Libertarian America: A conversation with Anthony Gregory

Anthony Gregory of the Independent Institute shares his thoughts on habeas corpus, art, education, and prisons. Photo: Anthony Gregory

MADISON, WISCONSIN, September 29, 2013 ­ By day, he writes about habeas corpus. By night, he plays in a rock band and cooks up a mean paella. 

UC-Berkley grad Anthony Gregory is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in California. Focusing on civil liberties and libertarian theory, he recently released a book entitled The Power of Habeas Corpus in America

SEE RELATED: Libertarian America: A conversation with Andrew Kirell

In addition to research and writing, Gregory coordinates the student programs at the Institute, which include internships and summer seminars. 

Joseph S. Diedrich: When and how did you become a libertarian? An anarchist? 

Anthony Gregory: My family had an impact on me. My dad was a small-government Republican, but he voted for McGovern against Nixon because he didn’t like war. He explained to me problems with programs most conservatives support, like massive border control and drug laws. My mom came from Korea, and so I also heard lots of stories about the horrors of communism. I first heard of “libertarians” when I was seven, watching Ron Paul on TV as a Libertarian presidential candidate in 1988. 

I became an anarchist in college, after 9/11. I saw how terribly the state managed its “legitimate” function of national-defense, a function that entails the worst rights violations the government commits. I also started thinking a lot differently about police. Reading history and philosophical arguments reinforced my conversion to radical anti-statism. 

SEE RELATED: Libertarian America: A Conversation with Scott Horton (Part 1)

JSD: You recently authored a book entitled The Power of Habeas Corpus in America. While researching and writing, did anything surprise you? 

AG: The history of is much rockier than most expect. Habeas corpus, as a judicial power, is itself tainted by the vagaries of politics and corruption. It arose largely as a way for judges to flex their own authority over others, and has been used to bring slaves back to their masters and centralize political power. 

Many of the courts that first used it were royal courts, mainly to bring forth prisoners and scrutinize the authority of lower judges. In that way, habeas corpus was used for top-down judicial centralization. 

In my book, I argue that habeas corpus definitely has a good side. But judges, politicians, and legislatures have worked together to restrain a lot of its potential to do good and have helped it do bad. 

SEE RELATED: Libertarian America: A Conversation with Austin Petersen

JSD: What period in U.S. history was the most damaging to personal freedom? 

AG: The Civil War was the most awful period for Americans while it lasted, including for most slaves who endured multiple sources of oppression. Internationally, U.S. entry into World War I might have had the worst international consequences, but World War II was more destructive to foreign and domestic lives. Truman is my least favorite president, but FDR, Wilson, Lincoln, and many others deserve honorary mention. We’ve had many presidents who killed hundreds of thousands of people. 

JSD: What current political issue have libertarians tended to ignore or not care about as much as they should?

AG: Perhaps prisons. For a long time, libertarians and many others were too quiet about war, immigration, and police abuses, but these areas are getting more attention. Overall, the prison system is probably the most inhumane and unjust enterprise within the United States. 

Prisons are the ultimate deprivation of liberty. There are a lot of people in prison who certainly don’t belong there, either because their offenses were victimless crimes or because their offenses were not proportional to prison. The prisons in the U.S. are, by and large, inhumane. Solitary confinement, which holds about 100,000 Americans at any given time, is regarded by much of the world as torture. In a more humane world, the fact that we have over two million people behind bars would come up in every presidential campaign. 

The power to imprison is the power to destroy someone’s liberty entirely. 

JSD: Many individuals skeptical of libertarianism question how things like art and education would function in a free society. How do you think libertarian society would produce art and culture? 

AG: Artists would make the art, as they do regardless of what the state does short of murdering artists like under the Taliban or Pol Pot. Art would flourish, of course. Culture also exists free of state violence, and will overall tend to evolve to be more civilized more quickly without government. Since it comprises the actions and memories of humanity, we each have a role to play in trying to move culture in a better direction. That will continue to happen, and a free society would require a broadly freedom-loving culture anyway. It’s possible for things to go sour under statelessness, but there are some limits to the evils, and we libertarians and all humanitarian folk can do our part to address injustices outside of the state. 

JSD: If all public schools were eliminated tomorrow, what would happen? 

AG: Education is a natural process. It requires curiosity and people willing to teach. So many folks are willing and eager to teach. The demand for real education won’t go away. With modern technology, communities, businesses, organizations, families, co-ops, and social groups would begin quickly filling the gap and before long children would have the opportunity to learn according to their own needs and wishes.

Young people would go into vocational training, and the basics would be there for anyone who wanted to learn. When kids learn in schools today, it is almost always despite the institutional nature, not because of it. Kids who can learn in the schools that exist now would continue to learn, but better, and millions would be liberated. It would be one of the greatest triumphs for liberty and humanity in history.

Parents, unfortunately, support this system, and there’s a long-term cultural change that needs to happen before children are treated more humanely. 

JSD: Do you think libertarians should participate in politics by voting or running for office? 

AG: I can see the case voting on propositions and initiatives. I think voting for politicians vying for political office is usually a waste at best. I don’t recommend that good people run for office. They should seek honest work. 

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

AG: Educate themselves and speak out against injustice, spreading the word as persuasively as they can to those around them.

JSD: What are some personal goals for the future? 

AG: I want to pursue higher academics (and by that, I mean grad school), have kids with my soon-to-be wife, write more books on a variety of subjects, work on neglected libertarian theory, record some albums, be in a play, and travel.

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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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