with Spencer Greenberg
the podcast about ideas that matter

Episode 153: Has political polarization been misunderstood? (with Nick Gillespie)

April 13, 2023

Are the US's culture wars a sign of a society falling apart? Is social media a cause or a symptom (or both or neither) of the animosity between political tribes in the US? We've all heard of postmodernism, but what the heck is it? Is libertarianism a right-leaning ideology? Are the current levels of intergenerational animosity unusually high? How will the FTX collapse likely impact cryptocurrencies over the next few decades?

Nick Gillespie is an editor at large at Reason, the libertarian magazine of "free minds and free markets", and host of The Reason Interview with Nick Gillespie. Gillespie served as the editor in chief for and Reason TV from 2008 through 2017 and was Reason magazine's editor in chief from 2000 to 2008. Under his direction, Reason won the 2005 Western Publications Association "Maggie" Award for Best Political Magazine. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Post, Slate, Salon,, Marketplace, and numerous other publications; and he is a frequent commentator on radio and television networks such as National Public Radio, CNBC, CNN, C-SPAN, Fox Business, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, and PBS. He holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the State University of New York at Buffalo. He also holds an M.A. in English with a concentration in creative writing from Temple University and a B.A. in English and Psychology from Rutgers University. Follow him on Twitter at @nickgillespie.

JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Nick Gillespie about the culture wars, postmodernism, and generational animosity.

SPENCER: Nick, welcome.

NICK: Thanks for having me. I’m very excited to be here.

SPENCER: So I think our conversation today is going to be on a range of topics about society and how to think about what's happening in the world. But let's start with the culture wars because I think you have a really interesting take on it. A lot of people say that all of this fighting that's happening and polarization is a sign that society is falling apart. So what do you think about that?

NICK: Yeah, I think that fundamentally gets it wrong. And this is a drum that I've been beating at Reason Magazine — I also had various posts as a columnist in places like The Daily Beast and Time and whatnot — and consistently for the past 25 years, at least, what we've been witnessing is a massive democratization of access to the means of public discourse. This started in the 90s, with the proliferation of cable news, really — which meant there were just vast hours to be filled that didn't exist before — and the internet also created this massive supplemental space that people could kind of homestead on. And what happened with that was that we needed more people to fill more time and more space, so we got a wider range of views. And even within well-curated or manicured points of view on a political spectrum or ideological spectrum, we started seeing more and more subdivisions among those people as they argued amongst each other and with other people elsewhere. And then over the past 15 years or so, with the advent of social media, in particular, we got further democratized to a point where I look at things like Twitter, I look at things like Facebook, Snapchat (which is weirdly much bigger than Twitter, but just doesn't get any media attention because the people who use it are involved in media). We're living in a golden age of people being able to express themselves and engage with other people. And what that means is this is a sign of a robust society and not one that is dying or falling into chaos. I've likened it to the 17th century in England. They had a Civil War, which ended at one point with King Charles I being beheaded. At the root of that were many issues, but fundamentally, one of them was about the right of conscience to worship God as you define him or her or to not worship at all, because you didn't believe in God. And one of the big fears there was that if you got rid of a state church, or a single church that everybody had to attend, and everybody had to believe in and worship at, and things like that, there would be no more religion. And what you actually got when you deregulated? You got much, much more religion, and you got much, much more argument about religion. And that's a good thing. And I think we're in something that is roughly analogous. It can be very chaotic. It can be very anarchic. It can occasionally rise to the level of violence (which is problematic and needs to be dealt with) but fundamentally, everybody everywhere has more access to more information from more points of view, which is great. And I think, as important, we're able to express ourselves and to state the arguments about the things that are most important or most kind of trivial in our lives. This is what a free society looks like.

SPENCER: So I think we can draw some clarifying distinctions here. One is just the level of debate. And I think most people would say, “Yeah, it wouldn't be good if there wasn't much debate happening like that. That's something broken about society, or that's what you might expect in an authoritarian regime where you're not allowed to debate.” Another thing we could talk about is tribalism, where instead of just a lot of people having different opinions, it's like there are two opinions, and everyone gravitates to one of the two opinions. And I'm wondering, do you feel on that front that things are getting worse? And is it bad that people are going to one side or the other?

NICK: Yeah, that's a great question. And this is, in many ways, the topic of a book that I co-wrote about a decade ago called "The Declaration of Independents” with my Reason colleague, Matt Welch. In the political arena, and actually more specifically in the electoral political arena — because I make a lot of tedious distinctions between politics, partisanship, and even politics of movements or of kind of policy areas and elections where you're electing either a Republican or a Democrat. — There's no question we have seen over the past 50 years a kind of paradoxical and bizarre and generally (for me, anyway) disheartening development which is that fewer and fewer people actually identify as either Republican or Democrat. But the political discourse when we talk about elections, and when we talk about partisanship, it's much much more you can only be a Democrat or a Republican, and that exhausts the range of meaningful opinion or meaningful tribal identity. And I do think we've been getting tribal in terms of partisan politics. Ironically, or maybe not ironically but at the same time, we're not necessarily becoming more tribal in what we believe. There's a political scientist at Stanford named Morris V. Arena, who for at least since 2000, has been tracking public opinion about many topics that are important to people — things like gun rights, things like immigration policy, things like marijuana legalization, or gay marriage or marriage equality — and what he finds is consistently, there are large and growing super majorities on most of these matters, something like 65 to 75% of Americans think immigration is a good thing for the country, and that has been growing. More people believe that marijuana should be legalized. There are more people who believe that there should be marriage equality among, at least, two individuals of whatever their sexual orientation. So, on the one hand, our politics are getting more and more tribal, and the way that we express things through voting for specific individuals in elections is much more tribal but now much more stupid and destructive. But on a wide variety of other topics, there's a much larger and growing consensus in what I would consider a broadly libertarian position — meaning that, at least on social issues, people are very much of a kind of live and live mindset — so this is something to contend with. And I think one of the reasons why our public discourse is oftentimes very confusing, or non-clarifying, is because we're constantly muddying or combining partisan politics and these other larger social forces or consensuses that we don't really have a way of talking about outside of “Did a Republican or a Democrat win?”

SPENCER: Right, because you could have two parties that are actually not that dissimilar in their views, and yet be extremely tribal. Right?

NICK: Yes. And that was effectively what we had in America up through probably sometime in the 80s or 90s. There's the old dominant theory that if you wanted to have a national political party, you had to represent everybody in America a little bit in every region, every ideology, every point of view. And as a result, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party were really not that different. And there are a couple of great books written about this in the past 20 years or so. But after World War II, a new theory took hold, and it took a while to come to full form. But the idea of a successful national party is to make it ideologically unified. And it actually started, interestingly, more with the Democratic Party (at least theoretically) but it really took the form of starting in the late 50s and through the 60s. And then with Reagan, within the Republican Party of saying, “Now the Republican Party is going to be a fundamentally Conservative Party.” And they kind of purified the party. And we see this now — most of your listeners probably have seen these distribution charts of where — Democrats and Republicans really have sorted themselves, broadly speaking, a Liberal Party and a Conservative Party, and there's not as much overlap as there was among positions taken by members, say 40 years ago.

SPENCER: Another metric you could look at is how much animosity there is between groups. And it seems to me just anecdotally, that we almost are at the peak of hatred that I've seen in my lifetime. Do you think that that's true? And if so, what do you think's driving that?

NICK: Yeah, and can I ask how old you are?

SPENCER: I'm 39.

NICK: Okay, because that matters. I'm actually 20 years older than you, I'm 59. And in my lifetime, I think that we have reached peak contempt for, when we're talking at least narrowly about politics, the contempt that a typical Democrat has for the typical Republican and vice-versa, I think it is at a peak level. The good news is that fewer people use these identifiers as their first, second, or third category of identity. But for those who do, I think it's worse than it's ever been in my lifetime or your lifetime. And I think that's being driven by a variety of factors. One has to do with the media. I'm a political journalist, I've been a political journalist for most of my professional life. And the way that we tend to talk about things, the way cable news talks about things, the way that social media increasingly stages conversations, lead to that. And there is more, broadly speaking, (again) within discussions of politics and apocalyptic rhetoric that has really been kind of on the margin on the growth, at least since the 1990s. And it comes and goes in American history. But I think that's part of what's driving it. It's an interesting question to ask, once you get outside of political rhetoric, “Do people feel that way?” And again, when you look at things like the Pew surveys of general public opinion, you don't really find that. You find that more people are comfortable with lots of different ways of living. People are more comfortable with immigration, people are more comfortable with different types of racial group differences. It's an odd thing, when we talk about politics, as politics we're at each other's throats. And in many other profound ways, we've never been kind of more welcoming and kind of okay with a pluralistic and very diverse nation.

SPENCER: So at the beginning of this conversation, we talked a little bit about debate happening on social media, and how you view that as actually a good thing; that’s a vibrant society. How does that interact with the animosity of groups toward each other? Do you think that this debate that's happening is feeding that animosity?

NICK: It's a good question, and I am generally speaking about my background. I've got a PhD in literary and cultural studies. And in that, I've always been drawn to theories that say that media does not dictate public opinion, or it doesn't make people think a certain way. It tends to reveal more about how people think by enabling them to express themselves and to build new coalitions or discover things. So, I never want to say that social media is causing this, but it does reveal it to a certain degree. But then we need to take a step back. So when you look at a service like Twitter — most people aren't on Twitter, I think it's something like 10% of Americans have a Twitter account or have used the service in the past month or something and then it's like one or 2% of the users dominate the amount of content that is published and stuff — and I think this is particularly true in politics and in the media, and in many ways in elite discourse. We tend to think the conversations we're having (on Twitter in particular) are what people actually care about and think about. And there's no question. I think that on certain levels, Twitter (and other forms of social media) tend towards more extreme rhetoric because there's a sense that you're not in the same room with a person, you don't even necessarily know if the person you're talking to or about is real, and things like that. And that tends to (lead to) a kind of more exaggerated and hyper-dramatic kind of rhetoric. Having said all of that, I don't know about you, but I'd be curious. My Twitter habits are mostly like people who are constantly posting old pictures of either politics or technology. My Instagram feed is 99% Seinfeld-related accounts. There's a great account that mashes up Twin Peaks and Seinfeld as the two great TV shows of the 90s. And there's a lot of imaginative work out there that in no way is polarizing, or is hostile, or is angry, or something like that. It's just kind of creative, and it acts as a way of remembering the past and imagining potential presents and futures that are alternatives to whatever we're doing.

SPENCER: It's funny because the algorithms are trying to give you what you click on. And so you can consciously choose to click on only certain types of things to follow the certain types of things, and then you will create that in your feed. And yet, there's such a poll that so many people have to click on things that are actually maybe not healthy for them or…

NICK: Yeah, that feeds your anger or your elation, and kind of owning somebody or something like that. So there's a real issue with that. It's fascinating, too, that like in our conversation here — which obviously just started, but — we're not even talking about Facebook, which has kind of receded, even though, by a factor of (I don’t know) probably by 10 is bigger than any other social media platform in North America, much less the globe. But I think one of the large questions (and I mean this is for me is a much larger question) and it's a really important one is, “How do we perceive and how do we grasp social reality?” Because it used to be that what we read in the newspaper or saw on network television was kind of our reality or a proxy for our reality. Then that kind of shifted to cable TV and the internet in the 90s. And now it's shifted to social media. And it's clear that it’s a really bad kind of proxy for what is actually going on in people's lives. Everybody talks about narratives now. As somebody, again, who's schooled in literary and cultural studies, I've been thinking about things in terms of narrative for decades. And it's really important. One of the things that was very tedious but I think true insight in the late 80s and early 90s in cultural studies discourse, literary studies discourse, and critical theory discourses: “Never confuse the map with the territory.” And in a lot of ways, I think our social media discourse, that's the map and we're confusing it for the territory. And oftentimes with these things, social media is not a good way of understanding what's actually going on in reality, however we wanted to find that.

SPENCER: I did an analysis of intellectuals on Twitter and what their most popular tweets were. And then I tried to categorize them by saying, “Well, of the most popular tweets, what sort of tweets are they?” And some of the categories were kind of funny, like when people tweet really specific stories about animals and make them seem human-like, people just love it for some reason. But the most disturbing category was when people called out a person in power — especially someone who's polarizing, where some people love them, and some people hate them — those are some of the most popular tweets ever. And I think it feels to me that that's sort of the thing why we associate something like Twitter with toxic behavior. It's because there is a genuine reward that people get from — not to say that calling out bad people in power is necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes it's a bad thing. Sometimes it's a good thing, sometimes it's a bad thing. But whether it's good or bad depends on the case — they're getting rewarded for that. It's creating a feedback loop, right?

NICK: Right, for sure. And then the question is, “Where does that Twitter feedback loop…where, if you do well on the economy of Twitter, you get 5000 retweets and likes and comments on an outraged post and that raises your stock or your value within Twitter, but then how do you leave that economy and parlay that into something in ‘the real world’? Or do you make money on it in the real world, etc?” That, I think, is also an interesting question. I just went to lunch the other day with somebody who is young, really smart, in her early 30s, and has created a job where she places speakers at tech conferences and things like that. She had never heard of Jordan Peterson. And I was like, “Wow, that is kind of amazing, that somebody who is smart and engaged in the world and whatnot, but doesn't really do social media, and doesn't know who Jordan Peterson is.” And that's kind of fascinating, don't you think? Because we all know everything about Jordan Peterson including his benzodiazepine addictions and being put into a medical coma in Russia for a while and then coming back and being young in an archetype worldview and things like that. So he's very big in certain places, and maybe not so big in others. I don't know what we do with this other than kind of make note of it.

SPENCER: It's interesting how you can get this fragmentation of information sources, where for example, the Kardashians, I couldn't tell you anything about the Kardashians. I know that they exist. I know that they're really popular, but I don't really understand who they are, what they do. Whereas some other people would be like, “What?! You don't know the Kardashians. That's insane.” Right?

NICK: They are the people who are most aspirational right now in 21st century America, to a large number of people or something, where we use them to speak about race, gender, self-creation, and identity. What I tried to do in my work is — I wouldn't say, “Well, Spencer, you got to fucking start watching reality TV.” Or, “You can't be a serious person if you don't know who the Kardashians are.” Or, “You can't be a serious person if you don't know who Jordan Peterson is.” It’s not really that. — This goes back to my larger point of, we live in a world of beautiful, terrible freedom — and I don't want this to sound at all kind of solipsistic, or autistic or something — where we can live in our worlds, we can build a world and live within it, of information and certain kinds of commercial transactions and cultural meaning and things like that. It's very liberating. You don't have to know who the Kardashians are, and other people don't have to know who Jordan Peterson is, or conceivably even Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell or something like that. We can argue whether or not, you better know certain things because those people can really affect whether or not your life is possible or not. But, we live in an age of radical freedom where people can live more and more in the worlds that they want to build and occupy.


SPENCER: So let's change topics here. One thing I want to get your take on is postmodernism. A lot of people talk about postmodernism these days. The people on the right say that postmodernism has infected society and…

NICK: It's somehow Marxist. You get a lot of the postmodern Marxists; people like Jordan Peterson actually would use that phrase, which is kind of incoherent but…

SPENCER: Right and then, the people on the left just sort of deny and they’d be like, “What are you talking about? Our philosophy is not postmodern, etc.” But anyway, I think you have an interesting take on this. Do you want to tell us what postmodernism is in your view?

NICK: Great. And I'll just preface it by saying that Reason Magazine was started in 1968. It's a libertarian publication. And when I started talking about this in the 90s, really, that libertarianism and postmodernism have a lot in common, people were like, “Are you crazy? Postmodernism is somehow communistic, socialistic, left-wing, nihilistic, etc.” So I've been used to people using ‘postmodern’ to either describe something that they uncritically love or uncritically hate for a long time. But for me, when people talk about postmodernism or what postmodernism means, Jean-François Lyotard in the late 70s published a book called, “The Postmodern Condition” and he defined postmodernism as incredulity toward meta-narrative. And broadly speaking — and there are kinds of cultural, philosophical, and political versions of this and whatnot — but essentially, what postmodernism is for me, is a temperament or a mindset that focuses on the limits of human knowledge rather than the extent of human knowledge. So, incredulity toward meta-narrative means that even as we recognize, we need theories — and we need big theories of all society, theories of all economics, theories of science, and physics and all of this — in order to go out in the world and get to where we want to be, we're constantly interrogating those theories that are helping us explain the world. So we're always checking our eyeglasses and our prescription and making sure that the lenses we're looking at the world through are not warping us or are just kind of blinding us to certain things rather than other things. And I find that this is something that, again, gives rise to a lot of anxiety for a lot of people. Modernism, in this sense, or modernity, you see in its fullest and darkest kind of manifestations in totalitarian theories of society and they can take the form of something like Nazism or Stalinist communism, where you believe that you can control, and should control, and direct every aspect of human life from a single source or from a centralized source. But you can also do that more from a knowledge base. So you can say, “We're going to use Darwinian evolution as we understand it to explain every aspect of human society.” Or, “We're going to use Marxist economics.” Or, “We're going to use free market economics,” or “We're going to use Freudian psychology.” These are gigantic meta-narratives, and we need to be incredulous towards them. And I think what happened in the 20th century is that the value in being incredulous, which doesn't mean you dispense with them, or you don't try to come up with better ones, but you question them, and you are skeptical of them, especially when people are using them in order to regiment and structure human society because we saw what happens when you give in to a totalitarian or a totalist mindset. And that belief, a kind of epistemological hubris that you can actually design, dictate, and determine everything in human life from your theoretical position. And for me, just to finish up on the thought of why this comports with a lot of libertarian thinking or at least the way that I am drawn to libertarianism is…Somebody like Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian economist who ended up winning a Nobel Prize in the early 70s. He was always stressing the limits of human knowledge. And that implies being very careful whenever you are creating policies or are trying to design societies in which things are mandatory, coercive, and whatnot. So to me, postmodernism by emphasizing the limits of knowledge, if we keep that in mind, we'll always be in freer, more open societies, where more innovation, more experimentation, and more play happen. And that's how we actually discover who we are, what we want, what works, and what doesn't.

SPENCER: I guess the way I think about it is that meta-narratives are often good, but what's dangerous is going all in on one meta-narrative, or what you really wanted to be able to do is be able to take one look at the world through it, but then take it off and put on another one and look at the world through that. So yeah, would you agree with that?

NICK: Yeah. And I think broadly speaking, that is the liberal project that came to a certain level of articulation and even implementation starting in the 19th century of liberal political philosophy, which gave rise to things like free-speech or the idea that — in many ways, it was the secularization of this religious argument that people should be allowed to worship God in the way they see fit or not at all — Liberal political philosophy kind of secularized that and said, “You know what, generally speaking, we should give them a large sphere of autonomy to make the decisions they want, to live how they want, and to form voluntary communities.” You have to respect certain types of rights that everybody holds, etc. Effectively, it's a non-extremist, non-hyper ideological perspective. So it's not saying, “Okay, we're gonna go all in on this, and we're never looking back.” But rather, we gain knowledge. By having a society that allows for open discussion and debate and alternative ways of living, you create what John Stuart Mill talked about as experiments and living. And that's good, because that way you create a more resilient society, and one that is always changing and growing, and kind of kicking the tires of its own vehicle, so that you are less likely to become a monstrous version of some single mindset.

SPENCER: Now, I'm not an expert in postmodernism, but my understanding is that in early postmodernism, a lot of the skepticism was born out of this distrust of power, that people in power created meta-narratives or are supporting meta-narratives that sort of maintain their power. And I'm curious what you think of that aspect of postmodernism.

NICK: Yeah, and that's actually one of the most interesting dimensions of this intersection between a kind of French postmodernism (certainly) and American. What I would consider American libertarian postmodernism is Michel Foucault, who's the French social theorist and one of the most influential and most quoted (whatever you want to call it) social theorists, philosophers, and writers of the second half of the 20th century. In the late 50s and early 60s, he wrote books called “The Birth Of The Clinic” and “Madness And Civilization,” which looked at the way specifically that a lot of medical rhetoric — which was used to say certain people are sick and we have to help them and doctors help them through medicine and intervening, and restraining them for their own good — that was very similar to what Thomas Szasz, a psychiatrist who wrote a book called The Myth Of Mental Illness — a line of argumentation that he was putting forward that a lot of medical discourse is always pushed in a helper rhetoric, “We're just trying to help people, etc.” And it actually, oftentimes, masked this massive will to power of certain people being able to dictate how people live, whether or not they can walk around, whether or not they are in straight jackets? What is considered sane versus insane? And that is why I think postmodern skepticism of power was welcomed and was also necessary, because in the mid-20th century — and you have the extreme versions of things like Nazism and the Soviet Union — but even in the West, you had a rise of expert classes that would tell you how to work based on your scores in certain tests, or where to go to school, or if you should go to school, because you either have the brains or you don't, or you have the right work ethic, or whatever. When you look at it in an American context, things like the Brains Trust was the actual early formulation under FDR, where he was going in order to fix the economy during the Great Depression was he’s gonna get the smartest people in the room, and they would figure everything out. And then later, under somebody like John F. Kennedy, we would talk about the best and the brightest who led us into Vietnam or into other kinds of public policy debacles. So there's a lot of skepticism and fear of people who can tell you what is right and what you should be doing, especially when that means minimizing choice. They weren't really acting in an advisory role. And there's a lot of coming out of the libertarian economic kind of world. There was a lot of fear of people wanting to plan economies because they knew best like they knew what everybody would want, and how many years of corn you would want, how many soybeans, how many widgets, how many of this, how many that. And it's a kind of lunatic fantasy of control and omniscience that people were skeptical of because it didn't work, and it restricted other people's equal ability to figure out what they want to do with their lives and how to live in the world.

SPENCER: So do you think that the critique of postmodernism coming from the right is confused about what postmodernism is or do you think that they sort of have a point but maybe they're missing part of what's going on?

NICK: I think it's mostly that they misunderstand what postmodernism is. And it's that they identify it with the kind of beret-wearing intellectuals in the university. And it should be extremely disturbing to the right. It's definitely disturbing to anybody else that the right in America has become so openly anti-intellectual. And by that, I don't just mean they're against universities, they're against ideas, they're against thoughtfulness in profound ways. But I think it's mostly a complete misunderstanding on their part of what postmodernism actually is, and how it might function to inform public policy as well as a kind of social cohesion and a vision of a world where that is generally amenable to freedom and to lifestyle pluralism, which also maybe they're intuiting that. There's part of the right in America — and I don't consider myself either right or left, and I don't wear that as a badge of pride. It’s just that sociologically, I've never felt particularly at home on the right or on the left — there are elements on the right that don't like true diversity and difference: differences of opinion, differences of demographics, differences of food, and things like that. They often prize uniformity or unity in certain kinds of social groups. That's also true of the left, but it's certainly true for the right. A political scientist, Karen Stenner, in the early part of this century, maybe 2004-2005, wrote a book called “The Authoritarian Mindset.” She lumped people into two broad groups of what she called ‘authoritarians who like unity in experience and in demographics and in social units’. And then she called the other group 'libertarians', and not really meaning in our contemporary kind of political context, but just people who liked diverse experiences and being around different types of people. I think the right broadly is kind of authoritarian in that sense. And so maybe in that way, they're right to be against postmodernism, because I think postmodernism is something that complicates the idea that you're going to have one single idea or narrative that really kind of dictates everybody's experience or how everybody should live.

SPENCER: Something that confuses me is that I have a sense that people on the left tend to think of libertarianism as a sort of more right-leaning philosophy. And I'm curious, have you heard that kind of attribution? And what do you think of that?

NICK: Oh, yeah. And as far as I'm concerned, I think that's generally mistaken. But at the same time, I think it's kind of accurate. From a sociological perspective, I think that libertarianism in postwar America has largely been housed on the right side of the political spectrum. So you see when National Review (the magazine founded by William F. Buckley and a bunch of other people in 1955) there were some self-identified libertarians who were part of that right-wing coalition. And it meant mostly, that in that context, they were individualists who also promoted free market economics as opposed to a kind of planned economy; and even people like Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and writer-historian Corey Robin. Robin, on the left, had talked about people like Ludwig von Mises and Hayek as reactionaries. I think he’s mistaken about that. But he's right that they lived on the kind of right side of the aisle, partly because after World War II, the big thing that everybody oriented themselves around was the questions of communism and planned economies versus what was sometimes called the free world or free enterprise. And in that sense, it's legitimate to say that the Libertarian movement has largely been affiliated with the right, in postwar America. But then, there comes this question (certainly) after the end of the Cold War, when that major question, “Which side are you on, the Soviet Union or America?” or “Communism or free enterprise?” or something. That doesn't make sense anymore. And I think, philosophically, a libertarian sensibility, the way that I think about it is not necessarily right-wing or left-wing. And particularly in the first decade in the arts of the 21st century, I know a lot of people on the left who were like, “You know what, there's a lot to learn from libertarian thinking because it is about maximizing an individual's ability to have meaningful choices within their lives, to make me meaningful choices in our lives.” And there were even books talking about others a lot to learn from people like Friedrich Hayek, Michel Foucault — who died in the early 80s, in some of his last lectures actually, in France, talked about how people on the left should read Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises with special care because their ideas actually spoke a lot to a powerful way to constrain power, which was part of his larger project — so without going on and on about it, I think it's both right and wrong to talk about libertarians as fundamentally part of the right.

SPENCER: So one thing that I think we can agree on regarding libertarianism is that it tends to think that government is dysfunctional, or that the government just doesn't do a very good job at solving society's problems. And you've made the argument that this view has actually become increasingly accepted in a society. Do you want to talk about that?

NICK: Yeah. This is the libertarian argument that has run the table. I think it's, one, when Ronald Reagan was running for president a thousand years ago, he talked about how the worst thing that you could hear is somebody knocking on your door and saying, “I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you.” And by that he meant the government was at best incompetent and at worst malevolent. And it was just trying to boss people around or force people to do certain types of things. That's an argument that comes broadly from a libertarian critique of the efficiency and efficacy of state power. I think that's one; it became more and more extreme within libertarian circles, people like Milton Friedman talked about something like that first in a book called “Capitalism and Freedom” in the early 60s. And then he reprised that later in the very late 70s, early 80s, in a TV series and book that he did with his wife, Rose, who was also an economist called “Free To Choose.” And it's gotten to a point now where most libertarians will say the government is incapable of doing anything positive. All taxation is theft. It's almost become a hyper-anarchist movement. But when you look at public opinion surveys, most people believe that the government is trying to do too many things and it's not very good at what it does, etc. And there's a huge amount of skepticism about whether or not the government is even a good faith actor. And again, places like Pew and Gallup asked these questions and have been doing it for 57 years. And what you see is a straight line decline in the trust and confidence that the government is trying to do the right thing. So in that broad sense, I think a libertarian argument about government has succeeded. And what I've written about — and I wrote about this in a piece a couple of years ago for Reason Magazine, which was controversial for reasons that I think are obvious —I said that this helps explain why, over that same period, we have seen massive increases in the size, scope, and spending of government. Because it turns out that libertarians thought that a precondition for reducing the role of government in everybody's lives was to undermine its competency or belief in its competency and effectiveness. And it turns out that when societies go from being high-trust to low-trust — high-trust both in government but also in the public and the private sector, and whatnot, to low-trust — people vote in or they call for more and more government regulation, because they feel like things are getting out of control and whatnot. And I think that explains a lot of what's been going on in the United States over the past 50 years or so, where people are more and more worried that the government…nobody trusts the government. We literally don't trust the government the way we did in 1970 or ‘72 or something like that, for good reason, because of Watergate, because of Vietnam, because of Iran-Contra, because of the church commission that showed that the CIA and the FBI and the NSA were all illegally spying on us, which we found out again when Edward Snowden revealed a bunch of things under Obama. We don't trust the government the way we want to, but the government spends more and more and it regulates more and more, and it's more and more in every part of our lives. And that's because when people feel that things are going to hell and that nobody's in charge, they ask for people to be in charge, even if they know those people will not actually do a good job or be honest.

SPENCER: What makes you think that people viewing the government as incompetent then causes them to call for more government? What evidence would you point to on that?

NICK: I talked to a couple of economists and political scientists, and they said that what happens with say…it's not like they're calling for a cop per se, but after the tech bubble burst, we got a bunch of new financial regulations because people were like, “The stock market is rigged or it's fixed.” The stock market, since the 1920s, has been among the most heavily regulated parts of economic activity; everything is covered by regulation. And when the tech bubble burst, there was a spate of new massive regulations. When the economic crisis started unfolding in 2008, we got an even bigger slate of economic regulation. So people respond to these large-scale failures of existing regulatory schemes or economic programs by calling for more. And that certainly seems to be what's been going on over the past 10 years and things like that. You just see more and more regulations being called for, more and more government spending on more and more programs. “Housing isn't working,” or “Housing is too expensive, let's spend more money on housing,” things like that.

SPENCER: But don't a lot of people view these as failures of the free market? Like they think, “Well, this is a failure of the free market, so we need to regulate it further.”

NICK: Somewhat, although it's hard to do that when you look at the fact of the matter is that these are heavily regulated economic sectors. So part of it gets sold as ‘the housing market’, which everywhere is totally ensconced in all kinds of regulation — just in developing things, in terms of land use, and zoning and all of this kind of stuff. — But then it's also on the financial side — on mortgages and things like that — it's so thoroughly ensconced. One of the ways that you sell more regulation is by saying these are unregulated industries. But the highest level possible, what we see is that the government continues to do more and to spend more. And then when there's a failure, people end up voting for more spending, more regulation.

SPENCER: It's really interesting how when people look at a system like housing, some people's reaction is, “Oh, my gosh, this is way over-regulated, and it's causing all these problems.” And some people's reaction is, “Oh, my gosh, things are not working well, we need more regulation, clearly, to solve it.” And sometimes you can see both sides have a point. But it is just fascinating how the opposite reaction is.

NICK: Totally. And you hear this a lot after the financial crisis, which was at the end of George Bush's term and then Obama's. And between the two of them, they spent at the time record amounts of peacetime spending increases and things like that. And then within a couple of years, you also heard people saying, “We didn't do anything. The government really didn't intervene or spend money.” I don't think it is correct, but you're right. To me, what is most interesting in kind of contemporary moments (talking about something like the housing market) is that we're seeing new alliances forming between people who maybe 10 or 20 years ago we're not really in conversation, but our ticker lands, something like the way that land use, local zoning, and local land use or planning ordinances are contributing to the inability to build more housing. And so, in places like San Francisco and a couple of other cities, you have the rise of YIMBYs (Yes In My Backyard): people who tend to be progressive leftist and kind of libertarian activists, who are saying, “The reason why there isn't more housing being built is because it's technically illegal. There are all kinds of ledges restrictions, so let's get rid of those.” And so to me, this is one of the things when we talk about these large stories that get told about stuff and kind of start to critique them, new types of political or social coalition start to crop up. And that's kind of interesting. You see something like that with criminal justice reform, with drug policy reform, and things like that. So for me, that's exciting and interesting, partly because it moves beyond a kind of binary choice that seems to tend to dominate most public discussions about any given policy issue.

SPENCER: I've heard some interesting stories from people with New York real estate. I'll just say two of them really quickly. One, I was talking to a real estate developer recently. And they were telling me that they actually leave some of their apartments unrented on purpose, because the way the law is set up, is that the only way they can rent them out is to essentially charge a price that it would not be worth renting it out for, given the amount of improvements they'd have to do to make it livable. So essentially, they have a whole bunch of spaces that they literally just can't rent. And I was like, “Wow, it's really bizarre and shocking.” And then on the other side, I have a friend who had mold in his apartment, and it was causing problems. And he just couldn't get his landlord to fix it. And the only way his landlord would accept money is by dropping an envelope with bills; you'd have to travel 25 minutes to pay his rent every month. And just under both sides of the equation, it's totally bonkers. [laughs]

NICK: New York is an interesting story for all sorts of reasons. New York is simultaneously one of the most heavily regulated cities. And by that, I just mean there's laws governing everything. But then there's also social practices. It's also one of the freest cities in the world, where you can live however you want. And there are all kinds of workarounds and things like that. So it becomes a large question of how you kind of apprehend social reality. Is New York a nightmare city of ‘everything you do is technically illegal or potentially illegal’? Or is it a place where people continue to come to, in order to be their authentic selves and live a life that they could not live anywhere else? It's kind of a mix. One of the things that's fascinating about a place like New York — and I think that's particularly true of Manhattan — is that the city every once in a while does an inventory of the number of apartments or living units that are available to own or to rent. And there has not been a lot of change in the number of units since the mid-60s when they first started doing this. And it's a strange, strange world.


SPENCER: Before we wrap up, another topic I wanted to touch on with you is the relationship between boomers and then the younger generations, millennials, and Gen Z. Do you want to kind of introduce that topic to us?

NICK: Yeah, I used to write a lot — this was particularly in the arts and the early teens — about what I call generational warfare. And this goes back to the postmodern libertarian critique of the rhetoric of a lot of social policy. People are constantly told that things like old age entitlements, medicare in particular, and so security are designed to keep old people over 65 years old from being impoverished. And the fact of the matter is people over 65 years old, as a class, are the wealthiest people in American society. And it makes sense, because they've been saving their whole lives, and they've acquired a lot of money and capital and savings and things like that. And younger people pay for these programs through payroll taxes, which are somehow not considered income tax, even though they are a tax on the first dollar of income and up to about $120,000 of salary — which is far more than most people in America will ever make in a year for Social Security and it's limitless for Medicare — and they're sold as the thin line that's keeping the old people from not being able to afford medical care, or drugs, or rent or anything. And that's just totally wrong. And it's terrible. Younger people are getting ripped off to pay for these programs for people most of whom can afford to pay for their retirement and pay for their health care in old age. So on my side, even though I was technically born in the second to last year of the baby boom, I am completely on the side of millennials and Gen Z. Young people, who are relatively poor, are getting ripped off in order to pay for old people who are relatively rich. And I think the whole concept of old age entitlements should be gotten rid of. And instead, what the proper role of government should be is to help people who need assistance regardless of age. It shouldn't be based on that (age). But beyond that more I think what we're in the middle of — and this actually goes to a different kind of tribalization or tribalism, which isn't about right or left — but we're in a moment now where the baby boom, which at the time was the largest cohort in history, and Gen X is kind of part of that whether they want to be or not, our time is ending as a kind of ascendant hegemonic force. And this is a lot of the tension because Millennials and Gen Z have grown up in a different world. They have different priorities and different sensibilities, and I disagree with a lot of them, but it's just in the way that the greatest generation eventually gave way to Baby Boomers, you were going through that same kind of generational shift. And like it was in the 60s and early 70s, it's very heated, it tends to be apocalyptic, and it can be very ugly at various times. But that's what's happening. And the one thing that I would caution Millennials and Gen Zs to think about is that at a lot of the apocalyptic rhetoric — when you hear stories like you will be the first generation not to have the same standard of living as your parents, that the planet is about to be fried to a crisp, that crime is epidemic, that it's going to be pandemics for the rest of your life and stuff like that — interrogate those apocalyptic narratives, because a lot of the times they serve the status quo, or they serve the people who are in power to maintain power, not to actually elucidate anything that's going to help you. And I guess it's kind of like an old man's warning like, “Don't trust anybody over 60 and don't trust but verify what they're telling you that it's true.”

SPENCER: Very convenient as a 59-year-old to say that. [laughs]

NICK: Yes, that's right. And by the same token, there's something weird going on. I wrote a lot in the 90s about changing attitudes towards children and child raising. And this was something that was on the right and the left, where both people on the right and the left were saying that kids born and being raised in the late 90s and early 2000s were somehow living in a world that was harsher and more brutal than ever. And it just isn't true from a material perspective. There is more equality, there is better health, or things like lower lead levels in the blood. The idea of being molested was lower than it had ever been. Kids were doing better than ever, they're going to school longer and learning more, etc. That is also something that I think we need to reevaluate as a society because we've told younger people that the world they are about to inherit is just fucked up beyond belief. And when you look globally, a record-low percentage of people around the globe are living in what the UN calls absolute poverty. In many parts of the world, with the exception of the US, lifespans are actually increasing, and have been for the past 100 years. More people are able to actualize themselves. These are all pretty damn fantastic, amazing things. But we've been telling, I think, younger people in America that the world that they live in is absolutely brutal and horrible. And that's just wrong. You’re not going to have a lower standard of living than your parents. You're going to go school, you're going to have more options, and you can be more fully who you want to be. And yet we're somehow turning these positive trends into a nightmare, kind of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome world. And that's not good, partly because it's simply inaccurate. And then secondly, it leads to horrible public policy and bad social relations. And it leads to people turning away from building a meaningful future, which is what we should always be striving for.

SPENCER: You mentioned that you think these narratives are serving people in power. And that sort of frightening younger people has this kind of benefit for older people. Could you elaborate on that?

NICK: Yeah. If you say terrorism is an existential threat, if you say that climate change — which I believe is real, I believe that it's manmade, or rather that human activity contributes heavily to it, but it does not mean that the world is about to end if we don't immediately decarbonize the economy in 10 years or something like that — you put into play a scenario where everything is super heightened, everything you do is a matter of life or death. And that tends to freeze up. You put the entire planet on a kind of war footing, where everything is an emergency. And what happens in emergencies is that normal everyday life gets suspended. And people take away your rights, people take away your speech rights, they take away your ability to move. If we are living constantly in a world that is about to explode for X, Y, or Z reasons, that helps people who are in power to maintain power and actually extend and enlarge it. So we should always be skeptical of people who are predicting the world is about to end, or that some large part of it is about to go down the tubes, because inevitably that comes with a demand that you follow their orders or you live in their mind and do their bidding.

SPENCER: How cynically do you view this? Do you think that people in power are actually lying about these things? Or do you think that they're just sort of believing these narratives, and they just happen to benefit them?

NICK: That's a great question. I think it's always a mix and I actually always think that people are kind of arguing in good faith, but there are times when it becomes kind of inescapable. For instance, we can look at the way in which the Bush administration — it seems like ancient history, and it's really not very long ago — but the way that they got Congress to write an authorization for the use of military force in Iraq, I think some of the people in the Bush administration believed that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. And I think other people knew that he did not and that this was a lie for the greater good. When you look at somebody like Anthony Fauci and the way that he acted during the pandemic, he admitted that he lied about the efficacy of masks or PPE because he was afraid of a run on it for first-line responders and things like that. So it's always a mix of some people are cynical, some people are not. I think in a closer-to-home, or more recent thing, the stories that have been coming out about Sam Bankman-Fried, he was cynical in a lot of the things that he was espousing. He was cynical about crypto. He is cynical about certain types of effective altruism, etc. So you got to look at it, and I dislike people who assume that everybody who they disagree with is lying, because I think that, again, is usually wrong, but also it’s just better to assume that people are being honest, even if you disagree with them. But then sometimes they are being cynical. I think about major figures who have kind of receded from public view but are very responsible for the politics of the current moment. And I'm thinking of somebody like Newt Gingrich, who was the Republican Speaker of the House in the 90s, and he — probably more than any single politician or elected official — is responsible for the way the parties talk about each other: in very venomous, hyperpolarized, very derogatory terms. He was mostly a bullshit artist. He didn't believe a lot of what he said, but he used that rhetoric because he knew it would be effective. So, I think the proper antidote to all of this stuff is when you're making arguments, and when you're doing public discourse or interaction, whether it's on Twitter or not, is to argue in good faith and to also try and make your case not through personal invective and ad hominem, but by actually marshaling the types of data and argument and logic that actually will win people to your side.

SPENCER: I tend to think that most humans won't just lie in the public sphere at great lengths. Most people might exaggerate, but a lot of what's going on, insofar as they're not telling the truth, is that there's a certain self-deception going on. Obviously, there are exceptions. There are people that are willing to just absolutely lie, just don't give a shit. But I just think that they're not that common.

NICK: No, I agree. This goes back to that question of, “If the world is about to end, or if they believe it's about to end,” they are more comfortable making noble lies or lies for the greater good things like that. And that's another reason to always really make sure the world is about to end before you start espousing things that should be done if the plane is actually crashing. But I agree with you completely. I think that most people are doing the best they can. And it's just that we're fallible. This goes back to that incredulity, not just toward meta-narrative, but you should be incredulous towards your own bullshit, too, right? Because we are very good at tricking ourselves into believing stuff that may not be fully warranted based on what we know but we want to be true.

SPENCER: So you mentioned Sam Bankman-Fried, and obviously, there's a huge FTX catastrophe that occurred recently. I'm curious how you think about that, with regard to both crypto and its future, and sort of how people are going to view it going forward.

NICK: Well, one thing I'll say is that it concerns me greatly, partly because crypto, I think, is the most — it's hard to say about say crypto and then I'm like, “Well, no, maybe I just mean Bitcoin or maybe I'm talking about blockchain more broadly or just Bitcoin and Etherium whatever.” — I think that the rise of cryptocurrency and particularly Bitcoin, and maybe the Ethereum blockchain is the most important kind of invention since the internet became a mass medium in the late 80s and 90s. So whatever affects it is really bad. And one of the things about the FTX scandal and breakdown and everything — and I think there's a significant amount of fraud going on there which really is terrible — but that is going to lead to the bad regulation of an entire kind of parallel financial system, which is incredibly liberating, especially for people in authoritarian regimes. Reason has been covering Bitcoin since the Satoshi white paper came out. And it was always our interest, fundamentally, in the idea of a non-state-backed currency. The power of that is really in the way that it helps people who are in truly authoritarian countries to kind of route around the worst forms of oppression and repression. And so what concerns me is, there is nobody in Washington, with the exception of a handful of people, that are in favor of the crypto economy because they see it as a threat to their power in the status quo. And so, that really worries me. And I think one of the things to think about with the meltdown of FTX and whatnot, is that, in many ways, SBF’s actions, or at least what we know about them right now, underscore the power of Bitcoin and its abilities to get rid of the need for third parties. Because what SBF did regularly, the way he got credibility is that he went to effectively third party brokers in ideas. He went to elite media, he went to politicians, he went to VCs and things like that, and got their confidence and trust in their imprimatur through various ways that had nothing to do with Blockchain or crypto or anything. He got certified by them, and then that allowed him to operate in a certain way. The whole genius of something like Bitcoin is that you don't do that. You don't need to do that. The transactions that happen happen between individuals, and then they are registered in a transparent, open way. So in a weird way, this collapse, which may well be the final impetus to do a lot of what I think will be bad regulation of Bitcoin and of crypto more generally, actually proves the need for what Bitcoin actually can deliver as a kind of parallel financial system.

SPENCER: It's really interesting how crypto and blockchain have this promise of not needing trust, right? So, decentralization. And yet in practice, we've seen all these cases where crypto actually gets centralized. This is a great example, right? It's like, “Well, actually it turns out, you did have to trust someone in this whole FTX thing.”

NICK: Well, you don't. A colleague of mine and I interviewed Jesse Powell, who's the founder and one of the principals at Kraken, which is one of the largest crypto exchanges. We talked a lot about that. And he was like, “Yeah. In the real Bitcoin world or the real crypto world, you wouldn't be using exchanges. Because if you don't have your keys, if you don't have your crypto and Bitcoin in your own wallet, that is not subject to some kind of intermediary, you don't really own it.“ It's kind of reminiscent of the existing financial system and things like that. But I agree with you. It is in its infancy, and at this stage, we are in the training wheels stage of figuring out how you work this and how you interact with other people. But one of the promises, and I think we're still in the promising stage, even though for a while and before the recent bear market, Bitcoin, according to Deutsche Bank, was the third largest currency and daily use on the planet after the Dollar and the Yuan. People are using it as a form of payment because it makes sense and things like that. Ultimately, it’s not about speculation, and it's not about becoming a Bitcoin billionaire or something like that, it is going to be a payment system. That's what the original white paper talked about. And it replaces the need for trusted third parties with trust in the math and in the program that actually accounts and tabulates what's going on. But yeah, we're not there yet. And I think it's also true that until we get there, this type of stuff is going to happen in various ways. But fundamentally, what we're witnessing with FTX has nothing to do with crypto. You could be doing the same kind of scam or the same kind of fraud with regular money. It's not qualitatively different from Bernie Madoff. It's just choosing something new and cool. And it's probably going to give rise to really onerous restrictions and regulations on it, which is a shame. I don't know if you're familiar with absinthe or the way absinthe became banned after a guy went on a murderous rampage and like basically, the last drink he had. He was fucked up on all sorts of other things, but the last thing he drank was absinthe and then that became a pretext to ban absinthe in Europe and America for the better part of a century. And really, the crime is the problem, not the underlying technology here.

SPENCER: Nick, thanks so much for coming on.

NICK: Really a pleasure. I appreciate it.


JOSH: A listener asks, what moral stances are pretty prevalent in Western society that you think will be viewed as abhorrent in 50 years?

SPENCER: I think some potential candidates are one, torturing animals in order to make them our food. I do think that animals in factory farms tend to suffer a great deal. I do think that most people would find it appalling if they actually saw the conditions they're in. But I also think it's very hard for people to really accept that on a deep level because they like eating animals, everyone around them eats animals, they've eaten animals for a long time. And so there's sort of all this cognitive distance around it, whereas almost no one would torture an animal, but they don't mind eating an animal that essentially underwent something similar to torture in order to become food because it's sort of so normalized and so accepted in society. I think if we get to the point where you really don't need to eat animals because there's alternatives, either synthetic or lab-grown meat that's so similar and tastes the same, just as good, just as cheap, just as available, then at that point, I could imagine a turning point in society where people say, why are we still doing this? We really don't need to do this anymore, and a big backlash against it. I don't know for sure, obviously, but I could see that happening. Another one is if we get to the point where society is just much, much wealthier than it is today due to continued technological and the advancement and so on, you can imagine a point where people are just genuinely really shocked about the level of poverty today and the level of inequality. They're looking back, they'll say, wow, it's crazy that there were so many people in really living in desperate situations. Just an example of this would be people are shocked sometimes when they go to San Francisco and they see how many homeless people are living on the streets, and they say, well, isn't this one of the wealthiest cities on earth? Why are there so many homeless people on the street? I think people could have a similar level of shock looking back if we achieve a much more uniform, much more wealthy society. Some people are already shocked today, but a third one that I would point to is I think that today, when people are really sick, we end up putting them in situations where they suffer a great deal really needlessly. I imagine if cultural norms shift around this, I could see a society where we say, you know what, an end of life, our job is to make sure that people get what they really want and they understand what they're going to get with different choices and then not put in situations where they're going to spend months in pure torture for no reason just to have essentially 100% chance of dying anyway, and that people will rethink these past options and look really negatively at how end of life care was handled today. Yeah. Yeah.

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