I have been reading Will Wilkinson’s writing since I was a baby blogger, way back in the early 2000s. By then, I had already left behind the libertarianism that gripped me in college, but Will was still a professional libertarian at the Cato Institute. I disagreed with him about many things, but I always found him rigorous and engaging.
Over the years, I’ve followed as he’s moved from Cato to the center-right Niskanen Center (where he got canceled) to, now, the Progressive Policy Institute, where he is a senior fellow. In the process he left behind libertarianism for “liberaltarianism” and now some some kind of synthesis that doesn’t quite have a name but lands in the vicinity of social democrat, with an emphasis on small-d democracy.
And of course, like everyone who’s anyone, he has his own newsletter: Model Citizen.
There’s something nice about following a mind you admire as it tries to work its way toward higher and better understanding — it is so rare these days to witness anyone change their minds about anything — and there’s something especially nice when it ends up converging with your own thinking. I feel much more confident about things I believe when Will articulates them.
Both Will and I have come to spend less time thinking about what might be the correct or optimal political philosophy and more time thinking about the workaday challenges of pluralism and democracy: how people of different cultures, ethnicities, genders, beliefs, and personalities, whose disagreements and conflicts are unlikely ever to be entirely resolved, can live together in relative peace.
All of which is to say, I’ve wanted to talk politics with Will forever. We got around to it a few weeks ago and now I’ve finally got the thing produced. If you're in the mood for almost two hours of nerdy talk about Ayn Rand, rationalism, freedom, social insurance, the relationship between markets and government, and the perils of pluralism, strap on those headphones and travel along.
(Note: several times in the pod I say “non-zero” when I mean “non–zero sum,” which bugs me now, but what can you do.)
D: Hello, welcome to volts. I am your host, David Roberts. Today I'm excited, as I have as a guest Will Wilkinson who is currently a senior scholar at the Progressive Policy Institute, which is sure to be of some amusement to those who have followed Will's career which began at the extremely different Cato Institute. So rather than try to explain Will’s whole history, which we're going to get into, I'll just say that I've been reading Will’s work for years now, and have been following his intellectual and political journey that he's been on, which has paralleled my own in a lot of ways. And so I thought I would talk with him about that journey, and about where he's ended up, and how we move forward in American politics from now. So we're taking on all the big questions today. So thanks for coming, Will, we appreciate you being on.
WW: Thanks, Dave. I'm ready.
DR: So before getting into the meat of things, just start by telling us a little bit about where you're from and how the story of Will Wilkinson that ended with you being a young, teenage Ayn Rand enthusiast, what's the what's the origin story?
WW: Well, I was born the child of a poor sharecropper. Just kidding. That's, yeah, that's The Jerk. which describes me pretty well.
I grew up in a little town in the middle of Iowa - Marshall town - it’s a small city of about 27,000 people. It's the county seat. So that makes it locally important. And it's exactly the same size as it was when I grew up there, which is interesting, because the composition of the population is very different today, but I moved there when I was five, because my dad had taken a job as the chief of police. So my entire childhood my dad was the chief of police in my hometown. My mother was a nurse for a large part of my childhood, she stayed at home, but she also worked as an obstetrics nurse and a home health nurse when I was a little bit older. I’ve got two older sisters. You know, go Bobcats. I don't know, what do you want to know about?
DR: It's so American. Well, it's a small town, the chief police dad, the nurse Mom, it's, you know,
WW: It's like, I really liked encyclopedia brown books because his dad was a police chief and his mom was a nurse. I grew up in a John Cougar Mellencamp song, I even would suck down chili dogs outside the Tasty Freeze, for real. So, one of the things that I find interesting, and I've been working for a long time on a book proposal of a version of this density divide paper that I wrote a couple of years ago. And I've been using my hometown as a model of things that have changed in the economy and how that's affected where people settle. And I didn't know when I was a kid that I was enjoying peak Marshalltown, Iowa; it was as good as it ever was in its existence. And it was as good as it was ever going to be. You know, it was a really healthy, vital little town with small manufacturers. The schools were great, you know, just like an incredibly active civic life - great little league, flag football, all of that stuff. And, you know, most of it's gone now.
DR: All things that seem to be sort of dying out.
WW: Not the Little League Baseball, that's not gone. But I mean most of the manufacturing is gone, and the average level of education in the town has gone down. One of the main employers was a place called Fisher Controls, which makes governors and valves. They employed a lot of engineers and a lot of lawyers, people like that. And they really downscaled their presence in Marshalltown. We also used to have a big Maytag air conditioning plant, a bunch of different stuff, which employed executives and hired lawyers and employed accountants and people with college degrees. Most of that stuff has gone, along with the good manufacturing jobs for, for people without college degrees. And so we've got mostly shitty manufacturing jobs in food processing.
It's gone from a 90s John Cougar Mellencamp song to like a 2010s John Cougar Mellencamp song.
Will Wilkinson 5:18
Yeah, it's gotten a little, it's getting a little darker. But it was, it was a lovely place to grow up. Really. And, it was a conservative place. You know, my dad is a cop, which is a conservative-ish profession. My mother was actually a more political person and she was very conservative. For some time, she subscribed to the Phyllis Schlafly Eagle Forum newsletter, and that was just kind of background in my childhood. It's not like our family was very political. My dad was one of those old fashioned public servants who thought it was extremely untoward to ever express a political opinion. Because his job was to look after the safety and security of the whole town, and everybody needs to believe that you're working for them. And you can't take sides, right, so he wouldn't even tell us what his political opinions were at the kitchen table.
WW: Yeah, yeah. And I think that kind of ethos really has changed in law enforcement.
To say the least. Well, let's start with both of us. You have told this story of before you were sort of an enthusiastic libertarian as a teen and ended up entering the professional, libertarian world. I also had a brief period of enthusiastic Ayn Rand enthusiasm, and libertarianism. And we're going to talk about how you move past that, but I want to just take a moment to take seriously what it is about libertarianism that attracts a certain type of young man, like we were. Mostly men, mostly white - not exclusively. Let's take a moment to take the attraction seriously; what was it about it that clicked so hard for you and made such sense for you at that moment?
Will Wilkinson 7:29
You know, it's really hard to say exactly what it is. And I'm very wary about the fidelity of memory. But what I remember, it's actually kind of weird, how I ended up being a libertarian. I grew up a member of the reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which is a sect of Mormonism. I won't explain that unless you want it explained. And I went to church camp every summer for several weeks. And I've always been a weird person. I mean, I've always been a bit of a free thinker. And one day, at a campfire, you know you'd sing all the campfire songs, these silly songs at first, and then you get into the more serious songs, Kumbaya and all that shit. And then campers are invited to get up and give testimonies, and mostly you get up and talk about how God is awesome and how your life has been touched and blessed and so on and so forth. You know, the RLDS, they're now known as the Community Christ, they're not they're not Community of Christ. They're not evangelical. You know, praise Jesus, speaking in tongues sort of things, it's actually pretty sedate. People would give their testimonies and I love singing with a bunch of people. I feel like that's what I miss most about church,
It's the best part of church.
Will Wilkinson 9:04
I love it, I find it so nourishing to the soul. That is probably one of the reasons why I'm desiccated and bitter. We'd sung all the sweet campfire songs and I was filled with the spirit of love and community and I got up and I really wanted to tell people how much I loved them and I got up and said, you know, I don't really know about this God stuff. But I love all you guys. I think this is great.
The secular humanist credo!
Will Wilkinson 9:44
Yeah, my mother was my Sunday school teacher and I don't know what it is in my personality. I've got a weird combination of just rigorous logic, this kind of relentless rationality about “does this make sense”? And also this drive to please and to be a good trooper for the cause. And so I legitimately wanted to be like the best, you know, quasi-Mormon that I could possibly be. And my mother would be teaching me the Bible or the Book of Mormon. And I would just relentlessly cross examine her about, “okay, so if this happened…” and then things don't make sense. And I would end up cornering her by accident, because I was just inquiring, like, well, how does this make sense? And she'd end up crying, because we're good. And then I would feel so terrible, because that wasn't my intention. But that kind of instinct came out in that campfire. And the funny thing that came to that was like, after, you know, the next day, one of the counselors, some middle aged dude wearing sandals with socks, came up to me and said, “Hey, you know, Bill”, I went by Bill. And he says “I think there's this book you'd really like”, and I said “yeah?”, and he's like, “yeah, it's called Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand”.
Mike, your quasi Mormon camp counselors turned you on to Ayn Rand.
Will Wilkinson 11:23
Yeah, and he was kind of conspiratorial and I didn't really know why. But I was like, “okay”! So that summer I was maybe 15 or 16. I picked up Atlas Shrugged. And, you know, it's the fattest book, it’s 1200 pages or something like that. Anyway I dipped into it. And I was like, “this is a slog”, and just set it aside. Fast forward a couple years, after my freshman year in college at the University of Northern Iowa, I ended up being a tour guide at the Joseph Smith historic center in Nauvoo, Illinois, giving tours of Joseph Smith's house. And, I thought “Oh, this is gonna be a long summer”. There's nothing in Nauvoo, Illinois. It's not really a town. It's this abandoned kind of ghost town. All the Mormons lived there, and they left. There's this big historic site. And I was like, this is gonna be boring, so I need to bring the biggest book I've got. So I brought Atlas Shrugged, and it while giving tours of Joseph Smith's house. And I spent all summer reading it. You know, when you're a tour guide, you'd get the first shift and you'd open up the visitor center, and you'd kick back at the desk, and might be an hour, two hours before anybody comes in. So you'd sit back and read your novel. And I was riveted by it, I totally got into it. I decided I didn't believe in God, by the end of the book, and the thing is, I was clearly never going to really believe in God - I just don't have the god gene. I went back to college, for my sophomore year, and ended up reading The Fountainhead, and it really resonated with me. The thing that was really captivating to me was the critique of altruism, believe it or not. My church is this sweet-hearted, cosmopolitan, internationalist, “all humans are one”, vaguely social justice-y, even when I was a kid. It’s a really liberal form of Mormonism (comparatively). But everything is about service. Everything is about doing things for other people. And in my Midwestern milieu, and that overall service Christianity you're not supposed to stick your head up, you don't want to look like you've got a big head or you're better than other people. My dad would always say, “don't don't get too big for your britches”, that kind of thing. What I found in Ayn Rand was permission to be awesome. That's really what excited me down to the core of my being. This argument, this justification for just fucking going for it. Be the best version of yourself that you can be and you don't have to fucking apologize to anybody. You don't have to justify it to anybody. You just be awesome.
Right? It was the Uberman aspect you saw in yourself. Nobody who reads these things is like, “Oh, I suddenly realized my cousin is extraordinary” it's always “Oh wait, I'm extraordinary, at last I can tell the world”.
WW: Yeah, it's never, “I'm Eddie Willers” - that kind of pathetic viewpoint character, who's supposed to typify the average guy. We're all John Galt. Everybody who reads The Fountainhead is Howard Roark. But it was really transformative for me and I don't think in a bad way, because it's not really the Ubermensch stuff because I was never interested in lording power over others or crushing people under foot on my ascent to the peaks of Promethean glory or whatever. I just thought it was amazing that it was okay. That if I wanted to just do it for myself - if I had aspirations, if I wanted to be a great artist, I should try to be a great artist, right?
Well, that's a much more noble set of motivations and residences than I can claim. I was about the same age and it was one of the few times I was in my college library, literally just browsing the philosophy section, because I had sort of like a young man's interest in philosophy. Where did you stumble upon this? It's called Marable College in some small town, Tennessee. It had 800 students when I went there, so there's no reason anyone ever would have heard of it. But I stumbled across this book called The Virtue of Selfishness. And I was like, oh, tell me more. Tell me more. So I ended up reading all of Ayn’s non-fiction, and even in my peak Rand enthusiasm I could never abide her fiction. I still can't read a paragraph of it. It's so bad, but, but for me, it was less “I can be extraordinary, I can do what I want. I don't have to apologize to him.” For me, it's just like, “I can be left alone and don’t have to mess with anybody else.” Nobody messes with me, nobody owes me anything. I don't owe anybody else anything. I think a certain kind of young man, especially with that rationalist streak that you're talking about is often coupled with a certain degree of emotional illiteracy. Or let's say the way young men are socialized in the US, particularly young men who are good at school, work, rationalist stuff are often raised a certain way - not necessarily trained in emotional literacy. So the idea that there's these two languages, there's the language of propositions and reason and deduction, which is very clean and makes sense and is all transparent and right there. And then there's this other language of human emotion and interaction that is conducted in body language and implication and glances and girl stuff, right? And I just didn't speak that language. I wasn't good at it. I felt insecure when it was around like I never quite knew what was going on. And what Ayn Rand will tell you is just that that stuff literally doesn't matter. There is only the clear, rational meaning of the word on the page, the deduction. It's all very clean, and there's nothing hiding behind you. There's nothing you're not getting, right? All right there in the open. It's right angles and clean lines. And that's what drew me in is this perfect clarity. And it's a perfect clarity that tells me “Yes, you can relax, you're not missing a bunch of stuff. You're not failing to discharge a bunch of obligations that you're only vaguely aware of, right, you're not failing on an emotional level all the time. That stuff is a distraction for weaker people.” You need to become of clear, sharp diamond-like mind. And of course, you know, the young libertarian applies this diamond-like rationalism, generally to other people's words and actions. And maybe not quite so rigorously to their own. It's comfortable but yeah, I had no ambitions. My only ambition was to be left alone. And this is permission to be left alone. I still remember like, reading all these non-fiction books getting totally zealous like only an 18 year old college student can get zealous, and then going and writing this Religion final term paper, going into talk to my Professor, just explaining to him with this super intense earnestness, like why Ayn Rand was right and everything he had devoted his life to studying in practice, was not only wrong, but wrong and obvious, in trivially obvious ways. It's just ridiculous, right? It was all just ridiculous man. I feel it's so embarrassing in retrospect.
Will Wilkinson 20:56
Yeah. And you know, when I think back on it, one of the things that I think is bullshit that people do, when they ask “what's your intellectual journey?” is that they'll tell you about arguments, but if you know anything about how people come to have beliefs, that doesn't have anything to do with arguments, it's all identity. It's all what resonates with you, emotionally, and so there's a special irony in getting attracted to kind of rationalist stuff for purely emotional identity based reasons that you are completely blind to yourself.
Yes, of course, and the promises that you don't have to ever become aware of them, because A equals A at the root of it all. You don't have to examine your own motivations. It's all very clear.
Will Wilkinson 21:49
You do have to examine your own motivations, David, because your emotions are the output of sort of premises that you've accepted, right? So you're responsible for your emotional reactions to things, you have to make sure that you only believe rational things so that you have the right emotions. If you are having a wrong emotion, that means you believe something wrong. And so you have to figure out what it is.
Imagine just Ayn Rand having these unwelcome emotions and just thinking like I've got to extirpate these by reasoning harder, I've got to reason harder!
Will Wilkinson 22:25
She's a fascinating kind of tragic person. I will stand up for Ayn Rand's literary quality. I don't think anybody knows how to judge her because she is a genre unto herself. Like, clearly, there's something going on there that people find incredibly riveting and persuasive. She nails exactly what she says she's trying to do. She's trying to write didactic moral fiction that makes you believe something different. And she just crushes it, by her own standards. But aesthetically, I think they're great. They're great in a way that nobody can recognize because one, she's Russian, you know, raised in Russia, educated in Russia, she grew up in the same block as Vladimir Nabokov. Right? It's sort of an upper middle class Jewish milieu in Leningrad, or St. Petersburg. And really well educated, comes to the US, wants to be a writer, writes for Cecil Mill, writes a bunch of movie scripts, and they completely internalize a bunch of Hollywood standards, including a certain kind of melodrama and kitsch.
Yes, capital R romanticism. I think that's what never really resonated with me, that sort of romantic melodrama, I can't.
Will Wilkinson 24:04
So it's a weird combination of Russian philosophical fiction. There's a lot of Dostoevsky in her DNA but it's filtered through Hollywood and the 1920s and 30s old right politics, like anti New Deal politics. You throw all that stuff together and it's just going to be a stew that's going to be repugnant to people with fine literary standards of the time or even now. I think they're amazing, weird books. They're a kind of experimental fiction, and I think they're just incredibly successful. And I think people just don't give you know Ayn Rand enough credit as an artist. Because they just don't want to judge her on the criteria that she ought to be judged on, but I think she's amazing.
Well, that's sweet. I'm such a Philistine. I read stuff like that and I'm just like, “just tell me what you want to tell me.” Get rid of the trains and the melodrama, I don't need a love story, just tell me what you want to tell me. So that's why I went for nonfiction. Of course, I have the same reaction anytime I read almost any poetry or fiction.
Will Wilkinson 25:30
I'm a huge dummy, right? Because all I really wanted was the trains in the end, and the rape scenes. That's all. That's all. Well, that's all I was really into. And somehow I got seduced into a comprehensive philosophy, which is what she was trying to do. Clearly I needed something else to believe in. I didn't want to be a certain kind of really lame Mormon, who doesn't even believe in the cool Mormon stuff, right? Like we didn't have the “you get your own planet” and we didn't have the special underwear, any of that stuff like that.
So I was raised Presbyterian, which is like, if you can name a thing about Presbyterianism ahead of 99% of most people,
WW: Just by faith, I guess.
DR: I guess it's not the dictionary definition, like generic Methodist. So we could talk about Ayn Rand all day. But we're falling behind. So let's move along. You were like a full on Ayn Rand enthusiast, went into the kind of libertarian world, started working at Cato, which is, you know, certainly at the time was sort of like the commanding heights of libertarianism, and then over time, I don't know exactly how long it took, but you have described the process as basically, you arguing against all these critiques of libertarianism over and over again, and eventually just started thinking, you know what, these are pretty good critiques. Describe for us the intellectual process by which you were rationally persuaded against a view, which seems like a vanishingly rare thing these days. It's like an exotic animal. I want to hear all about it.
Will Wilkinson 27:34
I guess it doesn't happen a lot like me. The backstory is, I got super into Ayn Rand. I decided that being a philosopher was the most important thing you could be because making sure that people have correct premises is the only thing that's gonna save our society - A equals A dammit. I wouldn't mind if people would get around to being like “A equals A” I mean, that would be nice. Because there's such a weird thing right now we're going through, over the pandemic. It made some of my Randian instincts came back in this weird way, where I'm just like, reality is what it fucking is, dude. You can't decide whether or not a virus is contagious. It drove me crazy. I think there is something healthy about that orientation toward them, you know, the existence of a reality that's external to you that can't be changed by what you think or say about it. Science needs that, we have to think that we're looking at something that's not us. It is helpful. But I wanted to be a philosopher. So I was an art major, I went to the University of Northern Iowa on a full tuition art scholarship. And I mean, I was the president of the thespian club, and I was an arts kid. I was the you know, artsiest kid in my school and won all those awards and Ayn Rand drew me away from it. Which is tragic. I think it ruined my life. I should be a painter. I would be a happier person if I lived in rural Vermont and painted giant paintings in a barn. I would be living my best life. Instead, I just argue with assholes all day long on Twitter. And I'm like, this is terrible. How did I get myself into it? And Ayn Rand is how I got it. So I decided I am going to have to go to grad school. So I applied, but I was a terrible student. I had like a 2.9 GPA at the university, the third best public university in Iowa. I couldn't get it, I couldn't get into the University of Iowa. And I heard at the time, there was this dude. Brian Leiter was writing these rankings of philosophy programs. And I learned that one of the best terminal MA programs was in DeKalb, Illinois at Northern Illinois University. So I applied there .
DR: Ah funny, I got a terminal MA too.
WW: I also didn't get into there. But I just decided, like, fuck it, man, I'm just doing this, and so I just moved to DeKalb, Illinois, enrolled at NIU as a, they'll take your money if you just want to be like, as a graduate student at large or whatever. And, I just took philosophy classes as if I was a grad student. And, that worked, like, the next year, I got accepted to the program, with full funding and everything like that. And it was a great program, I did well, and then ended up going to the University of Maryland for my Ph. D. program. And over all this time, you know, I was like, you know, just a really zealous, libertarian objectivist. You know, I had developed this big social network of objectivist friends, early days of the internet, I was on a bunch of, you know, email lists from Jimmy Wales, of Wikipedia fame, the guys who started Wikipedia, you know, Jimbo Wales, and then Larry Sanger, were just part of this milieu, I would meet them at the Summer seminars for the Institute for Objective Studies. And me, and all my friends were like, friends from the internet, and they were like, objective friends, and a lot of them are still my friends. Like, some of my best friends are those people who are also not objectivist anymore, but so that's where my heart was socially. But like, you know, I'm all of a sudden in real philosophy grad school. And I'm, you know, getting hit with stuff left. And right. Now, the thing is, like, philosophy, moral philosophy, and political philosophy wasn't what I was interested in, you know, I was doing like philosophy of mind and language and metaphysics and epistemology, the hard stuff that smart people do, not like this, like sissy, you know, moral stuff. But like, you know, I had to encounter all these arguments. And when I got to Maryland, you know, kind of leveled up a level, at how difficult and sophisticated things were. And at a certain point, I dropped out to go work at a startup because I wanted to make it big, you know, people giving stock options out. And this was like, right before the internet bubble burst. So that lasted like, eight months. But then I got a job at the Institute for Humane Studies, which is like, you know, Libertarian Educational Foundation, and got really deeply into the DC libertarian politics, scene, public policy scene. And when I went back to Maryland, and I decided to do political philosophy, and, you know, we had to read John Rawls, and all this, narrow the standard stuff, and you had to grapple with a lot of arguments against what I was doing. And I was kind of dogmatically ideological, but because my self conception was as a superbly rational person who could give you a satisfying justification for my beliefs, I felt it was incumbent upon me to be able to defend my views. And when somebody had an argument that kind of made me come up short, you know, I took that really seriously. Like, I was sure that I was right. And then if I thought about it hard enough, I would figure out what was wrong with what they're saying. And I always did that. I'm very clever at shoring up my own flanks, right? Like, I always did come up with an argument that would push it off, that would find a way to, to just steal their argument of its intended force. But after you do that, with 20, 30, 40 different arguments, right, like, you have to make some tiny concessions. Right, you have to be like, okay, I can give away this premise that normally I would defend, but if I don't give this away, I'm gonna have to give something much bigger away. But after you start giving away a lot of these little premises, right, like it adds up to something bigger, which is why like dogmatists are really dogmatic, right, like, they're not going to give up any of the little premises because, you know, they see where it's going slippery slope. Yeah. And so over time, you know, like I dropped out of grad school, got a job at Cato. And then at Cato, my job was to be a professional libertarian apologist. That's what I did. And so then I encountered a whole other level of people, the public intellectual cohort. And I think this is really significant because I think people's views change. This is something people will say to you as a criticism, which is that you wanted some other group of people to like you. You wanted to go to cocktail parties. Right? You know, you hear the cocktail party one?
Of course, yes. But this is, I mean, it's not as you say, It's not wrong. And there's a reason that I actually think, especially in that era, the libertarians were quite, you know, sort of the money-ed libertarians were quite savvy about, creating not just an intellectual superstructure, but a social superstructure that people could be involved in and find friendships and find a life find those cocktail parties, like they were very savvy about, about playing that aspect of it.
Will Wilkinson 36:11
So I was really deeply embedded in, you know, first I was deeply embedded in this sort of objectivist community that I’d become a part of online. But that is kind of a fringe of the broader libertarian community. You know, they're considered kind of, a little bit crazy. They're always around. When I got to Cato, you know, I kind of mainstreamed a little bit. And in part, and that was because of grad school, I, you know, started shifting my views to kind of a more respectable form of classical liberalism, but also to the more acceptable forms of libertarianism. And I was, you know, embedded in these big libertarian institutions and social networks. But I wasn't just embedded in those right, and this, I think, makes a huge difference. Like at the same time, this was the early days of blogging and the early aughts. So how I got my job at Cato is how I came to know Brink Lindsay, we both had blogs at the same time. But there would always be these meetups with people just like what you had in common is that you all had a blog. And so we'd meet up and you'd meet
DR: That’s a decently reliable indicator of an interesting personality. Yeah, at the time I would go to a party of bloggers, especially at the time.
WW: Yeah, the early adopters were a certain kind of person. And, and I really enjoyed those but like, but you just became socially interested in other people who were doing similar things as you'd like. So when, I had moved into DC and you know, I got to know Matt Iglesias and Ezra Klein and Chris Hayes and all those people really well, they were part of my social milieu too, you know, there was a weekly poker game that would go back and forth between Julian Sanchez house and the group house that I had with a bunch of friends. That was a very mixed liberal and libertarian affair, you know, and we just, like, shoot the shit, right? I really think that, Julian Sanchez, and me and, you know, a couple of other people really had, you know, had a big influence on say, like, Matt's views on on housing, or occupational licensing,
Will Wilkinson 38:34
I think that just the fact that he was socially connected with libertarians where he was like, these are actually good persuasive arguments. He wasn't convinced by libertarianism. But there were some things that libertarians thought that he became aware of, at a deeper level, and, you know, some similar things with with Ezra, and they influenced me in turn, right, like, you know, we’d argue cogently about things, and if you actually like somebody, if you're part of their social circle, part of their social network. It just makes you take what they say seriously.
Yeah, it's such a fundamentally different relationship than encountering some schmo online who you then proceed to argue with on Twitter, right? I mean, emotionally, it's such a hugely different relationship.
Will Wilkinson 39:28
Totally, totally. And so it really mattered to me that I, I didn't know at the time, right, because, like, in a way I saw Matt and Ezra as frenemies. Because they were kind of rivals. And, I'm not a very comparative person, right, in the Oh, you know, “they’ve got something that I want”, but I am very comparative in that this person is my benchmark. I think I'm a smart guy. I’m as talented as this person, and so if they're doing better than me, that means I'm fucking something up. Which is like why Ezra always makes me feel like I'm fucking up my life.
Try writing at early Vox just surrounded by wonder kins plodding along.
Will Wilkinson 40:18
Yeah. And with stuff like that my view started to suddenly change. And when I was at Cato I had been working on my dissertation proposal, I'd gotten really deeply into Rawls, because I was like, this is what the core of analytic political philosophy is, you have to be conversant in Rawls, or else you just can't be part of the conversation. You know, even if you're talking about something else, you have to talk about it. There's a certain jargon, you know, that because all of Rawls’ Harvard students controlled all of the journals, and so they only wanted to talk about stuff in their language. It's like any field. So I said okay, I gotta become fluent in Rawlsian. And I got really deep into Rawls actually, was super persuaded by a lot of stuff. And, you know, and so I came on this project like, you know, what, he's right about how to think about a lot of these issues, you know, about what it means for society to be good. But it just misses a ton, right? And I, over this time, I'd become like a huge, FA Hayek fan, who I think is just an absolutely brilliant person. And that had a huge influence me, he's a much deeper thinker than people sometimes give him credit for, because he gets used as a kind of cartoon figure as the bad right, but he's, legitimately one of the most brilliant social theorists of the 20th century - got a lot wrong, but there's a lot that's really deep in his stuff about cultural evolution, why it is that ideas persist and stuff like that. That is really profound. But so I was like, Okay, I'm gonna marry you know, I'm gonna make John Rawls and Friedrich Hayek have babies.
Synthesis, right, this is the first, like, insofar as there's a retreat from ideology, right, it begins there. Right. Okay. Other people have some good points, I'll synthesize them and make them better.
Will Wilkinson 42:20
Yeah, yeah, exactly. And around the same time I was into this, you know, we're kind of mutually influencing each other. Brink Lindsay, you know, wrote this essay about left leaning libertarianism for the New Republic that got titled Liberal-tarianism. Because, like, you know, working at Cato, or being libertarian, libertarians always say, you know, we're not really left or right, you know, like, they want to claim this kind of neutral ground sort of thing. And I was like, really into that. And, and I took it seriously, which made me dumb.
Right? Well, if you just look at the words on the page, right, if you just look at the ideas and the deductions and the implications of the words themselves, it makes sense right? If you're just ignoring all the social undercurrents and, you know, psychological and emotional and political undercurrents beneath it, you can continue believing them.
Will Wilkinson 43:15
I came to see, pretty clearly - when you work at the Cato Institute, you can't miss it. Then there's a broader social world, as part of this organization called America's Future Foundation, which is a youth club, young adults club for libertarians and fusion-ist conservatives. And you know, it's libertarian and fused with conservatives and I'm socially constantly around Republicans, just constantly and so I was like, okay, it's pretty clear to me that, I would go to other libertarian things to the, you know, the Marijuana Policy Project or whatever it was called, the weed legalization people who probably did a better job than just anybody that was ever around. They've had tremendous success, right? They were kind of hippie-ish left wing libertarians, but that's just not what most of it was right? And even a lot of those people were right wing. And so I was like, I understand why this is the case sociologically that, you know, republicans and conservatives and libertarians were part of this cold war anti-communist coalition. But man, as you know, the mid aughts. The Cold War has been over for 15 years. Can we get past these contingent alignments, right? So Brink and I are like we need to make good on this thing we like if there can be libertarian conservative fusion-ism there can be a libertarian-liberal fusion, and we pursued that.
Did you have dreams at that point? Or did Brink have dreams? Or maybe both of you have dreamed of making that into a bonafide thing that was going to end up, you know, having its own whatever, think tanks and yeah, in political presence, like, did you think it could become that?
Will Wilkinson 45:24
I'm not a very strategic person. So, so, yeah, I think that was the fantasy that it would catch on and have influence. I think at some point, maybe we could, you know, take over Cato, which was short sighted. But, yeah, we had these monthly dinners that Brink organized with Steve Tellus, a political theorist at Johns Hopkins, that we just called them the liberal-tarianism dinners. And it would be a bunch of, you know, people from Cato and other libertarian ish people from around DC. For some reason people, you know, Megan McArdle, visit some people who worked at The Economist, and then just like liberal, you know, wonks people from Brookings, people from cap, people from just, you know, wherever, from the nation, from the New Republic. And so we, through that process, Brink, and I got ourselves embedded in the left of center, DC journalist, in a wonk, in public policy circles, and a lot of those people became our friends. And that changes you too, a lot of these people are just like smart people who are really impressive. And I even feel like we were really successful in pulling them in our direction. But the way it works is that they pull you in their direction, as well. And the Tea Party happened.
And yeah, I was gonna say part of this, part of this seems to me - and this is what puzzles me about all the other libertarians - is that among these other things going on, around them around the kind of (well, I mean, you could see the undercurrents for decades but it's we're busted out in the open is Tea Party) it's just the Republican Party evolving in a way that is diametrically opposed to whatever libertarian instincts remain in the party. You know what I mean? Like exactly heading in the direction of sort of irrational identitarianism and cultural resentment and all that stuff like that, this is what I don't get is how you can still be a professional libertarian and still be attached to that party. I mean, it was plausible, I guess, you know, the early aughts, certainly in like the 90s, or something like that. But at this point, like, what is left of libertarianism in the actual Republican party?
Will Wilkinson 48:01
I mean we've been having this completely hilarious discourse about vaccine passports. And people opposing them on libertarian grounds. And it's just incoherent. It's just completely incoherent. Right? Like, we have to get the state to ban private organizations from requiring proof of vaccinations. They've completely lost their moorings, and to the extent that the right doesn't have libertarian impulses, it has impulses that it sees as libertarian, because they're things that they inherited from the conservative fusionists like Ron Paul, who emphasized all of the liberal aspects of libertarianism, right? Like Rand Paul was still against the Civil Rights Act and things like that. Freedom of association is so important, that it's just completely legitimate for the law to do anything to rectify 400 years of the enslavement and apartheid and brutal oppression, like, “no freedom, no, freedom of association is too important”. But everybody understands, and this is one of the things that took me a while, but I did start to understand and this was because of reading so much political philosophy and countering these arguments over and over again, that we don't get to start from Day Zero and the allocation of goods and resources that people get, isn't a function of their individual initiative. Everything has a history, and the history is broken, and actually one of the people who convinced me of this the most was Robert Nozick. Who says very radical things in Anarchy, State and Utopia. He's very clear that his argument doesn't apply to the actual world, his theory. He's, I mean, he's very frank about it. Right? Like, if we had a just initial acquisition, you know, there's an initially just distribution of goods, if we started from a point of perfect equality, and then people made these voluntary exchanges that led to inequalities emerging, then there would be no justification for redistributing it, right? That's what he's saying. But he's definitely not saying that he explicitly says that the distribution that we have doesn't reflect a bunch of just exchanges, it reflects a bunch of people stealing stuff from other people, and taking that sort of thing really seriously after a while, and seeing how irrelevant that is to actual libertarians,
DR: I was gonna say, so what? Like, what would happen if we all started from square one and had you know, an initial just exchange of resources and went from there like, so what, like, who cares? What applies in that situation? It's not a human situation that's ever happened or ever will happen? I would summarize the arguments that led me away from libertarianism in two ways, and you're sort of referencing the second one here a little bit. One is on a personal level, this notion that I'm responsible for what I do, you're responsible for it, I should be able to do whatever I want to do unless it harms you. Right? That's kind of the libertarian. And so you look a little closer at, well, what are they? What do I mean to harm you? It's clear enough? If I punch you, right, but what if I smoke a cigarette and your kid is in the same room? Or what if I drive to work? I emit some greenhouse gases, which in some incremental, very distant, attenuated way, harms everybody on Earth. So then the question then becomes, well, where do you draw the line of harm, what counts as harm? And then the more you think about that, the more you realize, all the philosophical work is being done, by your definition of what counts as harm, which does not follow from any of the libertarian premises, it's just a moral decision. It's, you know, it's a moral decision, what am I going to count as negative harm and then what's too attenuated to count, and where do you draw that line? Everything falls out of that, and what you sort of realize that, this is what I realized, is the basic sort of like John Muir, you know - you pull on one thing, and you find it attached to everything - sentiment, like everything I do, literally everything I do, affects other people in some way or another. So what ought to apply were I an atomic unit is irrelevant, because I'm not and no one ever is, or can be in politics. You know, you want to maximize freedom, which, in a clean world, where we're starting fresh, might be purely negative freedom, right? You just don't impede people, don't mess with people, don't prevent them from doing things. But in the world we live in to truly secure freedom, if freedom means anything, if freedom has any substantive content, it requires intervention by the government, it requires active intervention by government. And then again, you're just drawing a line of like, well, what increment of last freedom in the past, justifies government intervention today. And again, it's more or less an arbitrary line where you draw like everything falls out of where you draw that line. And it turns out the clean slate is totally mythological. We're all always already meshed in all these historical obligations and responsibilities and histories. And so just the cleanness and clarity, which is what attracted me, as a teen, I realized as I got older is like, in so far as that's attractive and clean, it's because it's wrong and has no application to the actual world and is not going to make me happy and it's not going to make a good society. And you're sort of like you referenced that in, you know, the clean slate stuff. And so this brings you, I think, to libertarianism, which is, as I understand it, this notion that yes, we want to maximize freedom, right like the libertarians, but we acknowledge that merely refraining right from mistreating people will not have the intended outcome. Right? Right. You have to, you have to purposefully create the conditions of freedom. So then you were there for a while and liberaltarianism in it kind of never really seemed to catch on. And you also say that you've kind of moved past it, or would no longer use that term or sort of like, I don't know, moved beyond it. So where was the fault in this synthesis? Like, why did you end up sort of becoming dissatisfied with it in the end?
Will Wilkinson 55:39
Well, you know, that's hard, because I stopped calling myself a libertarian when I still saw myself as libertarian, right, like, it was a deeply embedded, deeply internalized aspect of my identity. But at a certain point, I saw that the things that I thought were so heterodox, I was kind of abusing the term if I was applying it to myself, because, because a lot of people would think that I wasn't if they knew what I thought, even though I still felt that I was just interpreting liberty correctly. And similarly with with liberal-tarianism, one of the main components of that is something that I've called the free market welfare state, which you want, markets that are innovative, not onerously regulated, so that markets can be dynamic, prices can move freely, you want the right regulations, you need to take care of externalities and public goods and things like that. But we ought to be aiming for a dynamic, innovative high growth economy, because the humanitarian upshot of economic growth is immense. And so that's something we ought to be going for and markets that are competitive, and innovative and dynamic are a huge part of that. But it seems clear to me from the political science literature, that people will only tolerate that kind of dynamism, that disruptive innovation that drives growth, if they are insulated from the downside risks of all of this dislocation and creative destruction. People aren't gonna tolerate having their jobs offshored, you know, like having a new technology just completely put your business out of business. Like if they don't know what they're gonna do. Right? How am I going to feed my kids? People want social insurance, it's the most freakin popular thing in the world. You can't get around it, the richer people get, the more government they demand. You know, it's almost a law. And I forget what the name of it is, Wagner's law? It's not really a law, but like, it's Wagner's consistent regularity. That, as you know, GDP per capita goes up, demand for government goes up. And a lot of that is that people want social insurance. That's the most expensive.
This is part of something you've been writing about a lot lately. This is part of what explains the deep strain of anti-democratic sentiment within libertarianism is that if you give people the choice, they do not choose libertarianism.
Will Wilkinson 58:59
Yep. I mean, it really does come down to that. But it's interesting, that's the view of basically anybody with a dogmatic ideological theory exactly like you said, because people don't choose it, you won't choose it right? So we need to have the revolution, and, you know, install the party, because democracy is gonna end up being counter revolutionary, right? Everybody has the same problem, unless you're just going to be a consistent, small d Democrat, where you just get to be like, “Hey, you know what, I'm going to just freakin live with people disagreeing and I think that people ought to get what they vote for”.
DR:Well, we'll, we'll return to that later, too.
WW: Yeah. So if you stop fighting that, I mean, it's not just that right. It's not just that people overwhelmingly demand unemployment insurance and some kind of health insurance. That has some like public backstop all of that old age insurance, Social Security, Medicare, they want it bad, and they get it (except for health care in the United States). But we're not communists and it's not just that that stuff actually does enable the economy to be dynamic, it's just really, really clear that people are much more tolerant of market liberalisation, when they're insulated from the shocks, So if you leave people comfortable, you know, if I lose my job, I'm going to get unemployment for however long, my kids are going to have public education, even if I lose my job, my kids are going to have health care, even if I lose my job, right, people stop worrying so much about having dynamic markets is going to make them lose their job, right? It's kind of obvious why it would.
This seems so common sense to me, I guess, looking back, now, it's just any system, any living system, really any sort of, self-maintaining system, you know, like in biology, look at computer programs, it needs some degree of openness, and some degree of structure and stability, right, and you want to balance too much openness and you get dissolution, too much structure, and you get decay, and rot. So you want a balance of structure and dynamism and that seems trivially obvious when you think about living systems in biology or even social systems. It's only an ideologue who could ever sort of imagine like, going all the way in one of those directions, is some sort of skeleton key.
Will Wilkinson 1:01:57
But why it is that ideas of spontaneous order and emergent order are so important to libertarians in a certain kind of conservative because you have to believe that a certain structure is going to emerge out of all these individual acts of exchange, trade, and blah, blah, blah, you know, and to a large extent it does, but the thing is, politics is just endogenous to all of it all the time anyway, and the big fallacy is, you know, thinking that there's some, that there's the market on the one hand and the state on the other hand, and that they're antagonistic. And this is another thing that just had a big effect on me, like I started getting some economic history when I worked at the Mercatus Center and other Kochtopus, libertarian organizations, I ran a series of seminars that were led by Douglas North, who is a wonderful - he died a few years back, he was in his 90s - but a Nobel Prize winning economic historian, and I don't know why exactly Mercatus was financing junkets on his behalf because he wasn't really remotely libertarian, but, it was a prestige thing for us. And, these seminars were amazing. It had some of the world's best economic historians, a bunch of economic theorists, amazing political scientists, you know, and I had to organize these things and take notes. And it was a huge education, and I learned a lot of economic history, and you start to see that, oh, markets exist, because governments create them, right? Like, yeah, they form a lot, you know, trade is always gonna happen, right? Like, you can't stop human beings from being like “you got a KitKat, you know, I'll give you a Reese's”. Right? Like, people are gonna trade. And people are going to trade in complicated ways. But a lot of forms of trade just aren't possible without somebody creating a kind of infrastructure that makes sure that, you know, contracts get enforced.
Yeah, this is so fundamental to me, I wanted to stop and focus on this point for a minute, because I've been thinking about this a lot lately. You will have trade, you always have trade, trade is just part of what humans do. If you want to scale it beyond tribal trades with other tribes, if you want to do it on any scale, you're gonna end up trading with people you don't know, and don't have any social or historical connection to. You don't have any of these sort of emotional or social bonds that might help enforce rules or honesty or whatever. So if you want to scale it up at all, you need rules that are separate from either tribe, and that both tribes agree to subsume their immediate interests to, right I mean, that's just like the basic structure of non-zero cooperation. We're going to, together, submit to this third party, this independent third party authority that consists of a set of rules and some mechanism to enforce those rules. And then you've got government. And to me this is the process by which humanity is improving itself and building up and becoming more complex and building up and outward, through these mechanisms of non-zero cooperation, all of which involve the same basic structure. And, to me, what's interesting about the US is it’s the closest thing a country came to being founded explicitly on that notion, right, we are not a tribe, or even a set of tribes, we are just a set of rules and procedures through which tribes can cooperate in a non-zero way. And to me, this is sort of the key. The central tension in politics is that I think if you look back over history, you'll see almost every advance in human welfare came out of that, came out of that system of non-zero cooperation and agreement to third party rules. You can see it in science, you know, where I'm not right because I'm more influential, or have this or that degree, we all submit to the same rules of third party examination and peer review, and whatever else. These rule-based systems have produced everything that we love and is good, but they are always in tension with tribal imperatives and tribal instincts and the sort of instinct that if the rules tell me that I must sacrifice my tribes best interests, then fuck the rules, my tribe’s best interests are my are my thing, are my primary thing and any rules are secondary. And that's sort of all of human history, the buildup of non-zero cooperation, and then the periodic collapse of non-zero cooperation, because of these tribal instincts. And that to me, among other things, sort of renders this libertarian idea ridiculous in that it is only these rules and these structures and needs-enforcement mechanisms, which we call government, in some cases, that enable what we call markets, sophisticated, modern markets at all, or exchange of ideas or art or name it, it's all everything good comes out of that.
Will Wilkinson 1:07:43
On my podcast I recently had Virginia Postrel who is the former editor-in-chief of Reason magazine. She’s just written this absolutely riveting book on the history of textiles. It kind of gets into the Political Economy of how we come to have the fabrics that we wear, it's called The Fabric of Civilization, it's a really good book. And, you know, you just look at textiles, and just, you know, it's one of the most fundamental things, every single culture in the world weaves, you know, in some way. So, how does that scale up into trade and Nike, if you follow that story, there's a certain point at which it's just face to face exchange, and then extending trade routes, and then there's a certain point at which you just can't do the non-zero sum exchanges, they get too complicated, the assurance problems get too hard How do you know that the other side is going to hold up their end of the deal? How do you retrieve lost resources when the other people screw you over? And immediately people come up with institutions to solve those problems. And those institutions are the law. States didn't exist to do this, right? States exist, because, you know, people are tyrants and want to lord over other people, and you know, princes fought over land and shit like that, but they ended up having to play this role, or somebody else would, and they'd get richer and drive them out of business. So all these, you know, principalities sooner or later had to start providing these state services, and they all do because you can't get out of it. And the funny thing is people, libertarians and conservatives like to think of the United States as a specially libertarian place, but in a way, it's especially not because, I mean, the American state provides the the backstop currency for the entire world like we provide the light, clear shipping lanes is a global public good, that is mainly enforced by the incredible threat of American naval hegemony. Right? The American state is incredibly powerful. And the modern economy, the modern global economy, not just the modern American economy, depends critically on the American state, doing things, you know, the Federal Reserve doing things, the Treasury doing things, the US military doing things. The status quo is just, you know, not even remotely libertarian, and a lot of this stuff that libertarians, conservatives for some reason, a lot of like, the military, or whatever are in the business of providing these global public goods, but they tend to see market structure as being something that's emergent and evolved rather than politically chosen and implemented and sustained. I do find that incredibly naive, and it's important to see just how political all of our markets are, because one of the things that drives me crazy is intellectual property law, you know, copyrights, patents, they're just outright theft, right? They're state enforced monopolies, they probably put a damper on innovation. And they make us poorer. And they're obviously just fake, you know, it's just the state is there, right? It’s just made up out of thin air. And it makes a lot of sense. You want to incentivize people to discover stuff, and you want them to be able to internalize that portion of the overall gains as a certain kind of compensation for their intrepid productivity and discovery. But they don't have to be long, they don't have to be restrictive. But the American economy is structured soup-to-nuts by intellectual property law. Just absolutely. I can get arrested for fixing my computer, it's just crazy.
And so once you understand that markets are political, just in that very simple way that markets are structured by the legal definition of property rights. And that we can be actively involved in structuring them in different ways. Once you realize that you can actually be more constructive about trying to build the dynamic markets, you have to build them. Markets don't stay competitive by themselves, for instance, they just don't,
Yes, there's no final structure that gets things right. That's like, set it and forget it, right, which is another thing that is an attraction, I think of libertarianism, especially to sort of young left brain males is like, “get this system in place, and then we're good”. At least to me this is pretty fundamental to my philosophical development, there is no end to that, right. This is what you mean by politics never goes away, there is no end to the process of negotiation and amendment and updating and fighting and contestation. And this is what pluralism means. It is like that process of haggling things out with one another, is not an interim state on the way to something else. It just is. It just is human affairs. What’s the quote, “One must imagine Sisyphus Happy”. Right. The longer I've sat with that the more profound I think it is, and I think it has to do with this getting comfortable with the ambiguity, and frustrations and half measures that come with pluralism. And this I sort of like, I'll skip a few steps since I definitely want to get to this. And this gets to my central question about America these days. But, you know, as I've thought about it and gone through philosophies of everything, I'm very attracted to philosophies of everything. I've just started thinking more and more lately, like, here's the kind of thought experiment I run in my head, like, what if God came down and said, “Hey, I'm real. I am in fact omniscient. And like, your, your philosophy is correct. You got it, right. Like all the other ones are wrong, objectively, metaphysically. You are correct.” And I just think, well, what would change in the world if that happened? If it turned out I not just thought I was right, but I actually was right. And I actually did know the right system. And the more I think about it, just nothing would change. Like fake news, see that was changing the world. It would be indistinguishable from me just thinking I'm right. And so I would still end up having to negotiate with people who believe differently than me, and find some way for us all to live together, peacefully. So that process of politics, of pluralism, of figuring out a way for people who believe different things to live together peacefully, is the meat of the real thing. And it's not some frustrating shadow on the wall of a true political philosophy that we could someday reach. Right? It's like that is the meat and potatoes of politics, the final state of politics is haggling and fighting, just never quite knowing and never quite getting the perfect measure. This philosophical pragmatism led me to write in, in a similar way, sort of like Rorty’s whole point, that he kind of thought himself out of analytic philosophy. I sort of feel the same way. Like, at the end of the day, whatever these truths are, you're still stuck in a world full of people who believe different truths. So we've got to figure out how to live together. And so figuring out how to live together as the whole thing, it's not a frustrating distraction from the real thing.
Will Wilkinson 1:16:44
I agree with that completely like, and then that has been a big shift in my overall outlook once that sunk in. You know, I've written a lot about why libertarians are skeptical of democracy. And it comes down to what you said before, the problem with it is that people won't vote for libertarianism. But I, for a long, long time, have had this kind of general skepticism about democracy. You know people aren't really that smart. You know, people are poorly informed. It's amazing what people don't know, about politics. I love the factoid that, that this huge realignment of working class whites came about just because Barack Obama was black. And it's not just like that they were racist. It's just they didn't know which party was the party for like white people.
It's amazing how much poor analysis happens in political circles by people who just cannot really conceive or internalize the depth of public ignorance. So they have to create these other explanations for things that happen.
Will Wilkinson 1:17:57
I mean, I just find it amazing that just having a black guy as president made a lot of union members be like, “Oh, that's the party of civil rights, and the party for white people's interest is the other party” like, people didn’t know. But if that's the way it is, if there is such endemic public ignorance, you know it's reasonable to be a bit wary of what democratic publics are going to do. But in the end there's just no way to get around people disagreeing. If you want to say that “oh, people have these rights, or people have those rights” they're politically effective, they're real, if enough people agree that you're right, yes. Right. Like you're saying, it doesn't matter who's right. Because you're not going to convince everybody that so and so is right. So the whole thing, and that's the kind of the Rortian point is that if people all just kind of agree that this is a right and the courts agree, and the legislators agree and people don't relentlessly campaign against the recognition of this right and try to install judges who won't, then it's a right, that's what it is for something to be a right, it has a social reality, it's exactly the same as why our money's worth anything. It's because everybody thinks it's worth something and that's good.
Yes, but much like people don't understand money for partially psychological reasons, like something about that terrifies people, or just unsettles people on a deep, deep level. You see this, you know, with traditionalists or religious people or even sort of philosophical realists or whatever, just this idea that like, wait a minute, if it's only real to the extent we agree it's real, we're just marshmallows, we're in mush. There's nothing to push off. There's no foundation, there's no sort of hard thing to put your back up against to get the friction. It's this ambiguous mush forever, that I think terrifies people. This is why people want God or whatever, there's a ground somewhere that we can find and get our bearings.
Will Wilkinson 1:20:29
I mean, there's some fundamental psychological differences between people who are tolerant of ambiguity and people who find it very, very uncomfortable. I seriously think that the main foundational, ultimate reason why I have been able to change my mind a lot over time is that I'm extremely comfortable with ambiguity in the end. I’m okay in a suspended state and I feel that discomfort right now. I recently lost my last job, where I was supposed to be a kind of proponent for a certain kind of liberal-tarian-ism. And I was relieved to get out of it because I don't like having to be the champion or a representative. I just want to try to figure out what's right. I don't want to be constrained.
Will Wilkinson 1:21:29
Yeah, [???]. In one of my favorite essays, by the novelist, Donald Barthelemy, who is the kind of patron saint of the MFA program I went to at the University of Houston, it's a beautiful essay called Not Knowing and this is about writing fiction but it applies to just about everything; that art comes out of a certain comfort with not knowing with being in this uncomfortable suspended state of ambiguity. There's a similar thing as this term from Keats, like negative capacity [sic]. It's one of my favorite ideas.
Can we acknowledge that this is an unusual psychological feature?
Will Wilkinson 1:22:28
I don't think it's unusual for a certain kind of person, like Ayn Rand, fucked up my life. I'm supposed to be an artist, right? Like this is how artists are.
For a certain kind of person, it’s more usual in like, art, or poetry or writing or acting or something like that, right, which is about humans and therefore must wrestle with ambiguity. I think it's more unusual for that kind of person to go into politics, right? Because people tend to be attracted to politics through some theory that they think is correct and right.
Will Wilkinson 1:23:04
Politics will just absolutely repel people with a great deal of negative capacity [sic].
And fear, you know, I think we both acknowledge that these personality traits are not fixed quantities, right? They're variable based on circumstance, social circumstance, and things like that. And of course, as we know, fear sends people in the other direction, fear pulls people away from ambiguity and makes them more desirous of clarity, more desirous of clear in and out rules. I think this tolerance of ambiguity is sort of crucial for humanity's healthy future but it's just so defeasible, it's so easy. You have to engage your frontal cortex to do that, which means your amygdala has to be a little bit quiet, you have to calm these fight or flight systems in order to be able to exercise the kind of frontal cortex thinking that can allow you to see sort of the virtues of ambiguity and non-zero cooperation, all these things, but it's just so easy to get people scared. I don't know how good things ever happened in politics. I've talked myself into a position where I think everything good is miraculous.
Will Wilkinson 1:24:25
I mean, we've done the very common thing of seeing why our own personality type is awesome. The height of the very high openness, very low conscientiousness is the negative capacity [sic]. That's the art style, that's the free associative, like “try it out, you don't really care”, right?
I have that. But I also have that rationalist. The person who craves clarity, the person who is attracted to libertarianism in the first place, I also have that person inside me. And those two people do not necessarily cohere.
Will Wilkinson 1:25:09
They do, I mean this is something I've thought a lot about like why are some of my best friends people that I met at the objectivist camp when I was an undergraduate? And the thing is because it turns out, they were like me, like, everything depends on where you start. Right? In people, it's not people's fault. If you started out reading Marx or you started out reading Ayn Rand you'll get on a different track, but where you end up is going to depend on what kind of person you are. And a lot of the people who I’m still friends with from objectivist camp are people who are really high openness. They're incredibly intellectual and curious and they were really curious about Ayn Rand and objectivism at the same time that I was, but that wasn't going to be the end of their curiosity, it was the beginning. And then they move on. But there's nothing inconsistent with having a logical rationalist disposition and this all consuming curiosity about different views and different cultures and things like that. And if you've got that kind of personality you're going to have a hard time sticking with a dogmatic tribe. But once you figured out that they're doing something that doesn't make sense. It's going to bug you.
So let me skip to what I think is the key, the central question about America before we're done, because I really wanted to grapple with this, and we sort of laid some groundwork.
WW: Cancel culture?
Exactly, exactly. I'm talking about Dr. Seuss. No, you know, as we said earlier, the US in its founding documents, and theorizing, is a nation founded not on any tribe or class of people, but on ideas - all people have dignity, all people have rights, rule of law, not of man - which as I grow older think is more and more important, more and more central to everything, this idea that we're all governed by these procedures, these objective third party arbiters. And that's how we make pluralism work, right, we all submit to this shared set of principles and values and rules. And within that, we can have our own whatever culture, our own cultural ideas, our own religion, religious freedom, our own freedom of philosophy and association, right? So pluralism is going to live by virtue of these rules. And then there's this other America, you might call it, the actual America, which is very much founded by a particular tribe and class of people, and in practice, has always violated its principles and rules to elevate and maintain the dominance of those people. You know, there's white money, property owning, whatever, on and on. So there's this core tension in America. And I have just started wondering, is that resolvable? So if you come to America, with what they call thick cultural commitments, right, you believe in Christianity, say, if you really believe in Christianity, then it sort of follows that you should want everybody else to be Christian. Right? It's sort of like it is inherently totalizing, as most sort of like hardcore fundamentalist philosophies or religions tend to be. And so can you genuinely hold on to those thick commitments and also submit to this thinner commitment to procedural-ism? Right? I mean, that's kind of what America is, that's what pluralism is. You can keep your thick commitments as long as you abide by these procedures, these rules, these institutions, right. And that's an inherent tension. And it's been resolved in the past, by hypocrisy, right. It's basically through white men, running things while saying words about procedural neutrality, and waving their hands at procedural neutrality, but now demographics are changing and people are starting to notice that and demand their own piece of the pie. And so that test of those procedural commitments is happening now. And I guess what I'm trying to ask is, is it really possible for those thin commitments to procedural neutrality, to a common set of laws and rules and institutions, is it possible for that to be enough to sustain human beings, psychologically and socially? Or do they need thick commitments to particular tribes, particular Gods what have you, particular histories. If they do need thick commitments, can they then live together under these thin commitments? In other words, I guess what I'm asking is, is true pluralism actually possible, psychologically? Is it something that humans can genuinely do?
Will Wilkinson 1:30:57
I think so. I think it's hard. This thick/thin tension isn't ever going to go away, people do need thick identities. Very few people are, you know, deracinated, cosmopolitan liberals with, you know, a high tolerance for ambiguity who just think negative capacities [sic] are the greatest thing in the world, right…
People like us could live within that world but I think we established we’re freaks.
Will Wilkinson 1:31:21
…ideologically relish contestatory democracy and pluralism. But I think that is always going to be a minority view. What we're going through right now, I don't really think it's a battle between thick, white Christian identity and thin American proceduralism. It's just the most normal thing in politics, that politics is always distributively hot, right? It's distributively high stakes, and the composition of our population has changed a great deal and the relative power of a certain kind of white person, white Christians, has precipitously declined. And they're terrified about loss of control over the culture, and the economy and their sense of status. And I don't think it's about maintaining a thick Christian lifestyle, because religious participation has fallen off a cliff and there are tons of Trumpist conservatives who don't go to church, who will say that they're Christian, but actually have no religious practice in their life. So they'd probably be better off if they were animated by a thick conception of the good and religion. I think there's something nihilistic about this kind of person, just, you know, getting on board.
It's a culture, though. I mean, it's a specific culture, right? Pickup trucks, Arby's, owning the libs, yeah, yeah. You know.
Will Wilkinson 1:33:01
Yeah cultural politics has replaced a lot of religion stuff, but I think we're just going through a lot of turmoil because we're at this inflection point where white Christians are already in the minority, you know, population is going to be majority non-white by 2042 or so, or just barely more than 20 years. And the current coalition that is the Republican Party isn't going to survive in a pluralistic democratic society that is as diverse and multicultural as the one we are coming to have. And these are death throes and they're dangerous places. This happens over and over and over and over again, in history, where the dominant men are the dominant group, where a majority falls into the minority, and then they get nasty. Right, it happens again and again.
Yes, that is politics.
Yeah, basically. And so I think it's gonna stay nasty for a while.
But the question I'm trying to get at is, I think there are people who would argue, America worked, because there was a dominant identity and culture. And it was defined at least in part by openness to other cultures and by allowing other cultures and colors and ethnicities and languages to come and sort of hang out as long as they didn't get too uppity. But I think there are people who would argue democracy really only works if there is a primary culture, and if a primary culture falls and loses its hegemony, it's going to be replaced by another one. There's no such thing as a stable state with multiple, equally non-dominant cultures. That's what I mean by true pluralism. I think there are people who would argue that true pluralism just can't survive and the throes are gonna end up in the replacement of one culture by another.
Will Wilkinson 1:35:21
I think you’re making a point that we went through in a different guise, that a lot depends on social agreement. Facts with social ontologies depend on the agreement and one of those facts is the authority of the state, the legitimacy of a democratic system. And people have to agree about it to have it. Agree enough about it, for us to have it. And right now, we've got a lot of disagreement, basically that the Republican Party is against democracy, its theory is that the other party isn't fully American, that they're citizens only in a technical sense, but not in a moral sense.
The US is their culture, not the procedural, not the laws and procedures, it's their culture, that is the essence of the United States. And if their culture is dethroned, even if you have the laws and procedures still in place, you don't have America.
Will Wilkinson 1:36:24
Right? And so they're contesting the legitimacy of the laws and procedures for this other reason, right? It's not like they have some philosophical problem with majoritarian institutions. They have a tribal problem with majoritarian institutions. And I think it's true that in the long run, if you're going to sustain liberal democratic institutions, there does need to be a common narrative about what the country is and what it means. But I don't think…
How thick that needs to be, I guess, is what I'm trying…
Will Wilkinson 1:37:03
Yeah, but I'm skeptical of the thick/thin dichotomy. Because I know what you mean by thickness in some daily practice sort of way. If I'm really religious, and I've got to pray five times a day and face Mecca, I think most people need that kind of thickness in their life, but I don't think it's necessarily political. Because the reasons those identities are political, it's either people are threatened because they're in the minority, and the majority is trying to stomp on their identity, or what's happening now is you've got a majority that's dwindling into a minority, and they're panicked and trying to hold on. But I don't think there's a problem for most American-Muslims or most American-Buddhists or most American-Jews in living a thick religious life, for example. That's consistent with their allegiance to a certain conception of America, like what you said before, that there being this inherent tension between America's ideals and America's history, I think is the story, right? That is the story that everybody can accept, that thing that we can all agree on, and that we can be proud of is that we have these ideals that are beautiful. And that who we are, are people who have struggled over time to make good on our ideals, so that they apply to everyone. And everybody can buy into that in theory.
I just don't know. I mean, I guess everybody. I guess my cynical suspicion is that if you're a minority culture or minority ethnicity or whatever, obviously, that conception of procedural fairness and pluralism is to your advantage. So in a system like ours, it's natural that all kind of subaltern populations and factions are going to proclaim allegiance to that set of values, right, but then if they gain some power and dominance, if one of them say, were to gain some special privileges or whatever it just seems like those commitments would go overboard and they would become committed to their continued power, you know. I mean, it's only like a tool for subaltern populations trying to get a piece of the pie. And I just wonder if it's enough, if it's a stable thing.
Will Wilkinson 1:39:54
It's not stable but this is just what we were talking about, that of Sisyphus being happy. Right. That's just it, people are going to disagree, they're going to get mad about it, they're going to try to undermine the system when it's against their faction’s interests. And you have to try to do whatever you can to have systems where the coalition of the rest of everybody who has an interest in maintaining the rules that some faction is trying to undermine is sufficient to hold them up. The system will never fall into a steady state equilibrium where we don't have to worry about it spinning out of control, every system is sooner or later going to spin out of control. The American system is weird in the sense that it has persisted for so long, despite so many internal tensions.
Yeah baffling, the more you learn about history, the more baffling that fact becomes
Will Wilkinson 1:40:56
…this government's collapse. Something I just wrote was that constitutions don't survive because the framers were brilliant, they survive, because they're always fucked up, they're always inadequate, we can never anticipate how people are going to bend the rules, how they're going to exploit them. But Hayek is right about spontaneous orders, we don't know what order will emerge on top of a set of fundamental rules when you first put them in place. You don't know what factions are going to realign around those rules and what their dynamics are going to be. So the system is always going to tend toward some kind of destabilization. And it is always about being creative and flexible, about figuring out how to shore up the system. And that's one thing Americans have been good at, we're good at kludges. That's one of the things that annoys me about conservatives these days is there's so much worship of the framers and this originalist conception of the Constitution, when seriously the fact that our country survives at all is because we're pragmatic, we're we're arbitrary, we would just change the rules. By definition, every constitution is living, they survive by being changed so that they're not incompatible with the order that is emerging. And so we've got this crazy kludgy patched system, that somehow it's this jalopy that is flying and who knows how it stays up?
Doesn't that terrify you though, doesn’t that terrify the mechanic. Like, I don't know how this thing's running, but I'm gonna get in there and fuck with the engine anyway?
Will Wilkinson 1:42:52
I've become Zen about it, right. Of course, I'm terrified of the plane crashing. And especially since right now, about 40% of the country is just straightforwardly trying to crash it. So that is alarming. But I just think that this is it. This is what life is, this is politics and life is political. There's not a way out of it, there's not a better place to go that's gonna be better permanently. It's just what it is. And my parents, my grandparents were alive with the worst war in the history of the world. Everything fucking fell apart, right? And there's nothing that's gonna stop that from happening again, it will happen again and you just have to try to be a finger in the dam and hope that enough other people get their fingers in there. And sometimes it's just gonna fail. You're just not going to get enough fingers in the fucking dam and it's gonna break and you're all gonna die. And there's nothing we can do about it. Except try to put your finger in the dam and try to convince other people to do it.
Right, right. Another thing that makes me uncomfortable about that, but I guess I just have to get used to it, is for me that vision of kludgy jalopy being held together by our patches as we go forward, that's never done. This never fixed that. We're all constantly fighting over that contested pluralism that never resolves into any clean one system or another. I can get behind that as that's life, as good as it gets. It's better than the many tyrannical alternatives. Right? But I just don't envision that idea or that vision, inspiring that many people. I mean, it's terrifying. It's just inherently terrifying.
Will Wilkinson 1:45:07
Well I don’t think people have to think that's what it is. It's not important that people see the system for what it is. Because that's internal to this view, that people are going to disagree about what the system is, and people aren't going to see it the same way. And people are going to have fanatical absolutist ideologies that they're going to try to ram through. And that's just, we just have to live with it. People don't need to believe that that's the way things are. I'm not making some Straussian point that…
Yeah, I was gonna say we're tiptoeing up to Strauss.
Will Wilkinson 1:45:41
No, because I'm not saying that there's something that people need to believe to survive, and that we need to tell people to mobilize. I'm going to just tell people what's true, this is how the system is, this is how democracy is, don't worry about the fact that our disagreements aren't ever going to resolve, that's not a bad thing. It's a great way to live in a society where we can hash it out, keep it within the rails of the political system, rather than having it spill over into violence. If we're yelling at each other and screaming at each other and
we're not actually forming mobs and attacking the Capitol during the validation of election results, then we're doing okay. If we start fucking attacking the Capitol while the elections being certified, then that's bad. And the system will fucking crash if people keep doing it. And I think you can just tell people that.
Can you though because one of the things that polls are always finding (well, this is interesting, it's not actually true across parties) but you know, legendarily one of the things that Democrats or Democratic voters in particular on surveys and polls will tell you “Oh, I hate all the fighting” and I hear this from normie friends too, non-political friends, just all the fighting and squabbling, something about it bugs people and they wish people could just be more cooperative and get along better. So telling people that fighting and squabbling is like fingernails on a chalkboard. That's just it forever. That's our life. Can you really tell people that it makes them happy? I don't know that people like that state of affairs.
Will Wilkinson 1:47:28
I don't think people like it. But here's the thing. We're talking about political ignorance before like most people aren't going to listen. They're going to watch ESPN. They're going to watch Ohio State like, you know, and get really depressed when they lose or something. But like they're so they're not going to hear us. And that's fine. That's part of it too.
All right. Well, thanks for coming on. Thanks for this discussion
It was a delight. Thank you. Yeah, let's do it again. Awesome.