Jeff Deist is the president of the Mises Institue. The institute was founded by Murray Rothbard and Lew Rockwell and is located in Auburn Alabama. He was kind enough to sit down with 71 Republic’s Mason Mohon and Tom DiGennaro to talk about the impact of socialism on students, libertarian strategy, and the situation of libertarianism today. You can find Jeff Deist on Mises.org and on Twitter. Below is an audio recording of the Jeff Deist interview along with a transcript.
Mohon: We’re here at the Mises Institute interviewing Jeff Deist, president of the Mises Institute. Today we’re going to be talking about students, the ideas of socialism, the impact of socialism, and what students are dealing with on the front. In addition, we’re going to be discussing the future of liberty, and paths forward. Tom, you want to take it away?
DiGennaro: Sure. Right off the bat, what do you think the political makeup of student on the alignment for the average college campus would be? Say, 50 to 60% leftists?
Deist: Well it’s hard to say. I guess I’m most familiar with Auburn University because I’m across the street from it. At least among the student body, Auburn has a reputation for being more conservative than a lot of campuses. Now again, that’s the student body, not necessarily the faculty or the overall tone. Now, of course, a lot of the students I meet through Mises U events or other student events are already pretty libertarian or completely libertarian. So I’m meeting kind of a skewed cross-section, and so a lot of what I think about the climate on campus today, especially undergraduates, is based on what I see and hear in the news and on social media.
I don’t want to give some sort of cranky Fox News perspective that’s not well-founded, and I haven’t been in undergrad for 25-30 years as a student. I’m definitely concerned about the climate. I’m definitely concerned about the outrage culture we see, especially the stuff on social media, some of the speakers that are being mobbed off-campus. Of course, the professors themselves, academia, is running more and more left-wing. Phil Magness has a new book out about the Ivory Tower. I’m very worried about it.
Of course, we’re all familiar with this idea that politics is downstream from culture, but it appears that culture gets a lot of its queues from academia. We see things like intersectionality, “woke” capitalism, and this stuff just never ends. Even if professors are wildly outside the mainstream in their personal views, they’re having an impact on it; they’re steering it somewhat. So a relatively small percentage of people, with what really is a minority perspective, have outsized power because of academia. The worst part of it all is that we’re mostly paying for it. There’s a vast network of state-funded universities in this country, and they all operate as de-facto left think tanks. People say “oh my gosh the Koch’s are spending all this money on these organizations”, but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what’s being spent in left universities.
DiGennaro: I’m really glad you brought that up: Charles Koch and the foundation. I actually have a professor who receives a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation, and for the past five years he’s been dealing with false accusations of misusing grants, of using the grants for political purposes, when the outright definition is using it to endorse a candidate or fund a party or campaign, none of which has been done. But if you invite Walter Block to a college campus in New York, you’re going to see some outrage from the left.
We actually had a colloquium on my campus where Walter Block came in and talked about environmentalism and the market, and another one where we had Chris Freiman from William and Mary University come in. We talked about free speech, and the issue that was brought up is: if we have this dominant left-wing audience, both in students and faculty, on college campuses, how do we deal with that? How do we fight back against the suppression of ideas without actually suppressing left-wing ideas?
Deist: First and foremost, you have to stand your ground. There’s a whole other discussion we could have about social media and de-platforming and whether companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter are de-platforming people, banning people, shadow-banning people, downgrading people in the search results, whatever it might be. That’s a separate conversation. There are some libertarian intricacies in that conversation.
But as far as universities go, especially state taxpayer-funded universities, students just have to have the courage and be bold enough to say “look, this is a public university. We have a right to speak. We have a right to be here. We have a right to use the facilities, assuming we’re students. We have the right to invite speakers, etc.” So much of what the left does and gets away with is because of silence.
There’s a lot of people out there who quietly agree with us. But if we don’t stand up to this stuff, a tiny percent of the population with minority views can impose this stuff on people. We see this in woke capitalism: we see almost an arms race. If one company kowtows to a particular grievance or group, the other companies better do it too, or someone will point out that they’re not doing it. If there’s ever a time to be controversial or bold and fearlessly explore and attack ideas, that’s college. That’s when you have the time: you generally don’t have mortgage and spouse and kids and all that. So I think it’s important that young people like you connect with decent faculty, the Walter Block’s of the world, and connect with them and make some allies. You have to have allies on campus.
DiGennaro: I have a friend of mine who’s a sociology major that did a survey. What she did is she asked about 1,000 students what their political affiliation was: conservative, liberal, libertarian, socialist. She asked them to check boxes if they supported free speech on campus, and more importantly, she asked if they felt that their speech was being suppressed on campus by professors, by faculty, or by other students. What she surprisingly found was that a lot of people who call themselves democrats or socialists found that with their extreme-left faculty they were afraid to speak up. So it seems as if there’s that suppression from the far left faculty and it’s trickling down to everybody on campus.
Jeff Deist: I believe it.
DiGennaro: In my experience on social media and on-campus, what I’ve noticed is that there’s such a gross misconception of what capitalism really is. So many people see the current state of affairs in the United States today and think of that as capitalism. Obviously, the Mises Institute is working to show people what real free-market Austrian economics is. So why do you think people have this misconception of crony-capitalism and free-market capitalism.
Jeff Deist: It’s because of the universities themselves and their willing accomplices in the media. If you spend 50 years telling someone that capitalism is bad, and really we’ve been doing longer than that, back in the 1930s when John Maynard Keynes’s book came out, socialism was considered scientifically superior and it was considered the future. Academia has always been very far left of the American public, so you hammer home an idea, let’s say, that capitalism is evil and exploitative, and you hammer it through young people’s minds year after year, decade after decade, and it starts to take root and grow.
That’s what’s happened. And we’ve paid for this. We’ve paid for colleges to teach us to hate capitalism. And it’s a sad irony, but there it is. A lot of people in journalism as well run very far left and are sympathetic, so I’m not really convinced that we get a fair or unjaundiced view of what people really believe. We’re bearing the fruit of a very serious effort, a multi-pronged effort from business and academia and media and pop culture, literature, TV, etc. to hate capitalism. And it’s worked to an extent. I think we see this in some of the polling data with respect to young people. This is something we have to correct. We saw where this goes with Tom DiLorenzo’s lecture this morning. We know where socialism leads. So we have to fight it.
DiGennaro: So one last thing before I turn it over to Mason. Something I’ve been finding so alarming is not just simply the battle between socialism and capitalism, but that when people like myself advocate free markets, the argument will get lumped in with the average conservative or Republican crony capitalist who sees this altered view of what the free market really is. Like protectionism and tariffs. That kind of stuff. What do we do about that?
Jeff Deist: What passes for conservative free-market though today is pretty bad. We don’t necessarily need to make this distinction between foreign policy and domestic policy. They tend to be war-like in both. Conservatives favor an active interventionist policy abroad so we can hardly be surprised when we have an active interventionist government at home. That means war abroad, tariffs, regulations, and taxes at home.
Conservatives don’t have a very good answer for this. Their answer is usually “well yes, we’re for that but we want less.” That’s the conservative answer to everything. “Sure we need some taxes but fewer. Sure we need to be the policemen of the world, but not the whole world.” That seems to be the Trumpist, Tulsi Gabbard argument today. “Well sure we need to be involved around the world, but maybe not as much. We need to tax people less and regulate people less.”
That’s not a very coherent answer, because the people that believe in socialism believe in it fervently: with a religious zeal. Statism has become a religion. Belief in egalitarianism engineered through the state is the faith of the left. And this is faith-based, not evidence-based, because the evidence is to the contrary. Theory and history conclusively argue against socialism. You have to realize that you’re dealing with a religious mindset. For conservatives to say “well, we want that too but less of it” just isn’t coherent.
That’s how people who believe in liberty can differentiate themselves from conservatives. We’re different in kind, not degree. We’re actually viewing society as something that can be organized without the state, or with very little of it. We’re coming at this a whole different way that doesn’t come from the right-left spectrum. Even if that’s only 10% of the population that’s largely sympathetic, that’s still 30 million people. If you look at history, in virtually any society, the vast majority of society will just go along. You don’t need 50% of America to agree with our thoughts.
DiGennaro: You just need enough to spark something.
Jeff Deist: Right, you need enough to spark something, and you need some of them to be powerful and rich and have a certain amount of status in society. We’re working on that.
Mohon: That’s where my question comes in. We’re working on it, but we’ve fully fleshed out the libertarian theory. We have treatises upon treatises about how the market works, but when it comes to actually implementing that, do you feel optimistic about the future of liberty and the free market?
Jeff Deist: I feel optimistic because so much of what governments around the world do, especially our own, is unsustainable. I don’t feel as optimistic that we’ll intellectually prevail in the next 10 to 20 years, but I feel optimistic because the whole thing will seize up due to its own contradictions, its own debt, its own bad dollar. We can’t pay entitlements, especially Medicaid and social security, to the dollar over the next 50 years. We just can’t. There’s no scenario under which that happens. We can’t prop up the dollar forever. We can’t maintain military bases in however many countries forever.
The federal government as we know it and what it does is going to change whether it wants to or not. The three of us would want that change to come about intellectually, but that might not actually be. The question is we’re there with a coherent replacement, with coherent ideas people actually want to believe in. You’re absolutely right about theory. I don’t think libertarian theory can go much further. We can explain anarchism and libertarianism ad nauseam, whereas economics can still expand as a discipline. Being there with pragmatic answers and saying markets work better and privatization works better. “There’s no more social security. It blew up, so what’re we gonna do.”
That’s really our job: be there with better ideas. And that’s frustrating because a lot of times it doesn’t feel like ideas run the world. But they do, whether it’s good ideas, bad ideas, or the absence of ideas as sort of a default ad hocism. Lack of a coherent idea is sort of an idea in and of itself. When it comes to optimism versus pessimism, we have to understand that markets find a way. That’s why our lives are relatively good despite all the depredations of the state. It’s because stuff gets cheaper and better and medicine progresses and tech progresses and food progresses and all this other stuff despite the government’s best efforts and the regulator’s best efforts to thwart all this.
Human beings naturally want to get up every morning and better themselves and better their position in life. It’s an awfully hard thing to suppress. You look at countries that did suppress that, and they did it with really brutal force: the USSR, China. But short of that, it’s often hard to force human nature into black markets. I am optimistic, but the three of us don’t have the right to complain. We have the benefits of standing on the shoulders of all those that came before us. Our material circumstances are so much better than previous generations, so we haven’t earned the right to be pessimists and be downcast about all of this. We have it too good to be pessimists.
Mohon: I’d now like to move into how libertarianism is more colloquially understood, like Gary Johnson or the Libertarian Party. But if you compare the Libertarian Party to Ron Paul, both when it comes to elections, as well as the ideological veracity and cultural impact, the Libertarian Party is really nothing compared to Ron Paul. Why do you think it’s been so ineffectual at getting out the liberty message.
Jeff Deist: Well it’s tough. The media is definitely against us, and to the extent Ron Paul made a media splash and definitely won some hearts and minds (there’s no doubt about that), it didn’t much translate into GOP primary votes if you recall New Hampshire. I would actually argue that he won Iowa and there was some funny business there (talking about 2012). And Rand Paul, who’s certainly got a libertarian brand, didn’t have particular success in Iowa or North Carolina or New Hampshire, even though we think of those states as being pretty decent. The philosophy and politics are two very different things, and it doesn’t always translate that well. The truth of it is that I don’t think that this is ever a majority perspective in any society at any time.
Human beings are desirers of security. And even though what the government provides isn’t security: it’s actually chaotic uncertainty. People have the illusion that the government keeps us safe. That’s a comfortable illusion: it’s psychologically comfortable. There’s something about human nature here. The irony is that when I mention the 10% number, maybe 30 million are pretty sympathetic. They may not be hardcore libertarians but they’re pretty sympathetic.
The way you reach them is by being hardcore. It’s not by trying to make the message palatable and kinda sound like “there are some good things about the Democrats and some good things about the Republicans. Let’s take the good things and get rid of all the bad things.” That kind of watering down doesn’t work. There’s actually a market out there for people who wanna hear really hardcore stuff. Like people who say “we need to get rid of social security”. That’s a hardcore thing to say. That almost guarantees you won’t win a general election, or even probably a primary election, for any kind of larger office. Because people are so wedded to their social security and care so much about getting it.
But the people who agree, agree strongly. They’ll come out and vote for someone who says something like that. They just want to hear the honesty that social security is in trouble. So if you come out and say “well, we don’t want to get rid of social security, we want to reform it and come up with a more libertarian approach to it. Maybe come up with some private accounts and look into market solutions.” That doesn’t excite anybody. Libertarians actually do better when they’re more hardcore. That’s more fun. If we said “look, we want to get out of the Middle East. We want to abolish the Fed.” People understand that. That’s a tangible soundbite. Even though there are the reasons why and all the stuff the Fed does, you could study stuff like that for a lifetime. There are economists that still don’t understand the Fed.
But you don’t need that. What you need is a simple concise radical message that’ll excite that 10%. Because that’s really what you’re trying to do. I’m not really convinced that a real libertarian program is ever going to win 51% of most electorates. So if you accept that from the get-go, you can have more fun and I would argue be more effective. That’s what excites people. End the wars. End the Fed. Get out of the Middle East. Those things can be short little pithy campaign slogans. If someone is running for state and local office, they can say things like “no school bond.” Your city’s trying to float a bond.
DiGennaro: Like Thomas Massie proposing a bill to abolish the Department of Education.
Jeff Deist: Yeah, which people forget is not that old. We went through most of U.S. history without it. It’s from the early ’80s. I think a bold message gets more votes, not less.
Mohon: Do you think that there’s a lack of an embrace of Mises and Rothbard among those that call themselves libertarians in the U.S.?
Jeff Deist: That’s probably true, and that’s okay. I’m a big believer in single-issue coalitions. I’m a big believer in directional movements. If someone wants to reduce or eliminate the scope of government on any issue for any reason, they’re a potential fellow traveler. Maybe that’s situational. Maybe that’s because Obama is president, and now the right is suddenly anti-war. Now that Trump is president, all of a sudden the left is anti-war. People have their hypocrisies, and that’s fine.
We want to approach the world as it is. That’s very very tough. Some people just aren’t going to go as far as to say “I’m an anarchist. I don’t think we need a national defense. Private courts. Private police.” Some people are just never going to accept that. I think that’s okay and I don’t think we should beat them up. There’s probably part of human nature and part of human evolution that pushes people away from radicalism because that puts you on the outside or edges of the group, and humans have evolved to have group cooperation and want to not stand out from the herd.
That’s been a big challenge for libertarianism. Why are we libertarians? Some people have even argued that maybe there’s some bizarre genetic component. Maybe you inherited this from your great great grandparents. The libertarian gene. I don’t know about that. There’s always going to be a tension between the radical end and the less radical end. I think that’s fine. People ask me about, let’s say, a really controversial that the Mises Institute publishes or has published. My response is just to shrug and say “whatever you like. If you don’t like a particular writer or thinker, go read David Friedman. Go read Milton Friedman. There are lots of ways to arrive at a more libertarian worldview. So if the Mises Institute and Rothbard and Hoppe is not your cup of tea, that’s fine.
Mohon: Right, as long as they’re moving in the same direction.
Jeff Deist: And even if they’re not moving in the same direction. If someone’s a deep and abiding left socialist, as long as we can agree on a degree of subsidiary or localism or secession, there’s still room to talk. If somehow Trump manages to win reelection, I think the left is going to get very serious about things like nullification, which they already have in the Trump one era, with things like sanctuary cities. So I think the left is going to be much more amenable to this sort of thing. If it turns out Trump isn’t just a speed bump on the road to progressive nirvana, I think the left is going to be much more amenable to things like state’s rights and localism and subsidiarity and secession and all kinds of things.
If we think about it, my goal is not to impose my views on other people. If the vast majority of people in the San Francisco bay area want to have really strict gun control, I don’t want to fight over that. I certainly don’t want to fight literally in a civil war. I don’t even want to fight politically over that. I think that the Republicans can be just as bad as Democrats on the Constitution. The idea that the Second Amendment just preempts all state law with regards to gun regulation, I don’t think that’s the case. If you read someone like Brian McClanahan that’s definitely not the case. No one thought that the Bill of Rights applied to states at the time the constitution was ratified.
A lot of the conflict and hate and culture wars that we say today are a result of federalization and centralization of government power. We have to have nine people deciding one abortion law for the whole country. There are really heartfelt beliefs on abortion law all around. To have five justices deciding what the rule on abortion is going to be for this country is a recipe for disaster and division. It’s crazy. We shouldn’t abide by such a system. Even 435 members of Congress, 100 Senators. It’s way too small. We should have 10,000 members of the U.S. house if we extrapolate from the population numbers from colonial times.
We’ve got a situation where everything’s centralized. We’re going to have Washington DC, deciding these things that there are huge divisions on like climate change, on abortion, on guns, on immigration, on all kinds of things. It’s not working, and it’s not going to work. Neither side is going to be able to vanquish the other. The idea that we’re going to politically vanquish someone is not liberal, it’s not peaceful. It’s not kind, it’s not loving. It’s hateful. I mean, I don’t want to vanquish people who disagree with me. I don’t want to hope that they die off and get old. I want them to have whatever they like to have, but just not force me to live under the same system politically.
I’m a big believer that we need to be politically unyoked from one another. That might be pie in the sky on some things, I get that, when it comes to federal land, when it comes to the US military, when it comes to Social Security, Medicare. It might be very, very difficult to uncover all of these things, through some sort of secondary process. But there are lots of other things, especially on social issues, where I think we could make a lot of progress in this country, by allowing different rules in different states by sending some of that legislative power back to the States. It would be so that people didn’t have to so much fear who the next president was because that president going to be appointing supreme court justices and so forth.
This is so obvious. This ought to be so obvious to all of us that I regret that the concept of states breaking away forever tainted by the Civil War and slavery in the Confederacy. It seems like we can’t have rational conversations about it.
Mohon: That makes sense. When the VP of operations and I were driving to the Institute, the other day, we drove 14 hours across the south and we’re just thinking well, this is all one country. If we were in Europe, we would have been through like nine different political systems by now with different languages. We even looked it up. We could have been across the UK a bunch of times.
Jeff Deist: Yeah. But consider not only 330 million people, but consider just the economic and geographic differences between Honolulu and Washington, DC and Manhattan and Des Moines, and Nebraska, and North Dakota and Miami. These places are all very, very different culturally, economically, socially. And we ought to reflect those differences. If we don’t, if we force everybody into one position based on a presidential election, that’s bad news.
Mohon: What role do you think projects like Bitcoin, Ghost Guns, WikiLeaks, and more technologically based projects like that play for the future of liberty?
Jeff Deist: They’re absolutely critical. And they’re applied libertarianism, we might say. Uber and rideshare programs are other great examples of this. That was sort of a gray market in places like Austin, people didn’t know exactly what the law was with respect to taxi cab companies and whether the city or Travis County would come in and ban it. Imagine investing money into a startup where you don’t even know if the product or service is going to be banned, right? Or is even legal. That’s gutsy.
So whoever invested in Uber early before it was legal probably deserves their payoff. God bless them because they provided us all a service. Because as it turns out taxis are pretty lousy, especially if you can’t schedule one for an airport pickup in the morning. For example, they work in dense urban settings like Manhattan, but if you’re out in the suburbs at a bar, they don’t work very well, because you call a taxi and you don’t even know if it’s coming or where it is. So they [Uber] have reduced drunk driving.
Let’s say you’re at a bar, you can wait for your ride in the safety and security of the bar, right as you watch. Let’s say you’re a woman who’s alone in a dark part of town, then when it arrives, you can step out and get into it. It’s just better than taxis. Otherwise would have to go out in the dark alone and maybe search out a taxi. It’s just such a great example of the market in action. And it was so much better.
I know, I’m going on about Uber here. Because it was so much better. People see it’s better. And then if regulators want to come along and say, oh, we’re banning Uber in our town, they actually get some pushback. So even in a lot of these left-wing towns, where they believe in a taxi monopoly, they haven’t been able to prevail, because even lefties use Uber. Because it’s just better.
Bitcoin is going to have some regulatory challenges from the powers that be, not just in government, but the central banks, which are, unfortunately, charged with the provision of money in our society. But even in the banking sector, there’s going to be a lot of vested interests that are deeply threatened by this, and they’re going to go after it. They’re going to try to bring it into the realm of the umbrella of the SEC, or whatever regulatory agency.
That’s why I think this Facebook, Libra coin is a terrible Trojan horse. I think it’s very bad news. The idea that they’re going to co-opt crypto and bring it under the regulatory framework, and also tie it to supposedly reduce some of the price volatility, but to tie it to the dollar or some other existing currencies totally goes against the whole spirit of what crypto is needed to be. As far as the transaction costs and the speed that’s not the core of this.
What the core of this is is what I call the denationalization of money. Taking money away from the government and central banks is maybe the single most important thing we could do in economics. I think eliminating war is maybe the most important thing we can do in politics, but in economics, taking money away from government is critically important. Is Bitcoin far enough along that it can’t be stopped? That’s in some ways a political question and in some ways a technical question that I’m not equipped to answer. 3D printing guns is a whole other wonderful development. These things are not only critically important to the future, but they’re heroic. The people doing them are heroic. I don’t know another word we could use.
Mohon: What are the three books that you would recommend to people getting into Liberty?
Jeff Deist: Can I can I recommend books that have nothing to do with libertarianism?
Mason: Yes, of course.
Jeff Deist: Some of you might know the English writer, sort of a satirist, named Martin Amis. Well, his father Kingsley Amis was an absolute master of the particularly British style of satire in let’s say, the mid 20th century, and I love him to death. He wrote a book called Lucky Jim, which is about a hapless instructor at a private boarding school in England. If you can get that book, and if you can understand the dryness of it. It’s a very slim book, easy read. So let me just put in a plug for fiction. If you’re just reading crazy ancap stuff all day, you’re going to lose your mind and become a recluse. So lucky, Jim, by Kingsley Amis.
I would probably recommend Hoppe’s Democracy: The God That Failed, as a real punch in the gut. It’s like throwing cold water in someone’s face, if you want to challenge someone or yourself. I think that’s a very important book, because not only does it challenge the paradigm democracy, and now that we’re veering into democratic socialism as sort of the next evolution, it challenges the notion that it’s liberal, it challenges the notion that is all that much better than monarchs. It challenges a lot of sacred cows. If you’re going to be a libertarian or an ancap, why not challenge sacred cows? That’s what we’re all about. Can I switch a book for a movie?
Jeff Deist: All right. This is actually a pretty recent movie. It was produced by the BBC, although it was created by a private guy. It’s called They Shall Not Grow Old. It’s an absolutely amazing World War One, well now we call it World War One, the Great War, documentary that follows some English and British soldiers in that war, and its colorized. But it doesn’t name any names. It doesn’t give you the names of the particular soldiers, and there’s no narrator. The soldiers themselves narrated. Obviously, they’re all dead now. This audio was recorded a while back. Their voices are matched with some really touching and horrific and gruesome and compelling scenes from that war.
They don’t talk about particular battles, they don’t get any of these goofy politics. They just talked about what it was actually like, and why they went. Some of them were 14, 15, 16 years old, and although you were supposed to be 19, they lied. They just went because it was the thing to do. The Huns were the bad guys and everyone in their town was joining and they wanted to be part of something patriotic. They didn’t want to be embarrassed by not joining and all the bad reasons people go off to war. Then it shows the actual horrors of what went on and the bodies.
People may not realize this but there was just an incredible slaughter of horses. In World War One horses were still very much in use. Not everything was motorized and mechanized like in World War Two. Officers, in particular, used horses, so a lot of horses perished. But what really gets you is at the end of the movie. These are all these old guys with really gravelly voices, these old Englishman, and they talked about towards the end in the trenches when they were starting to move forward and advance.
You never know what particular trenches they’re talking about. Was it in France? Was it somewhere else? Was in Belgium? When they started to advance on the Germans, they would take the Germans in as prisoners, and they said, we looked at them and we didn’t hate them. They looked like they were starving. And we talked to them and we just rounded them up and sort of took them back to camp. And we fed them. They just look like scared foreign boys. We felt sorry for them.
Then all of a sudden they the mask dropped and they weren’t these terrible Huns anymore. Some of the English captors spoke German, some of the German prisoners spoke English. They would talk exchange cigarettes. And, frankly, many of the German soldiers were happy to be captured and happy that it was over and happy to not be dead. And it’s just an absolutely poignant anti-war movie that doesn’t require a political perspective or a narrator or a script to try to shake things. It’s literally just these old guys talking. I wouldn’t recommend it if you’ve got anyone who’s maybe under 14 or so because of the graphic nature of the footage, but it’s just fresh on my mind because I saw it recently.
Mohon: Thank you.
71 Republic thanks Jeff Deist for doing this interview.