Libertarian America: A Conversation with John Papola

Interview with John Papola the first of a series of interviews with prominent libertarians, seeking insight into their lives and minds Photo: John Papola

MADISON, WI – What does a former MTV production assistant turned Spike TV creative director have to do libertarianism? Quite a lot, actually—especially when he uses his talents to produce intellectually stimulating rap videos featuring John Maynard Keynes and F.A. Hayek.

The raps are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg for John Papola, founder of Emergent Order, a visual media content company with a proclivity for incorporating libertarian themes in many of its works.

Born into an Italian family in Philadelphia, John relocated to New York to begin his professional career. After stints at MTV, Nickelodeon, and Spike TV, he—along with his wife and lifelong friend—took an enormous entrepreneurial risk. Their company has been thriving ever since.

Beyond directing and editing in a myriad of genres, John also considers himself to be a “pretty good writer.” As his career evolves—he’s only in his thirties—he hopes to make “great movies and TV shows that have some elements of classical liberalism underpinning them.” I, for one, would watch.

I spoke with Mr. Papola recently about a wide variety of things; our conversation follows.

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Joseph S. Diedrich: Tell me more about Emergent Order. What exactly do you do?

John Papola: Emergent Order is a visual content development and production company focused on bringing complex and important ideas to life in entertaining, playful, and irreverent ways. We launched the company essentially on the viral success/impact of the Keynes vs. Hayek rap videos I co-created with Russ Roberts.

We seemed to be the first people to bring classical liberal ideas to life in a way that was entertaining, scholarly, and uncompromising while remaining even-handed. The surprising attention and opportunities these projects brought to me personally seemed like an entrepreneurial opportunity that had to be pursued.

In world filled with screaming partisans, we feel that there is a need for playful and thoughtful content that tackled important subjects. Emergent Order exists to fill that void and to be a global leader in idea-driven content creation.

JSD: Will there be more rap videos?

JP: We’re working on a third installment of Keynes vs. Hayek. I’m also in the process of getting ready to re-launch the econstories website. And I’ve got some other ideas about content types to expand the franchise.

JSD: In terms of entrepreneurship, how much has the digital world changed the marketplace? Is its influence understated? Overstated?

JP: The important thing to think about is that it’s very rare that a new communication form or a new art form eliminates prior art forms. You can still listen to AM radio. People who say the old media is dying oversell the change that is happening. The quality and quantity of alternative media types is rising. And it’s not coming at the expense of larger media; it’s really adding to it.

It’s sort of like macroeconomics in a way. The focus on aggregates really masks the fact that it’s the composition of media consumption that’s really changing and being altered in fundamental ways. It’s not that people are considering more media now than they ever did before, but rather are shifting to other forms and formats.

I think one of the benefits of the area that I’m in is that there’s really no barrier to entry. You don’t need any credentials or licensing. It’s a free market environment. That’s why we have such a vibrant media landscape. Anybody can hop in and produce. Anyone—rich or poor—can reach an audience with their message.

JSD: Have your experiences in television media influenced your political philosophy?

JP: What I learned at MTV was tolerance and plurality. Mine was surely a minority viewpoint in certain regards, which I mostly kept to myself in the early years. And in those early years, that was probably good, because my beliefs were pretty simplistic and, in many cases, just plain wrong.

But as I started to develop my personal philosophy more in 2007 and 2008 and became more vocal online amid the rest of my peers, I was pleasantly surprised by how many people engaged with respect and curiosity. My broad take away is that while there are creatives who have fairly tribal politics amounting to little more than rooting for a sports team, there are many others who are intellectually curious and tolerant of diverse views.

Building a strong personal relationship first helps to form a foundation for richer philosophical discussion as well. People are far less reactionary to radical ideas when they know you aren’t a jerk.

JSD: When did you become a libertarian?

JP: In 2006 I started listening to audio books on my punishingly long commute into New York City every day. I started with some US history, since I always hated history as a student but suddenly found it very interesting. Then I listened to John Stossel’s “Give Me a Break” and that started to open my eyes to a different approach to politics, one that was neither “left” nor “right”.

[Eventually,] I encountered interviews on EconTalk with Russ Roberts. I instantly gouged myself on EconTalk, since it’s basically the greatest collection of economic discourse ever produced in history. When I decided I had to use my media skills to expand awareness of the “Austrian” perspective, I cold called Russ. He called me back and the rest is history.

JSD: What about Russ Roberts is special?

JP: But what makes Russ incredibly unique and I think singular is that he brings to the table a level skepticism about his own knowledge—which is really very Hayekian when you think about it—and concern about his own confirmation bias. He has evolved into a commentator on the profession in many ways.

Russ is also a storyteller. He appreciates that economics is fundamentally a storytelling enterprise, not an exercise in applied mathematics.

JSD: Alright, how about a couple non sequiturs to close things off? If you could visit any time in history, when would it be?

JP: As for time travel, I’d love to visit the 1950s. There’s so much nostalgia for that time and I have a feeling it’s mostly nonsense on both the left and the right. The world has never been more amazing than it is right now. There are more people living better today than ever imaginable before.

It’s without question just about everybody is materially better-off today than in the 1950s. Certainly African Americans and women have tremendously more autonomy and opportunity and have reached levels of prominence and success that were unachievable under the social regiment of the 1950s and 60s.

I just think it would be interesting to go back and see what it was like and compare reality—a reality where all musical acts wore the exact same clothes and diversity was really frowned upon.

JSD: What can the average person do in their everyday normal life in order to further the cause of liberty?

JP: Solve a real world problem instead of talking about it. Be an entrepreneur. Too many people who become excited by these ideas spend far too much time talking about them and not enough time creating real output. I hope someday that it will be absolutely, universally, unquestionably preposterous for anyone to claim that libertarians “just want to do nothing.” We don’t want to do nothing. There’s plenty to do.


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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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