Gene Healy is vice president of the Cato Institute. He is also a self-described recovering lawyer from New Jersey.
What makes Gene Healy unique is the success he has found in writing on libertarian issues. Gene’s work can be found in his weekly column in the Washington Examiner and in other outlets including the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Legal Times.
Healy also authored 2008′s The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power, and the edited the 2004 collection Go Directly to Jail: The Criminalization of Almost Everything. When Martha Stewart was briefly, but passionately, an advocate for non-violent drug offenders, Gene sent her a copy of Go Directly to Jail. Miss Stewart sent a nice letter back to him, from jail.
Recently I sat down with Gene to talk about his experiences through his early career, writing, and libertarianism.
Who would have guessed a think tank?
Most high school or college students don’t even know what a think tank is, much less decide they want to work at one someday. While Gene couldn’t have told you as a teenager that he was going to be working at one of the most influential think tanks in the world, he does recall being politically inclined at an early age.
There definitely was a geeky interest in public policy when I was still in high school… I basically became politically aware by arguing with my commie history teacher… He preferred the term cooperationsist.
Gene earned a Bachelor of Arts at Georgetown University, which brought him to the District of Columbia. While there, he founded the Georgetown Libertarians. This location afforded Gene and his friends easy access to the world of think tanks and provided opportunities to interact with scholars and policy-makers.
While his location made a difference in his own education, Gene would not recommend that students move to Washington, DC, just for that sort of exposure.
I would hate to give that kind of advice as a libertarian! If your dream is to work in public policy in Washington, then go to Washington. But there are also, increasingly, a ton of great state think tanks that are doing great work outside of DC. And it is more healthy, I think, if a lot of the energy in the policy world is outside of Washington.
Developing a unique writing voice.
For those who are interested in writing, Gene had only one piece of advice, advice which he said was even hard for him to accept.
The kind of writing you do in political commentary or public policy analysis is not like… waiting for the muse to land on your shoulder. It’s something you should be doing a regular basis. If you want to be a writer, produce writing!
Gene points out that the web has ushered in a renaissance for writing. There are “more opportunities through groups like America’s Future Foundation and the rise of blogs than anyone has ever had before. The beauty of blogging is that if you can’t find anyone to publish you, you can at least get started writing your own stuff on your blog.”
It is the repetition and the training of one’s self to write in a timely fashion that builds the skills necessary to become a successful public policy writer. Even if no one reads your stuff, if you keep a blog it will teach you discipline and give you the opportunity to share your material.
Also, it is important to develop your unique voice.
I wouldn’t say to emulate someone’s style… it usually ends up sounding like a pale imitation. But it is important to find writers that you like and try to unpack what they do and what makes it work.
A summer of learning libertarianism.
I benefited a lot from a summer spent reading fifteen or so of the really great books of libertarianism. [I would advise young libertarians] to take advantage of that kind of opportunity to read the great books while you are still in school… It’s hard to devote that kind of effort to a long, demanding book when you are out actually working.
While lauding the benefits of reading these books, Gene was very clear that doing so was not a requirement for being a good libertarian.
It’s comparative advantage. People have different inclinations… There are some people that what motivates them is making the signs and getting people together and doing the protests. And it’s great, we libertarians need those people. If your inclination is towards outreach and activism, then there is nothing wrong with doing a lot of that. But if you have the inclination to delve deeper, than it does benefit you to read those books.
Reading these great works assured Gene that “there is a long and noble intellectual tradition” underscoring libertarian ideas.
That’s a great thing to find out and it gives you a longer-term perspective. Everyone should at least take a crack at reading some of the greats.
Gene listed the following among the “really great books of libertarianism” :
Anarchy, State, and Utopia by Robert Nozick; The Constitution of Liberty by F. A. Hayek: and Human Action by Ludwig von Mises.
How to do networking without networking.
When you are a young professional in DC people talk to you about “networking” and tell you that you should have a “networking strategy.” For Gene, this idea “has always absolutely creeped me out.”
There are too many people in DC already, who every person they meet they get a card from and they catalogue them in terms of if that person can help them or not. That’s part of what’s wrong with DC.
For Gene, America’s Future Foundation created an environment that was like “networking without networking.”
I never went to any of the [AFF] happy hours or debates with the thought that maybe I’ll meet someone there who sometime in the future could help me promote something I’m writing. I thought that [my friends] would be there and it would be fun. And a lot of the people I befriended through AFF did end up helping me, and I’ve been able to help them along the way. It is a setting where you can meet people who have a similar interest to the interests you have, who are also young, and share the same values. It was not just useful to know them. ‘Useful’ was by-product of it being fun.
The AFF environment is “a way for people to get public speaking experience and to give presentations in an atmosphere that is fun, and friendly, and it was like working with a net.” The organization “turns out for many libertarian and conservative young people in DC to be something that they learn from and something that helps them to go on and do better things.”
To find out more about Gene Healy, read his column at the Washington Examiner and check out his work at the Cato Institute. Also, follow him on Twitter.
A final piece of advice from Gene.
The fact that this capital [Washington, DC] is sucking up so much wealth, and brain power, and energy, is not something that is good for the country. I spend a lot of time urging people not to do what I’ve done, like don’t come to DC and don’t go to law school.
Jacqueline Otto’s shelves at home are lined with used-book store finds; just a few of her favorite authors include C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, H.G. Wells, Orson Scott Card, Ray Bradbury, Jules Verne, and George Orwell.
She first read F.A. Hayek and Frédéric Bastiat at 16. Her political affiliation on Facebook is “Freedom,” and she hopes to always be known as a lover of liberty.
Jacqueline is on Twitter at @jacque_otto.
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