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Outside the political spectrum: A conversation with Jacob Sullum

By Bernard Chapin
web posted April 7, 2003

One of the easiest ways to gauge a stranger's political stance is to ask them what they think about government. What government's place is in our lives and how much of our labor should be devoted to its maintenance is the root of many political discussions. The person's answer, if they give you one, can immediately inform you where they lie on the political spectrum. Regrettably, Jacob Sullum, one of the two Senior Editors at Reason magazine, disproves my thesis. He would perhaps answer my question about government with a retort that would immediately cause me to place him at the same point I am at on the aforementioned spectrum. However, this would be incorrect as he, like many libertarians, holds positions that are quite distant from those of us on the right. He also makes a convincing case that libertarians are the true inheritors of classical liberalism.

Not only is Mr. Sullum an editor at Reason but he is a prolific writer as well. A link to his latest essay is here: http://reason.com/sullum/sullum.shtml

Reason is a publication that questions everything and everybody. It is as independent a source as I've read and one can never know for certain what angle they're going to take on a particular topic. It has a shotgun approach to the issues and it contains articles on topics that you may not find anywhere else. The website is an excellent addition to your browser as it offers extensive material from their print version and new pieces almost every day.

Jacob SullumIn Jacob Sullum we can now question a media leader who truly offers a "diverse" viewpoint. I, perhaps like you, am an economic libertarian and a social conservative so I found myself agreeing with him on some points and disagreeing with him on others. Yet, as I've always found to be the case when interacting with libertarians, the words he offers are extremely unique and worthwhile. The consideration of net loss or gains to liberty when voting is particularly enlightening and a perspective more of us should consider when in the booth. Can you sum up libertarianism simply with its root word of liberty? There's only one way to find out and it's in this enterstageright.com exclusive interview.

Bernard Chapin: As one of two Senior Editors of Reason, how would you describe the magazine to someone who had never read it before? What is it that makes it unique?

Jacob Sullum: Reason is the leading American magazine covering politics and culture from a libertarian (classical liberal) point of view. It deals with many of the same topics as, say, The Nation or National Review, but from a perspective that consistently favors individual choice over government control. By contrast, conservatives and left-liberals tend to favor limited government only in certain areas.

BC: The motto of Reason is "Free Minds and Free Markets." Do you believe that economic freedom automatically produces political freedom? With China, do you think that the more we "engage" them, the more they will loosen their state-controlled economy? Do you see them becoming a democratic society without sweeping political changes?

JS: It depends what you mean by "political freedom." If you mean the right to vote in democratic elections, there is no necessary connection between economic freedom and political freedom. But if you mean safety from arbitrary power, security in one's person and possessions, then economic freedom has a great deal to do with it. A free market requires the rule of law. It requires freedom of contract and freedom of association. It requires respect for property rights, which define a private realm into which the government may trespass only in extraordinary circumstances. These rights, in turn, make it possible to exercise freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of movement. Full economic freedom includes the freedom to sell subversive books, build a church, or buy an airline ticket to another country.

When it comes to China, the question is the extent to which the government can reap the benefits of economic freedom without fully respecting it. (China's rulers are not prepared, for example, to let people buy unfiltered Internet access or allow Falun Gong members to rent a meeting place, even though these transactions are aspects of economic freedom.) Free trade, economic competition, and the rise of an entrepreneurial middle class definitely have had a liberalizing impact in China, increasing the free exchange of information, encouraging better protection of property rights, and whetting the Chinese people's appetite for choice, which is bound to carry over into the political arena. Whether or not China gradually becomes something like a liberal democracy, life is indisputably better and freer there as a result of economic reform.

BC: How do you market libertarianism to people? How do you approach people who are on the fence politically? It seems to me that libertarianism would be an easy sell, but I, personally, am a very usual example of your readership.

JS: One approach is to draw people in by talking about issues that already interest them. Just about every American takes a libertarian position on something: freedom of speech, property rights, drug control, gun control, suicide, taxes, SUVs, zoning regulations, corporate welfare, Social Security. If you can get them to consider why they feel so strongly about that particular issue, what principle they feel is at stake, you may persuade them to extend the principle to cases they had not previously seen in the same light. If the government has no business stopping people from smoking tobacco, for instance, why should it stop them from smoking marijuana? If people have a right to eat what they want, shouldn't they also be allowed to drive a car without a seat belt or ride a motorcycle without a helmet?

Another important tactic, one that Reason often uses, is to tell compelling stories about people who have suffered unjustly at the hands of government. In thinking about how to avoid such cases, readers have to seriously consider what the proper bounds of government are.

BC: What is your response to people who regard a Libertarian Party vote as being a wasted one? I know a great many people who are libertarian in outlook but never vote that way. How do you respond to people who may say that voting libertarian is pointless?

JS: In a sense, every vote is a wasted vote, since it will not affect the election's outcome. The same guy will win whether you go to the polls or not, and no matter which lever you pull. The main reason I vote (when I do) is that I get satisfaction from expressing a particular sentiment. That sentiment may be, "I hate Hillary Clinton," or it may be, "There's no way I'm voting for that socialist." Sometimes I get pleasure just from voting against every tax increase and bond issue. And sometimes, I confess, I enjoy voting for someone whose views and principles are close to my own, especially when I can't stand the other guys in the race.

At the aggregate level, of course, such decisions have been known to swing elections. Once in a while, a Libertarian candidate will "spoil" a congressional election, throwing it to the Democrat by attracting votes that otherwise would have gone to the Republican. I admit this is cause for concern if the Democrat is marginally more statist than the Republican, so that the upshot is a net loss for liberty. Usually, though, voting Libertarian will have no such impact, and perhaps it sends a beneficial signal. Certainly it makes the voter feel better.

BC: What is the one political issue that you feel the most passionate about?

JS: The war on drugs. It's hard to think of a more basic right than the freedom to control your own body and mind. I'm with Thomas Szasz on this: I'd much sooner give up my right to vote than surrender control over what I ingest.

The attempt to stop people from using certain drugs, itself a violation of their rights, leads to the erosion of other civil liberties, especially the right to privacy. In the last few decades, the war on drugs has been the single biggest factor undermining the Fourth Amendment. It also has impinged on property rights in other ways (e.g., through asset forfeiture), on freedom of religion (by banning drug rituals), and on freedom of speech (by punishing people, in essence, for possessing or disseminating information about drugs). The precedent set by drug prohibition is frequently cited by paternalists advocating new measures to protect people from themselves. Other costs of prohibition include property crime, black market violence, official corruption, funding of terrorism, diversion of law enforcement resources, deaths from overdoses and tainted drugs, the spread of disease through needle sharing encouraged by anti-paraphernalia policies, and the undertreatment of pain by doctors who worry about prescribing narcotics.

In a book that will be published by Tarcher/Putnam in May, Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use, I challenge one of the key assumptions underlying the war on drugs: that certain intoxicants cannot be used responsibly. I argue that the same moral distinctions we apply to alcohol can and should be applied to other drugs.

BC: As someone who's written a full-length book on the war on smoking (For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health), what is your opinion on the future of tobacco in America? Will it ever be banned in entirety? Will the excessive taxation turn it into a black-market only drug?

JS: What's fascinating about tobacco is that it's a drug in transition. Until a few decades ago, it was so widely accepted that people didn't even think of it as a drug. Now it is routinely compared to heroin and crack. It is moving back toward the illicit status that it occupied in many places after its introduction in Europe 500 years ago. Prohibition is by no means out of the question, once the number of smokers is down to a level the government considers manageable. I wonder, though, if other forms of nicotine (gum, patches, inhalers, lozenges, beverages) will remain acceptable, not just as quitting aids but as long-term replacements for cigarettes. Since their hazards are negligible compared to those of cigarettes and they do not generate noxious fumes, perhaps they will be tolerated. Then again, our drug laws have never been known for the reasaonableness of the distinctions they draw.

BC: You publish some interesting demographic statistics on your website. I was shocked to read that 89.7 percent of your readers are male. Why is that? Libertarianism, in my mind, should not be gender specific. Why aren't there more Cathy Youngs? [If you know a way of mass producing excellent minds like hers, let's start the assembly line at once!] Pardon the slight editorial commentary here, but do you think it could have anything to do with a desire to be protected and that this desire is then sublimated into their support for an obese federal apparatus that then systematically limits many of their freedoms?

JS: Other political magazines also have readerships that are overwhelmingly male. For example, about 85 percent of National Review's readers are men. The predominance of men among Reason's readers may be partly due to the magazine's historical emphasis on economics, a discipline that has never been popular with women. In recent years we've expanded our cultural coverage, which may help attract more female readers.

BC: Reason claims to occupy a space between right and left, but would you say, based on your own personal experience, that most libertarians are conservatives?

JS: Reason is neither left nor right. Nor are we in the middle. As consistent supporters of individual freedom, we disagree with both left-liberals and conservatives, but that doesn't make us moderates. Roughly speaking, left-liberals combine classical liberalism with socialism, while conservatives combine it with traditionalism. We take it straight. Having said that, conservatives in the United States tend to be more libertarian than conservatives in other countries because the political heritage they seek to conserve was strongly influenced by classical liberalism.

BC: Mr. Sullum, I like to think that libertarians are the conscience of the Republican Party and that the libertarian element constantly attempts to get Republican politicians to focus on principles rather than statism. Do you feel your main purpose is to steer political discourse in the direction of sound constitutional principles and freedom? If so, how successful have you been? What battles do you feel you've won?

JS: The biggest victories for libertarians in the United States have been developments that we barely think about anymore because we take them for granted, such as the acceptance of free trade, the rejection of central economic planning, the deregulation of transportation, the abolition of conscription, and the protection of unpopular speech. These were all highly contentious issues at one time, but today the libertarian position on each clearly has triumphed, although there are still conflicts over some of the details (particularly in the area of free speech). More recently, welfare reform, which reflected the basic libertarian principle that no one owes you a living, attracted bipartisan support. Ideas that once were dismissed as libertarian lunacy, such as Social Security privatization, education vouchers, and criticism of the war on drugs, have gained a respectful hearing and attracted support from mainstream politicians. I don't think we're going to see the repeal of drug prohibition anytime soon, but there has been significant reform in areas such as pain treatment, medical marijuana, mandatory minimum sentences, and asset forfeiture.

BC: Other than Reason, what other magazines or online journals (other than enterstageright.com of course) do you recommend for others? What periodicals or authors do you enjoy the most?

JS: I've been reading The New Republic since college. It's not nearly as interesting as it was under Michael Kinsley or Andrew Sullivan, but it is a good barometer of middle-of-the-road opinion inside the Beltway. I read it mainly out of habit and professional duty; it is rarely an enjoyable experience.

I also subscribe to National Review (where I used to work), which gives me a good sense of what mainstream conservatives are thinking about. The magazine has been a bit too terrorism- and war-obsessed lately, but I usually find at least a few articles that are worth reading. I especially like the pieces that challenge conservatives to re-examine their assumptions, such as Ramesh Ponnuru's recent essay on colorblindness as a constitutional principle.

I read The New Yorker mainly for fun. The articles are usually very well written and often genuinely interesting. It's one of the few periodicals that lures me into reading long articles on improbable topics, such as Malcolm Gladwell's pieces on Ronco and the science of fingerprints. Then again, I sometimes go through an entire issue without reading much more than the cartoon captions.

I also get Harper's, mainly for the "Readings" section, and The Atlantic Monthly, which publishes several writers whom I admire: Cullen Murphy, Jonathan Rauch, P.J. O'Rourke. My favorite columnists include Mark Steyn, Michael Kelly, Christopher Hitchens, Dave Barry, and Jack Shafer.

BC: Thank you for time and insight, Mr. Sullum.

Bernard Chapin is a school psychologist and adjunct faculty member in Chicago. He can be reached at emeritus@flash.net.

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