September 26, 2012

Profiles in Liberty: David Boaz

By: Tom Swanson

In Washington DC, libertarians have long been outsiders, working hard to fight big-government policies despite meager representation in the two main parties. Fortunately, organizations like the Cato Institute have made great strides in bringing the cause of liberty to the forefront of national debates. Today, David Boaz, Executive Vice President at Cato, is one of the battle-tested leaders at the forefront of that campaign.

“I think the most important thing the Cato Institute has done,” Boaz says, “is to create a presence for libertarian ideas — the ideas of the American Revolution — in Washington and the national political debate, so policymakers and journalists can’t ignore them. We do that by talking about fundamental ideas, developing policy proposals based on those ideas, and reminding people that lots of Americans are neither liberal nor conservative but hold essentially libertarian ideas.”

Like many libertarians, Boaz was not born and raised a libertarian. He was, however, raised in a family of conservatives, most of them lawyers, who regularly talked politics around the house. “There was a lot of political talk in my household growing up,” Boaz says, “so I was always interested in politics and policy.” However, he eventually encountered the writings of Ayn Rand (as well as Goldwater, Hazlitt and Hayek) and he soon began to see “a tension in conservative thought between freedom and government-imposed order.”

By college, Boaz was a nascent libertarian and starting a chapter of Young Americans for Freedom at Vanderbilt. Although he applied to law schools, he realized that he was more interested in advancing freedom than in studying law. After graduating, he moved to Washington and became the first Executive Director of the Young America’s Foundation. Looking for a more explicitly libertarian organization, Boaz eventually found the Cato Institute.

In the intervening years, the Cato Institute has grown rapidly, and Boaz’s roles and responsibilities have expanded as well. He worked hard, proactively sought out new opportunities to grow both the organization and his role within it, and became Executive Vice President. However, he is quick to emphasize the importance of results and personal fulfillment over the importance of job titles. He says the proudest moment of his career was writing Libertarianism: A Primer and editing The Libertarian Reader, “all in the space of about six months.” “Of course,” he says, “when people ask me how long it took, I tell them 20 years, because that’s how long I’d been studying the ideas that ended up in those books.”

Despite an impressive litany of personal and organizational successes at the Cato Institute, Boaz remains energized and focused on the challenges that lie ahead: “Most Americans believe in the fundamental libertarian value that people should be free to live their lives as they choose so long as they respect the equal rights of others,” he says, “but when it comes to applications, it’s so tempting to want something free from government, or want to advantage your own business over your competitors, or want to tell other people who or what they shouldn’t read, smoke, eat, drink, or marry.”

Boaz knows as well as anyone that winning over the American people, let alone politicians in DC, is a huge task. Nonetheless, he is confident that the efforts of Cato and the larger liberty movement, are moving America ever closer to “moving day”, the day when Cato’s work will be done, and he and his colleagues can “all load our trucks to move back to California or wherever my colleagues would like to live.”

For America, he says, “moving day” will arrive with “a federal government living under the constraints of the Constitution, no longer exercising the powers not granted to it — a foreign policy of restraint, a federal government that mostly defends us from foreign threats and adjudicates disputes that cross state lines, and most other aspects of life left to the states respectively, or to the people.”

Finally, Boaz has a word of advice for the next generation of libertarian leaders:

First, don’t be in a hurry to start a career. You have every prospect of living a long, long time. Enjoy your youth. Live abroad, walk across the country, work on a hopeless political campaign. Find your career when you know what you want to do. But if you ARE determined to get started on that liberty-advancing career, then do a good job from the beginning. You can get by with B- work in college…But in a world where our opponents are doing A work, we’re looking for interns and new employees who do A+ work and ask what else they can do to help.

Of course, there are many excellent organizations, such as America’s Future Foundation, which can help young leaders on the way: “AFF gives people an opportunity to learn about many different organizations and branches of the liberty movement, and a chance to hear ideas debated. Those are all part of your effort to find your own place in the movement.”

Tom Swanson is a student at the University of Notre Dame and served as an intern at America’s Future Foundation in summer 2012.