If any other group of people did what the government does, we wouldn't know what to call it right away. You would just be like, "Oh, this is the Mafia or this is a criminal" like taxation is theft, or you're just forcing someone to give you their money. You know, wars are mass murder campaigns. If anybody else, any other group of people decided like, we deem ourselves the regulators and we're going to go around and start regulating these businesses, you'd be like, "Oh, no, you're a gang." Like you're a criminal organization. And so if you believe in morality, I think it has to be the same whether the government does it or not. And that voting doesn't somehow change the moral characteristics of what a group of people do.

Weissmueller: We don't know if the absence of this legitimate monopoly on violence is a stable situation, like it's something that is yet to be seen. I'm open to the possibility that everything could be privatized one day or something. That's why I favor this definition where it's a little bit more experimental and you're saying, let's try to not have the state do this thing that we're all used to the state doing. 

Smith: Fair enough. And I'm not even like, I don't want to do a whole anarchy versus minarchy thing because, in today's day and age, it seems so crazy because we're so far from both. So then it's like you're completely against monopolies and you recognize that monopolies just lead to these terrible results. Why is it just writing laws and courts and police and military or things that have to be run by a monopoly? If we're saying that monopolies, especially violent monopolies, are really bad at producing things, then why would it be that they are really bad at producing things in every other field, but the most important things must be run in the worst way to produce things? Otherwise, we'd all be living in a dystopia. 

Wolfe: I like what you're saying and you surely will not find this to be satisfactory or something particularly earth-shattering, but I do believe in a little bit of the unique power of the U.S. Constitution and some of the structures outlined in it. I think many a liberal who did their Trump hysteria op-ed piece and acted like American democracy was horribly imperiled during the Trump years, don't place very much faith in our Constitution and don't place very much faith in our court systems or in federalism or in the abilities of this very complex system of checks and balances. 

And I think we're libertarians, right? There are lots of things that we could sit here and point to and say, well, surely the Constitution has failed us and X, Y, and Z ways. However, with that massive caveat, I do think constitutional limits have done a pretty good job of ensuring some of these state institutions have actually done a decent, but imperfect job of serving their intended function. 

Smith: I'm not saying that there are examples here where some unconstitutional policy has been struck down. But if you want to zoom out and just look at how good the Constitution has done at limiting government, I mean, we're the biggest government in the history of the world, by far. The biggest organization in the history of the world is the U.S. federal government by any metric.

Weissmueller: Just saying that it's the biggest government in history doesn't really capture the fact that this is not the most tyrannical government in history. 

Smith: I would bet we have more federal employees in D.C. than China has. I don't know for sure. But look, in terms of how much money it spends and how many bases it has abroad. And so if you're going to judge America, you can't just judge America based on, like, "Hey, it's kind of nice to live in Brooklyn." You have to judge it on Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. We have killed millions of innocent people just in the last 20 years. I'm not even going to go back to Vietnam. 

Weissmueller: This is foreign policy where we have a lot of agreement. America is not living under tyranny by historical standards. America has a flawed foreign policy, to say the least. That does not justify throwing out all of the constitutional protections, all the pro-liberty aspects of the U.S. government, and saying we're going to throw the baby out with the bathwater. That is where I think we butt heads a little with your camp. 

Smith: The goal should be a thousand Liechtensteins, you know? There are positive qualities that different countries have. 

Weissmueller: Let me pick up on the Liechtenstein point because this is essentially the strategy of the Mises Caucus that took over the Libertarian Party. Nick Gillespie interviewed you in Reno during the Mises Caucus takeover of the Libertarian Party in May 2022. He asked you what you want to see the L.P. doing in the years leading up to the 2024 election, which are now rapidly approaching, and this is what you said: "If we're ever going to get to a free society, we're going to need a lot more people who desire a free society. And what we need here is a game changer, unlike, say, Bill Weld." So do you think that the new Libertarian Party is poised to deliver a game changer?

Smith: Well, I hope so. That's what I try to do, right? I'm always trying to do that. I think the Mises Caucus taking over the Libertarian Party was necessary for there to be a chance for the Libertarian Party to do that. We're still fighting a very uphill battle. Anybody who believes in liberty is fighting an uphill battle. 

You could say that big donors have walked away from the Libertarian Party since they came in. The truth is that there was basically a civil war within the Libertarian Party. And no matter what happened in Reno, believe me, if we had lost in Reno, we represented like 80 percent of the party. I mean, tons of people would have walked away from the party.

The truth is that when lockdowns came, the old Libertarian Party basically rolled over and took it and didn't want to say anything. And in fact, the only comments they would make would be like, "Well, we do think you should stay home." If they're not even going to try to stand up for liberty, then I don't care if some big donors will support you and are alienated by us.

And again, the Jo Jorgensen campaign. I mean, this is like a total embarrassment. Jo Jorgensen would go to give speeches where a crowd full of people in masks were forced to be socially distanced in a park where a father had been arrested a week earlier for having a catch with his son. And talk about the drug war or how socialism is bad or something like that, and not even want to touch the moment that she was living in. So in terms of like, can the Libertarian Party spark like the next Ron Paul movement? Well, no, not if it's doing that. It has no chance. 

Wolfe: When I look at Angela McArdle and Michael Heise and the Mises Caucus take over and Jeremy Kauffman, I don't really see champions for the things that I value.

Smith: So first of all, I hate the Twitter edge-lording and posting that stuff. I just hate it. I hate all of that. I've been on record about this for years. 

Now, there's one state affiliate in New Hampshire where that is their entire thing. And they've basically been at war with the Mises Caucus. But there's also been on the other side, non-Mises controlled state affiliates that do like a ton of this just engagement farming, shock-value stuff. And I just don't like it. I just don't like any of that. What got people excited about libertarianism to me was Ron Paul giving history lessons and this stuff is just lame.

Weissmueller: There was this awful messaging that existed before, this very out-of-touch messaging, during one of the most insane years in modern history. And so this new leadership came in. They came in pretty hot. And now they've dialed it back a little bit. 

I looked into some of the numbers coming into this, some of these were compiled by the Mises Caucus' enemies, the Classical Liberal Caucus. What they compiled here is that revenues are down historically when you adjust for inflation and not only big donors, but monthly donors are down. And I looked into the actual reports behind the numbers and it's all accurate except the Libertarian Party did not adjust for inflation, which seems like something you should do.

Smith: Well, what do you mean? Raise prices? So what's your takeaway from that? 

Weissmueller: My takeaway is that revenues are down monthly.

Smith: But that's if you have a job where you're making a hundred grand a year and then you just keep your job and someone's looking at that and says, "Dude, your income is way down from there." I mean, yes, that's true. If you're blaming the Federal Reserve, then I'm with you. But if you're blaming the Mises Caucus for that, I don't think that is correct. 

Weissmueller: Well, I'll leave it for the audience to judge whether that is good or bad. But what do you think is going on here internally?

Smith: Just to be clear, I have no position in the Libertarian Party. And if you talk to Angela or someone like that, I'm sure she could give you a much better answer than this. I just do stand-up comedy and podcasts about this stuff. But from what I understand, there was this major problem with this software thing. I don't exactly know the details of it. This is something that started before the Mises Caucus took over… A big basic disaster of transferring data. So I think that hurt them a little bit. 

But regardless of any of that, I think that the state of the Libertarian Party, no matter what happened at Reno, was going to be rebuilding. There's a lot of people who were very turned off by the Mises Caucus in the Libertarian Party. And there were a lot more people who were willing to go to fight for them and that's why we won. 

There are these storms that come in where things are very sensitive to talk about. Like right now it's the Israel-Palestine storm that we're living in where it kind of takes a little bit of courage to talk about these things because you're going to get this backlash, the storms end and then it's like no one cares, like lab leak theory. And for me, libertarians have the most value when, in those storms, we're willing to stand up and say the courageous thing. This is what Harry Browne wrote When Will We Learn? on September 12 is the most amazing thing ever, because the day after 9/11, he had the courage. The only way this Libertarian Party thing is ever going to work and grow is if in those storms we have the courage to say things.

Wolfe: If you actually put any of these people in power, I'm not sure they would know the first thing about what to do with it or how to actually craft any sort of policy. 

If you can't run an extremely small, speaking candidly here, political party and you're not able to keep your supporters in any way, why would anybody trust your competence overall? I mean, who's even running for president this year, Right? It's important not to draw overly broad conclusions about that, but say you wanted to take your argument seriously and you wanted to look for these small green shoots that are poking up through the dirt as to the ways in which the Mises Caucus takeover has been successful, where would you tell us to look?

Smith: There have been local elections that they've won. And that stuff does matter. There are people we've gotten on school boards and on city councils and mayors. And I think a couple of sheriffs.

The Mises Caucus has launched this project, Decentralized Revolution, which I think is a really great template for how the Libertarian Party should run. And it's very different from the way it's been before. This is now targeting winnable elections with nullification powers. The idea is building this thing where the national party is kind of messaging and then trying to funnel that into like the local winnable elections with nullification. 

I'll take responsibility, in some way, that a lot of my guys on Twitter can fly off the handle and say some wild shit. But the one thing I will say about my guys is they don't compromise on the libertarian stuff and they're not going to be afraid to say the thing that will get you a lot of backlash when it really matters.

Wolfe: I am so in favor of being bold and aggressive and courageous and truth-telling and saying that unpopular thing at an important time. I felt very riled up in the COVID days. I'm in favor of all of that. I'm in favor of that sort of boldness, but I don't see that in what the L.P. post-takeover is doing. And that's something that gives me pause. 

Smith: I think to some degree you might be a little bit guilty of the same thing that I think the New Hampshire guys are guilty of. The truth is that there are 50 state affiliates and a whole bunch of them are doing exactly what you're saying you'd like to see done, but you're totally fixated on the one because they're saying this wild shit, even though everybody at the top of the Mises Caucus leadership has totally called them out for it and been like, "Hey, we think this is stupid and unhelpful." So I'm just saying that like there's a ton of those guys, there's a ton of the state party affiliates. 

Weissmueller: I think we spent a good chunk of time there talking with the Libertarian Party, but for libertarians, what do you think libertarians should be doing differently to win?

Smith: So I'm a big believer in the Rothbardian populist idea. I think you see this with Javier Milei, right? This is the way it can be done. This is the way to do it—to tap into this kind of populist streak, particularly at a time when the elites have so mismanaged everything and talk to people about how they're being ripped off. 

And then the problem with populism always is that it's completely devoid of any type of theory. You know what I mean? Like, that's basically the issue with the New Right in general, there's just no theory there. It's just everything they're against. But libertarians already have that. It's like libertarians have all the theory, but we're missing all of the populism to make it appeal to people. 

Ron Paul really is who our blueprint should be. And Ron Paul had a lot of things going against him. He's the greatest living hero in America to me as far as I'm concerned. He wasn't the best public speaker. He wasn't the most charming guy. He was older when he really got very popular. He had a way of connecting ideas and knowing what's going on in the world right now and then connecting it to the average person and how this is screwing you over. So that to me is always like my blueprint. 

Libertarians are way too removed, just in theory, and that's not what anyone except us cares about. To me that was the most impressive thing about Ron Paul was that this guy was a country doctor who just knew more. 

Weissmueller: Looking at the motivations of why government actors are doing what they're doing, I think that saying that they're all a bunch of goofballs is not the right way. But also saying that people in government are particularly nefarious or evil isn't helpful. I subscribe to just basic public choice theory where they're driven by the same incentives that the rest of us are. 

Smith: But to your point about the same incentives that drive all of us. There's some truth to that. But that's almost like if there's some young man out there who's incentivized to get laid so he tries to charm a girl and take her out on a date. And then there's another 25-year-old who rapes a girl. They may have had the same incentives to some degree, but those are not the same type of people. 

By the way, did you ever hear Hillary Clinton on tape laughing about getting a child rapist off when she knew he was guilty? Laughing about it like she just thinks it's hilarious. These people at the top level of government are horrifically evil people who will knowingly put in place a policy where innocent people will die, they'll lie through their teeth to sell the policy, and their buddies will all get rich off of it. The top levels of our government are permeated with violent sociopaths who are very comfortable doing very evil things. 

This is true in media too. That woman from ABC who was caught on the hot mic talking about how she broke the Jeffrey Epstein story, but they pulled it from her. One of the crazy things about that hot mic is that she was upset about not being able to break the story. If you listen to her, it's not what you think any normal person should be upset about.

Wolfe: A hefty portion of the media class is obsessed with their own bloated and frequently wrong sense of moral superiority, as well as this just astonishing self-importance that God made them journalists. And they're God's gift to man.

Smith: Think about how evil that is. She didn't even quit. You didn't quit and go break this story anyway. You just stayed there. What? Because of the paychecks. Good. So you're telling me you had a story about a child rapist ring with the most powerful people in the country implicated in this story? I'm not saying she goes home and kicks her dog in the face every day, but I'm saying what she is doing in her professional life is something morally repugnant. And that's how I feel about the highest levels of government and media. That there's just this mass compliance now. I'm not trying to get all Alex Jones on you here. And I don't like to jump down to conspiracies that I can't prove. But it is totally reasonable to look at something like the Epstein thing, to look at Bohemian Grove, to look at these things and go, yeah, there's something going on here that's pretty weird. 

Weissmueller: What I'm saying is it's structural. Hayek even had an essay about why the worst get to the top. And it's because the incentives of power do tend to draw certain personalities. So you might even be right that there's a disproportionate amount of sociopaths or psychopaths in government, just like there are in corporate America. 

Smith: Yeah, that's why there's so many pedophiles who are baseball coaches or little league coaches. That's why there's so many abusive people who are cops because these positions draw in those types of people. Right? That's part of the natural cycle of it. 

Weissmueller: But the reality is that it's the power structure itself.

Smith: But both can be true at the same time, right? I think both of those things are true. I think, yes, power corrupts. The mix of democracy and big government draws out the most dumbed-down slogan to play to the most uninformed voter. This is why Donald Trump did so well, because Donald Trump is like, "I'll do you one better. I'll talk like a kindergartner." And but really, it's not as if any of the others are much better than that. 

Look, by definition, politics is going to attract people who want to rule over other people. That's what the magnet is there. The problem is this mix of big government and democracy, which are very related. So you have to appeal to a population who, by definition, aren't going to know much about politics, because that's true about everything. Only a small percentage of people have expertise in any field. Right? So then you have that. And then because the government is so big there is so much power being wielded that it's inevitably completely corrupted. I mean, what is our federal government going to spend this year over $6 trillion, isn't it? If you're spending $6 trillion, somebody is going to be actively lobbying to get that power. 

Weissmueller: This right-wing that you mentioned does exist, the natcons [national conservatism], or whatever we want to call them, they just want to install their version of a virtuous leader to impose their vision of the world. We have these corrupt degenerates running the government and we need, good, virtuous Caesars running the government. I worry sometimes about that populist strategy. This is a pattern you see throughout history; the socialists wreck things and then the right-wing, the fascists, or whatever form they take, come in and impose right-wing dictatorship or whatever. 

Smith: I basically think you're almost exactly right. That tends to be like this pattern that's played out over time. You could see this where there'd be these awful right-wing movements as a response to communism like all throughout the world in the 20th century. I think, almost to me, that's why you need this libertarian populism even more, because it's one of the most important components to put out this right-wing fire.

You got to try to harness that populist energy, but in an explicitly libertarian way. The only answer here, and this is the great libertarian insight, because fundamentally, we're kind of like a compromise that's almost like a truce. Like you don't get to impose your view on them and they don't get to impose their view on you. But you both get to do what you want to do, right? 

Weissmueller: Do you think that most people at their core are more libertarian or authoritarian?

Smith: I don't really know the answer to that. And I don't spend too much time thinking about that. What I know is that I was totally compelled when these ideas were introduced to me and I know that we're not at our ceiling. You know what I mean? Everywhere I go, and I travel a lot, every single city I'm in, every single town, every single show, somebody comes up to me and goes, "You're the reason I'm a libertarian. You introduced me to this, and then I found this and then I found this and then it all made sense."

I want to introduce this line of thinking to as many people as I can. But I never, in my mind, think we need to get 51 percent of the population to be libertarians because then we can win some elections. Because the truth is that like, nations are never moved by 51 percent of the population. Let's say there's a few million. Could we get that up to 20 million?

The truth is, if you talk to the average person on the street, you just go stop a random person right here and you ask "What do you think of Ron Paul?" Most of them won't know what you're talking about. At best, they think you're talking about Rand Paul, and they definitely would not be able to really articulate and explain to you what the libertarian position is. There's still so many people who have never come in contact with a lot of these ideas. So my thing is like let me try to say it in the most compelling way on the biggest platforms that I can get on and try to get as many new people on board as we can.

Wolfe: The related question that I have for all of us, not just Dave, is what is your libertarian white pill? What's the thing that makes you the most optimistic about where things are headed?

Smith: Let me give the Gene Epstein case for radical optimism, which I always love. This just speaks to my soul. But what he said was, "If you were sitting around in 1845 and you said to your buddy, I think in 20 years slavery is going to be abolished. They'd be like, you're out of your mind. The slave trade is at the height right now, like slavery is right. It's just been an institution for all of human history." In what world could you imagine that in the next 20 years, across the West and in the United States of America, there's just not going to be slavery anymore? But that crazy guy would have been right. 

There are moments like that where things that were seen as just inevitable institutions are just gone and they don't come back. Look in the year 2002 and I remember the whole year of war propaganda leading up to the war in Iraq. And like, that was just it. It didn't matter if you got your news from Fox News or The New York Times or MSNBC or anything, it was just unanimous. They sold the story and there was just no one else. There were other people, but they didn't have a platform. But now it's like you have Joe Rogan and Tucker Carlson and then just like a million different shows that have their shows that we don't even know about with half a million followers. There's probably 50 shows that we all don't know about with half a million people watching that show all the time. And so much of that, those dissident voices are getting out there now. I think for the first time maybe in human history, the monopoly of governments over the receiving of information has been broken. I think they're freaking out about that. I see this as an enormous white pill. I have kids. There's no option for me to be a pessimist. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.


The post Dave Smith: What Is a Libertarian? appeared first on Reason.com.