Libertarian America: A conversation with Jeffrey Tucker

The first in a series of interviews with prominent libertarians that will seek to gain insight into their lives and minds. Photo: Jeffrey Tucker

MADISON, Wis., March 3, 2013 ― Jeffrey Tucker is the Executive Editor of Laissez-Faire Books and the primus inter pares of the Laissez-Faire Club, which seeks to apply “a conventional commercial model of the digital world, like Pandora or Spotify, to the topical area of classical liberalism.” He has written three books on libertarian ideas: Bourbon for Breakfast, It’s a Jetsons World, and A Beautiful Anarchy

Tucker came to Madison on a warm weekend last November. He was here to deliver a lecture at the University of Wisconsin. The lecture, entitled “How Commerce Saved Civilization,” was everything we expected: great.

But it was the time spent with Tucker outside of the “official” learning environment that was most informative. A visit to a cigar bar, a local haberdashery, watching a crowd of ardent but clueless Obama volunteers – that’s when he offered the most insight into life and libertarian philosophy. Time spent with him outside the lecture hall was more enlightening than any lecture could ever be.

Born and raised in Texas, Tucker studied at Howard Payne University and Texas Tech University. He was a graduate student at George Mason University and is an alumnus of the National Journalism Center. Today, he is widely known and recognized for his omnipresent bowties.

I spoke again with Tucker recently. Here is some of that conversation:

Joseph Diedrich: What book has had a great influence on you—a book people may not expect?

Jeffrey Tucker: A book that I read in about 1985 or ‘86 is a book by [Ludwig von] Mises called Theory and History. It’s a book on the methodology of the social sciences. It was that book that kind of shook me out of my “cookie-cutter” conservatism that I accepted in those days. I’ll always treasure that book in my mind.

[Another influential book was] Albert Jay Nock’s autobiography called Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. People say that it is entirely fake. Maybe. Doesn’t matter. It is what taught me to think like an anarchist. It caused anarchism to become deeply burrowed within my heart and soul. [While reading this book,] you begin to think of yourself as an individual who has the right to see the world the way you want to see it—to see things as they are, not as they are made to appear by virtue of the prevailing assumptions of the civic culture. It’s a bit shocking.

JSD: When was a time you felt absolutely powerless against the state?

JT: I was arrested during Sunday brunch for failure to appear in court to pay a traffic fine, and then booked and put in jail. I felt pretty powerless because the people who controlled my life didn’t care about me at all, and the people who did care about it either had no idea I was imprisoned or couldn’t do anything about it. It’s scarier than people can imagine. Jail is ghastly and dehumanizing.

JSD: Was there another time when you felt powerful against the state?

JT: I feel this every day in the normal course of my life, choosing and working and just living. The state is terrifying but its power and presence can be exaggerated, too. People must act as if they were free else there would be no social progress, no economic development, no way to sustain civilization at all. I also like being at liturgy in a worship space that feels like a sanctuary.

JSD: You direct a church choir. Has that influenced your life as a libertarian at all?

JT: Gregorian chant and its tradition long predates the nation-state. It was created and preserved over countless generations through love and sharing. So it is the embodiment of what the human imagination and determination can achieve. I would say that this is the connection. I also love polyphonic music because it is music without masters and slaves. There’s not one part that has a melody and one part that has an accompaniment. Every part turns out to be extremely important to every other part. Each has its own unique role to play, but by itself it doesn’t sound quite right, and it has to be integrated with every other part. No single line dominates consistently over any other line. That’s what accounts for its beauty, mystery, and magic, and what makes it sound so completely different. I prefer to think of it as music in which there is no oppressor, no despot; nobody is required to serve anyone else. If you take the free market division of labor—the idea that everybody is contributing to something much larger than the sum of its parts—it’s like that.

[Tucker is also the Managing Editor of Sacred Music, the journal of the Church Music Association of America.]

JSD: Tell me more about your relationship with music. Do you play or sing? 

JT: I grew up in a musical family. My father was a composer and director. My brother is a music professor now. I played trombone professionally when I was in college. Then I burned out completely and dropped it for many years until I took up liturgical music. Then I fell in love all over again.

JSD: Who is your favorite composer? 

JT: I would say that Thomas Tallis is my favorite composer. Additionally, in the past twenty years, I’ve come to appreciate pop music more for what it is. It is a market success. I think I was too quick to look down on it in the past.

JSD: How did you come up with the name Bourbon for Breakfast

JT: It took a while but then I remembered how alarmed I was when I was first served bourbon at 7am. It shook me up fundamentally. This is what great ideas should do. They should make us rethink all our prevailing assumptions.

JSD: What is your favorite cocktail? 

JT: Oh I love the Negroni. In fact, it is so good that every other cocktail seems pathetic by comparison. It is made of Campari, sweet vermouth, and gin. It has a flavor unlike any other. The funny thing about the Negroni is if you can drink the first one and it’s slightly appealing to you, then its appeal deepens after the fact, and you find yourself thinking about it more and more the next day. And then if you order it a second time, you’re hooked. If you like it, you come to love it. Plus, it grants you a long life. 

JSD: What was your worst job? 

Oddly, I can’t think of one. I love working more than anything. I’m grateful for every opportunity to work. I marvel at the workplace and its social function. I consider it a great honor to have ever been entrusted, even once, with the difficult task of adding to a project more value than you take away.

JSD: What is the greatest invention of the past two years?

JT: I’m tempted to say the app economy generally. Then there is 3-D printing that will smash the wholly ridiculous idea of intellectual property. However, if Bitcoin fulfills even a fraction of its promise, it could change the world. Innovations in money are going to lead to a complete separation between money and state, and if the state can’t control the money, it can’t control anything at all. I don’t think states are aware of it; in fact, it’s so terrifying to them, they can’t even think about it, and there’s nothing they can do to stop it.

JSD: What do you think is the greatest hindrance to the libertarian cause? The obvious answer is the state, but do you agree?

JT: Sometimes I think that the greatest hindrance is ourselves, the way we beg government to listen to us and give us freedom while wrecking our own lives with personal debt and despair. There are many ways that people can live a freer life without having to wait for government to give it to us.

JSD: So, when did the bowties become your “trademark”?

JT: I’ve been wearing them since high school because they seem much easier to manage than four-in-hand ties. Of course I oppose trademarks on principle so I hope I don’t have that!

JSD: Where is your favorite place you’ve travelled? 

JT: I dream of Spain. I spent some time in Salamanca and loved it so much. It really takes you to the middle ages in the most wonderful way. History is so accessible here. There is a liberating quality to being in a place like this. It reminds us of how temporary our times really are.



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Joseph S. Diedrich

Joseph S. Diedrich has been a columnist at The Washington Times Communities since early 2013. He covers non-electoral politics from a libertarian perspective. His work has also been featured at the MacIver InstituteThe College Fix, and elsewhere.

Joseph is also a classically-trained composer and somewhat of a gastronomy enthusiast. Find him on Facebook, LinkedInGoogle+, and Twitter @JSDiedrich.


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