Interview With Jeffrey Tucker
Jeffrey Tucker is the executive editor of Spy Briefing Books and the founder of the Spy Briefing Club, an online digital society of liberty. He is the author of three books, including, and most famously, Bourbon for Breakfast. He has also written thousands of articles that explore the intersection of economics, literature, and popular culture. He served as editor of Mises.org for the life of the site until 2011, writes a weekly column for the chantcafe.com, is senior fellow at the Acton Institute, and an adjunct scholar of the Mackinac Institute.
Lara-Murphy Report: How did you discover Austrian economics?
Jeffrey Tucker: I was an undergraduate economics major at Texas Tech, loving every class in economics, even though they were all thoroughly Keynesian at the time. My great hope was that economics would reveal the great mysteries of what created wealth and civilization and what causes nations to rise and fall. Economics held out such promise, and I loved the discipline of the whole subject. To me, all economics was pure beauty, rich and rewarding music.
One day I was looking through my roommate’s shelf of books and found Hans Sennholz’s Age of Inflation. I read the whole thing in one sitting. This book amazed me. It was exactly what I had hope to find in the field of economics. The chapter on the Weimar inflation especially riveted me and left me fundamentally changed. I wanted more of this kind of economics. It was so human, accurate, historical, with living and breathing human beings instead of all abstractions all the time. I had fallen in love with a particular approach but didn’t know it at the time.
Then I started to follow footnotes. Within two years, I had read most of Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard that was in print at the time. I lived and breathed the Austrian school and wrote my senior thesis on the gold standard. Slowly, I came around to the political and ethical outlook, dispensing with whatever conservatism I had left in my thinking. Finally, I became friends with Murray and took that giant intellectual leap toward anarchism. It was a big step. It opened up new vistas of understanding. It opens up life itself.
LMR: So you were lucky enough to be friends with Murray Rothbard. Can you share an anecdote that epitomizes what it was like to be around him?
JT: Murray was kind and broad minded, liberal and reckless in the best sense of the term. He was always ready to discover something new. He read everything and he was a constant font of ideas. He was also hilarious. He just loved life so much. I recall hanging around until all hours of the night with him at the Mises University in the early days. It would get to be 2am or even 4am, and somehow you didn’t feel tired.
It was an unusual thing to hang out with Murray. He had this way of extracting every bit of knowledge you had on a subject. It didn’t matter the subject. It could be religion, popular culture, music, politics, history, clothing, food, whatever. He always wanted to know what you knew about it. He would ask questions, react, inspire more thoughts, dig deeper and deeper with such intensity. You really had to be ready to talk and think when you were around him.
I recall once sitting across from him at dinner and he started asking me what I knew about the great Filioque controversy that divided the Eastern and Western versions of the Nicene Creed for the Christian faith back in the 11th century. He pointed out that there was some reason that the East was generally less economically and artistically creative than the West and he wanted to know if I thought it had anything to do with Filioque.
I stupidly said yes. He then wanted to know why. I made up something on the spot about how when the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son, this adds value to the idea of the Incarnation and therefore underscores the nobility of the human person. At that point, I had exhausted my knowledge (or pretended knowledge) but it wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to know more. He pressed further. He asked about this Church council from the 5th century and that experience in the 6th century, this doctrine from the 8th century and that debate from the 12th. I finally just relented and said, “Murray, I’m so sorry that I don’t know any more than that.”
He seemed sort of disappointed and so we moved to a different subject!
This is how he ended up inspiring so many people to think, rethink, write, research, stay open, and stay radical. He just had a way. No one could ever keep up with him but it wasn’t a contest. He just loved ideas. Ideas were his reality, and everything else seemed superficial by contrast.
I would love to tell more, such as my debate with him over public choice theory. Here he really became emotional. Looking back he was 100% correct about the points he made and I was all wrong. But I think I’ll save that story.
LMR: How did you begin working for the Mises Institute? Can you talk about the Mises Institute’s role in the resurgence of Austrian economics in the last decade?
JT: I was going to journalism school in Washington, D.C., in 1985 and I walked along and saw a sign on a door for the Mises Institute. It was like I heard that music again. I thought, wow, this is amazing, an institute devoted entirely to science and radicalism in the defense of truth and human liberty! I want to work here. I walked in and volunteered for months. Gradually I took on a large and larger role.
I think the main contribution that my work did here over time was in liberating the great texts. We saw that the internet could be used to universalize the wisdom of all the great thinkers. We pushed it all out into the commons, building the largest and most trafficked economics site in the world, one that taught millions to think in a new way. That’s the legacy of the Institute, in my view.
LMR: Can you describe your new position at Spy Briefing Books? What do you see as LFB’s role in the future of liberty?
JT: Agora Financial took over LFB in 2010 and sold off lots of the remaining stock from the analog days. Addison Wiggin was ready to move the institution into the digital age, and on a for-profit model. I was hired on November 1, 2011. We didn’t really know what we were going to do but we did know that the commercial matrix would inspire a level of creativity that the liberty movement was really missing. It was pretty obvious that the university and non-profit models could only be pushed so far. We all had a strong meeting of minds on this. So we got to work on the most important task: thinking.
Gradually the model came to us. Now that we have it, and we are in the black again, new possibilities are emerging by the day. My hope to is liberate the best of the literature during the great 70-year gap of material that appeared between the end of public domain and the beginning of the internet. But that’s just a start. What I hope to do is light a fire in the intellectual world, bringing the power of commerce to the world of ideas as never before.
I love the culture of Agora because every day is new, every day is an opportunity. The company is deeply embedded in the commercial sector, and that means there is a constantly willingness to try new things, to live with today’s ignorance knowing that tomorrow will reveal new things, and to have only one final boss that keeps you rooted in reality and that is the balance sheet. I feel like I’m living what I’ve preached for a lifetime.
LMR: It seems that nowadays, the radical libertarians are among the most pessimistic of social commentators. They’re worried not just about Big Government, but also Big Pharma, Big Ag, Big Oil, etc., etc. Yet in your work, you tend to celebrate the achievements of the market. Is there a real difference of opinion here, or just one of focus?
JT: Well, it’s important to condemn crony capitalism and all the policies that come with it, but not at the expense of seeming to condemn capitalism too. For reasons I’ve never understood, libertarians tend to fall for whatever the popular political rhetoric of our times is: right wing one year and left wing the next year. Now that anti-capitalism is fashionable, too many libertarians have jumped on this rhetorical bandwagon. This is what I’ve detected in the tendency to condemn every existing business that gets beyond a certain size. There is a real danger here. Just because a company benefits from a government policy doesn’t make their commercial dealings all evil. I recall being told that eating at Taco Bell is not libertarian because they have corn chips and corn is subsidized. Statements like that make me crazy.
I marvel at the achievements of the market economy every day, and I’ve stopped being shy about spelling them out. Someone needs to. I find it amazing that we have institutions like Walmart that would have been seen as an impossible dream 100 years ago. It provides everything for everyone at low prices and it strives to be everywhere, serving ever more of humanity. What’s not to like? What’s not to absolutely love?!
I was watching a movie yesterday that was set in the 1890s in England. Some lady was saying that she is a socialist because she favors material progress for the poor and working class. Well, that’s exactly what we’ve seen for the last 120 years but it came not from socialism but from capitalism! Meanwhile, the socialists have turned against the whole idea of material progress, a penchant I find disgusting.
Part of me wishes that the word “socialism” weren’t already taken because I would be happy to call myself that. Material progress for the whole of society is exactly what we favor.
LMR: What’s your long-term prognosis? Will technological and other innovations give the edge to liberty, or the State?
JT: The state cannot win this, and for particular reasons. The state is about physical stuff, borders, coercion, gatekeepers, and the data of the past. These are the only things that make up the ethos of statism. The economy it claims to manage is bound up with physical stuff at a time when reality is migrating from the analog to the digital world. Its bureaucracies know nothing of new ideas or innovation. Its managers are terrified of an increasingly borderless world.
And in contrast to the state, the market and society are about ideas, inspiration, cooperation, and the unknown future. Life itself is always in beta, always about speculation and risk, always grappling with the unknown future, always about finding the new way to accomplish wonderful things. The market taps into that human spirit and that is why it is so innovative and why it keeps making life better and better for everyone. For these reasons, the market will continue to outrun the state, especially in a digital world. The state is a hopeless anachronism. The trajectory of history is systematically bypassing it.