Interview with a Renaissance Man: Jeff Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker is a pioneer in the emerging world of digitally driven freedom.  He’s been ahead of the curve in online publishing, building virtual intellectual communities, and exploring the myriad ways technology lets us live outside the state.  He’s a challenger of the status quo, and one who welcomes risk, uncertainty, and new ideas.

This radical, open-minded approach has greatly benefited me personally.  Some of the very first articles I ever wrote were published by Jeff.  I had no idea if my thoughts were any good.  I was a little embarrassed to share them, but I wanted to try.  I knew some other outlets that would never consider publishing articles by some kid with no credentials or reputation.  I emailed an article to this Jeff Tucker guy, knowing nothing about him.  He responded in minutes with a simple, “This is great.  I’ll post it tomorrow.”  That changed my life more than I could have realized at the time.

You’d think this forward-thinking convention-buster would be on the fringes of every social convention, yet Jeff sports a bow-tie, cuff-links, and a panache for gilded-age foppishness.  He’s an advocate of timeless ideas and traditions, and a fan of ancient religious music.  It’s not about newness or oldness with Jeff; it’s about what’s good, true, beautiful, and what allows humans to reach their potential and find fulfillment.

IMM: Would you say you have a mission in life?  What is it?

JT: Probably that is true. I’m constantly dazzled by the capacity of society to manage itself and constantly annoyed by the impulse to control it, an impulse that results in denying people access to life-improving material goods and services. I suppose I’ve made it something of a personal mission to draw attention to the great battle between society, on the one hand, and the forces of power on the other. This is also the theme of great literature, music, poetry, film, and this is the great lesson of economic science too. There are seemingly infinite ways to apply it, and I’ll never find them all so long as I live and write. But I’m going to keep trying.

IMM: Are you the same Jeff Tucker, in terms of core beliefs, as you’ve always been, or have you changed over time?  In other words, has your journey been a process of learning and realizing what new ideas are more in harmony with who you are, or has it been a process of changing who you are?

JT: I suppose we all have moments when we think back to what we were like as a teenager or a young college student. Sometimes we recognize that person and other times we think: “how could I have been so stupid?” There are certain traits I’ve always had. I love music. Even my elementary school teachers called me “chipmunk” because I never stopped making little musical sounds. Another theme is that I’ve never fit in well with regimented systems of social management. For example, I was in the marching band and hated its strictures. One day I just walked off the field in the middle of rehearsal, knowing for sure that I would never go back. That was a liberating moment for me because I realized, maybe for the first time, that it was possible to shape my own world through my own choices. I realized that the network effects in my own life didn’t have to be determinative.

Discovering economics was a big moment for me at the age of 18. And there are times when I look back at some of my old writings and wince because it is really clear that I was trying to sound like someone else, trying to affect a way that was not really mine. Not that there is anything wrong with imitation but it can be tricky to sort out what is valuable and needs repurposing from outright appropriation of attitudes and styles. I think this comes with maturity really. As with any skill, the key to thinking and writing is to gain as much broad exposure as possible, and then finally just forget all that and do the thing. This can be hard, though, because it means have trust and confidence in the product of your own mind. Also, I think this is why most people don’t write well: they are always looking over their shoulder, worried about revealing their ignorance. You have to get over that.

IMM: There’s a lot of talk these days about managing our personal brand.  You’re branded as a libertarian thinker and communicator.  Do you ever feel hemmed in by that brand?  Do you work to broaden it?

JT: I never really sought out this brand. I think I would struggle with any brand for fear that you sort of end up sustaining something others pin on your rather than enjoying the opportunity to change and adapt over time. Actually, when I started using social media, I did have something a problem that I dealt with. On the one hand, many people knew me as an anarchist radical and defender of free-market economic theory. On the other hand, there was also this huge sector out there that only knew me as an apologist for Gregorian chant in Roman Rite liturgy. I didn’t know which identity to choose. Finally, I just decided that I wouldn’t worry about it, and now I just post on both topics or any topics. This can lead to some curious engagement between diverse communities on threads!

IMM: Does being “out there” in the public eye ever bother you?  Do you segment your life between your public persona and your family and other hobbies, or do see it as a unified whole?

JT: Yes, I’m bugged by the public personality thing, because I’m most happy working alone in a tiny space and I’m happy to go days on end without contact with others. The truth is that I’m rather shy and internal. But eventually I came to realize that being a public person is something that just happens and you finally just embrace it. At the same time, I do try to maintain a private sphere, and I do actually work to maintain this. If I screw up or become the source of some calamitous public controversy, that is something I want to bear myself without dragging others in. Also, separating public and private allows me to have normal conversations with people without constantly being asked: what is the anarchist point of view on this subject?

IMM: You’re a relentless optimist.  What’s one recent development that’s most challenged your positive, progressive prognosis?

JT: Here again, I don’t really think of myself as exclusively occupying the optimist sector. It’s striking to me that people say this because vast amounts of my writing have consisted of kvetching about the terrible effects of government — material which can be very dreary actually! At the same time, I’m profoundly aware that in the great struggle between liberty and power, liberty enjoys the upper hand so long as we see any evidence of progress around us. Every advance that we see in civilization I treat as a sign that freedom is not dead but instead still thrives, and this thrills me. I love to see data about the decline of violence, malnutrition, infant mortality, and disease because these are all signs that liberty is on the march.

It’s interesting that you ask about recent developments that challenge optimism. This weekend I was seriously vexed by two recent developments. First, libertarian broadcaster Adam Kokesh was arrested and jailed for, so far as I can tell, just speaking at a rally. Adam and I are very different people but I respect his intelligence and his courage. I went online to see what people were saying about this. I bumped into a conservative forum in which the posters were cheering the police. Then I bumped into a white nationalist forum in which these proto-Nazis were saying that the arrest was great because Adam is Jewish. I nearly became sick reading those comments.

The second thing that bugged me this weekend was seeing how an emergent establishment within the sector of digital currencies is calling and lobbying for government regulation as a means of achieving some measure of legitimacy. I kept thinking: we wonder how it is that great things get destroyed. This is how. We are watching this in real time. Fortuntely Bitcoin can survive this.

IMM: What do you see as some of the common pitfalls those who want to make the world a freer place should avoid?

JT: Many people are tempted by the belief the answer rests with political activism, that is, by getting the right people in public office. This proposed solution can end up with a vast waste of resources. Nothing comes of it. Also, this approach fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the state itself. It does not really consist of elected officials. They are mostly the veneer, and their focus is their specialization: getting in office and staying there. They are the state’s iconography in effect. They are there for us to look at and communicate with, and they are happy to play that appointed role as a career builder. But the real machine consists of the permanent bureaucracy in charge of enforcing a century-old legacy of bad laws, regulations, and legislation. This machinery prides itself in ignoring elections and political controversies.

I’m actually far more hopeful about the capacity of commerce and technology to change the world than for political forces to do good for the world.

Another common error was identified very well by Leonard Read, and that is the tendency to think of ourselves as teachers and everyone else as our obedient students. Our job is to pass on our great knowledge and their job is to listen and be enlightened. This can create a condescending environment that is no longer plausible or compelling in a digital age in which ideas come from everywhere and are constantly remixed and repurposed. A better approach, Read said, is to think of yourself as a co-learner who contributes special insight due to a familiarity with the liberal tradition. Inviting others to explore and understand that tradition — because it is underrepresented in official institutions — is a more successful approach. Of course this always requires some humility. You know how old people always say that the more you know, the more you realize how little you know? It sounds like a cliche doesn’t it? Well, it’s true.

In terms of writing and research, I would like to see fewer attempts to re-write Human Action and more applied histories and analysis of contemporary events, and I would like to see more attempts to solve the practical problems that come with living under leviathan.. Sometimes as libertarians we make it too easy on ourselves by presuming that our only audience is other libertarians. We should imagine that we are competing with all existing ideas around out there, and make sure that everything we write stands on its own terms without ideological preconditions. We all need to be harder and more critical of ourselves and our work in that sense. It’s long past time for liberty-minded writers to come out of hiding and expose our stuff to the hardest criticism we can find. Every critic is a benefactor. We can stand the scrutiny.

IMM: How has your approach to advancing liberty changed over the years and why?

JT: I’ve always been driven by the desire to get as much information out there as possible through whatever way I can. This is one reason I like to write about presumably petty topics like gas cans, showerheads, and silly putty. These are topics that interest people, and if we can engage people on them, we can get our ideas out there. In fact, I don’t regard any aspect of life as beyond liberty-minded analytics. Nor do I think anyone is beyond persuasion. The longing for liberty is universal. It is just a matter of finding that aspect of each human personality that long to be free and working from there.

Has my approach changed over time? Maybe I’m less puffed up than I once was. I do look at some of my past writing and wonder why I wrote what I did. There are some book reviews extant in which I picked mercilessly on an author for one slipup, for one deviation. There is nothing wrong and everything right about challenging people’s ideas. But it is also possible to cross the line and do it with a desire to harm. As critics, we need to be careful to not create strawmen or attempt to whip up people in frenzies of hate against someone because of a disagreement. This strikes me as essentially uncivilized and unproductive. I now try my best to crawl into the thinking of my interlocutors and try to make points that they would find challenging and compelling. In other words, it is not enough just to presume the right point of view and attack those who deviate. You have to actually make the case in a way in which your opponent would understand — and this is a point I owe to Sheldon Richman. He inadvertently trained me to see this.

Liberal intellectuals should be the model here. And this is for a specific reason: we’ve all be treated very unfairly in the past. I read a book review recently of an excellent defense of markets and it was clear to me that the critic had either not read the book or had no interest in taking the author on directly. Instead, the critic just caricatured and smeared. We should not be part of such a game. The ideas of liberty are robust enough to stand on their own without having to resort to such tactics. In fact, it is a measure of how confident you are in your position that you can state your points calmly, clearly, and coherently — and apply them to anything and everything — without resorting to name calling, sarcasm, or accusations of malice.

Mises offers some words at the end of Liberalism that have haunted me since I first read them. He says that liberty will win the day through reasoned argument, not through parades, songs, uniforms, and personality cults. Was he naive? I don’t think so.

IMM: I’ve heard that major intellectual celebrities are a thing of the past because we’re in an age where fame is less centralized.  Instead of one Milton Friedman, you have dozens or hundreds of podcasters, bloggers, and other public intellectuals with smaller individual market share, but a more robust presence overall.  What’s your take on the way the marketplace for ideas has developed?

JT: I agree with this. The struggle to disseminate information and the struggle to shine the light of liberty are the same struggle. In the past, there were fewer opportunities to do this and fewer transmission sources for information. The progress toward where we are today goes back some one thousand years, which only the elites could reach others with ideas. Now they are everywhere. It’s like a sandstorm that never stops.

Ideas are not like physical goods. They are infinitely reproducible in that there is no need for a contest over the right to consume them.. They are malleable in that they never leave our minds in the same shape they enter. They are immortal in that they long outlast our physical lives. We are just today discovering the potential here in this digital age. None of this means that we won’t continue to have heroes and that is a great thing. But it does mean that we need not rally around  one person’s ideas as the only basis for belief or as the sole litmus test. The body of ideas called liberalism is naturally destined to have as many permutations as the free society itself.

IMM: You are a big advocate of information sharing.  Tell me a bit about your views on intellectual property and how you came to them.

JT: When I first heard the idea that intellectual property should be abolished, I thought it was crazy. I didn’t think it was really untrue in some strict doctrinal sense but I seriously doubted the merit of talking about it. I thought this was a bit like one of those weird libertarian puzzles like “what happens if you fall out of a window and grab someone else’s flag pole on the way down?” I just didn’t think it mattered, and I found the whole subject a bit embarrassing.

But once the US government made IP a centerpiece of its attack on the Internet and even its trade and foreign policy, I knew that I had overlooked something important. I read Stephan Kinsella and some applied work and I eventually came around completely. I think the process took me six years in total. It is a hard subject, one that reaches the the root of subject we all think we understand but probably we really do not.

Gradually, I came to realize something. Ideas are the most important commodity in the world. To control them is to control people. IP is nothing but a mercantilist leftover. But it is even more profound than that. Within the sector of ideas, we find something that evades the requirements of normal property. Ideas are non-scarce goods. They can be owned socialistically so to speak. You see the first notions of this possibility in the works of the Austrians but needed fleshing out more. In other words, this is a huge area with massive implications for economic theory and the future of liberty. The subject of IP opened up new vistas of thought. Actually, the subject changed my life and represented a fundamental expansion of the way the world looks through my eyes. We see in the world of ideas a beautiful anarchy and a vision of what can be for the whole world.

IMM: What gets you up in the morning?

JT: I wake because I can’t wait to be surprised by what the day will bring.

IMM: Thank you Jeff!