Life of a Libertarian: Charles Murray

July 24, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: A Gergen dialogue. David Gergen, editor-at-large of “U.S. News & World Report,” engages Charles Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, author of What It Means To Be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation.

DAVID GERGEN, U.S. News & World Report: Charles, when people hear the word “Libertarian,” they are sometimes confused by what it means. What does it mean, to be a Libertarian?

CHARLES MURRAY, Author, What It Means To Be a Libertarian: It means pretty much what Congress had in mind. I mean, there’s this idea that libertarians are people who want to sell cocaine out of vending machines.

DAVID GERGEN: You don’t?

CHARLES MURRAY: I don’t want to sell cocaine out of vending machines; I think that would be a bad idea. Look, the founders said that government, good government, consists of enabling people to be protected from each other, so that you don’t have anybody interfering with your life and, in return, you don’t interfere with anyone else’s life. Otherwise, you’re left alone to your own pursuits of industry and improvement, to use Thomas Jefferson’s words. And that’s pretty much all I’m saying; that it is the classic idea of freedom tempered with responsibility for the consequences of your actions.

DAVID GERGEN: And what is the role of government in a Libertarian society?

CHARLES MURRAY: Well, the role it has is extremely important: police, court system, national defense. So you don’t have very many laws in a Libertarian state, but the laws that you do have you take very, very seriously. And once you get beyond that there are a few other functions that government at different levels may fill. For example, I think there are some authentic public goods involved in environmental issues. By public good, I mean the classic conception of public good, where you may have a role for government but not much else.

DAVID GERGEN: It does assume, as Jefferson did, that human beings are fundamentally good; that in a state of nurture people can be optimistic that if they don’t use force, they will cooperate with each other.

CHARLES MURRAY: I don’t think that Jefferson was confident that people were good, but he did think they were fitted for society. I think that was his phrase. And I think the concept that in the 18th century they had that still holds true today is that human beings desire the approbation of their fellow human beings.

They may not have an innate moral sense, but they do want to be approved of by certain other people. And in a free society, where people are restrained from the use of force, seeking this approbation of other people leads folks to behave in cooperative ways. And I don’t think that’s–I don’t think that’s wild-eyed idealism. I think that’s a pretty accurate reflection of the way we really do behave.

DAVID GERGEN: And then government grew up. It became much more regulatory in nature in the late 19th, early 20th centuries. That was the first big wave of progressive legislation that came after muckrakers like Lincoln Stephens or Sinclair Lewis went out to Chicago, the stockyards and found all this meat that was contaminated that was being served to people.

Then we got regulations, we got regulations about stocks because they were being watered down and being sold to the public. Does that fit the notion that people in the business community, if left unregulated, will be good?

CHARLES MURRAY: Well, it reflects what human beings will do if they have a chance. So if you have people cheating other people, using unfair practices, and so forth, they are behaving in ways which, in my view, are already prohibited by a Libertarian state. For example, the question of fraud.


CHARLES MURRAY: If you have stocks that you are misrepresenting, in a Libertarian state you are guilty of an offense, and you can be held to account. But in the case of something like meat, contaminated meat, and the rest of it, I guess the Libertarian stance says look, we don’t want to buy contaminated meat.


CHARLES MURRAY: Is the way to avoid having contaminated meat to have a government inspection bureau, or is the way to have a free economy in which people who have uncontaminated meat have a competitive advantage over people who do? And this goes to the heart, I think, of a lot of the Libertarian commentary on how a modern complex society could work without government.

DAVID GERGEN: Let’s talk a little bit more. How would it work, in your judgment?

CHARLES MURRAY: Because in a modern society, such as we have now, for example, information flows are so much more rapid and so much more efficient they were in the old days we have lots of ways that weren’t accessible to us in the 19th century for dealing with a lot of these problems. Pick an example–well, let’s go back to the stock issue and the regulation of corporations and so forth. Right now, you have corporations which have a variety of government regulation, but you also have things like Standard & Poor’s, which rates bonds.

You have the big six accounting firms, which are responsible for the accounting sheets of these corporations. And I would argue that what you get out of the private institutions that have developed to regulate these things is almost universally more efficient than the government alternative.

DAVID GERGEN: So you would withdraw the government, its regulatory forces that have grown up since the 60’s, and would cut back on a lot of the spending? I think you said in your book that you would wind up with a federal government that is maybe 40 percent of what it is today, 40 percent the size. I want to go back to then where we are, in a Libertarian view. Let’s take ValuJet and the regulation of the airlines. Could ValuJet fly, in your view, in your system, without government regulations?

CHARLES MURRAY: Well, you’re talking about a plane that crashed.


CHARLES MURRAY: So we’re talking about–

DAVID GERGEN: And we’re talking about airline.

CHARLES MURRAY: –an airline under government regulation. Well, let me put it to you this way. Suppose that we had United and Delta and American and the other great big airlines, which were allowed to withdraw from government regulation. Now, I submit to you that the standards, the technical standards at those airlines, and their interest in not crashing is much greater than a government bureaucrat is going to be able to match.

Here’s the question, David. Five years from now you have a choice of flying on those unregulated United, Delta, American, or you have a choice of flying on the airline you are most nervous about but which has remained under government regulation. I submit that you’re probably still going to want to choose United, Delta, and American.

DAVID GERGEN: What prevents them, in your system–what you’re saying is set up a system that people can either stay–the business, itself, can decide whether it wants to stay under the regulatory apparatus or come out and be unregulated, and offer itself on the marketplace, and provide its own standards to be self-regulating.

CHARLES MURRAY: You know, I proposed that in the book as a thought experiment. I say, look, keep all the regulations but let any company that wants to slap a big unregulated sign on its product or service and see what people choose. The reason I had the thought experiment is because I think the more you work through that, you say to yourself, you know, in almost all cases I’m going to choose the unregulated product over the regulated one.

And when you do think you might choose a regulated product, such as a bank, for example, then the question arises, well, how would a banking system that was unregulated develop its own private monitoring mechanisms that could enable it to compete.

DAVID GERGEN: And you think they would do what?

CHARLES MURRAY: You know, it’s very hard for me to think as, you know, we have lots and lots of private versus public comparisons. You have Underwriters Laboratories. You have AAA rating motels. You have medical board certifying specialists, versus the government alternatives, whereby you have licensing of physicians, and you have government ratings of things. And as I go through and I compare what the government does versus what the private alternatives do, the private alternatives always come out looking better.

And I would make another assertion and it’s an assertion I can’t prove, but which is that the government system has displaced private systems, and that if you get rid of the FDA, for example, Food & Drug Administration, you aren’t going to have a situation in which people are selling drugs and the consumer cannot get information. There will be lots of information out there that it will be quicker; it will be more efficient; it will be less repressive in terms of the choices that are open to the consumer.

DAVID GERGEN: Charles Murray, thank you very much.

CHARLES MURRAY: It’s been fun.