David Boaz, Son of Liberty

  • June 7, 2024
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Maria Santos Bier

David Boaz, the longtime executive vice president and later distinguished senior fellow of the Cato Institute, was a leader and a legend of the libertarian movement. He wrote the book on libertarianism—and the Encyclopedia Brittanica entry, too. In the years that I was privileged to work for him as staff writer, he taught me everything from why all libertarians should be feminists to why one must never hyphenate adverbs ending in ‑ly.

Like Hayek, David believed that “We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage.” Writing about the Boston Tea Party and the bravery of the Sons of Liberty, David once enjoined:

We need Sons and Daughters of Liberty today in America. We need them in the schools, and in the media, and in every workplace. We need them on the Internet and sometimes on the picket lines. We need them to make sure officeholders never forget what it’s like to live under the laws and pay the taxes, and we need them to run for office themselves. We even need a few of them in Washington, in the belly of the beast.

David took that charge seriously, moving with Cato from its first office in San Francisco—a mostly windowless former warehouse—to Washington DC, where he would oversee its growth from a small upstart organization to a leading think tank. A news junkie at heart, David always took care to remind people that Cato moved to the capital not to be closer to the government, but to be closer to journalists.

When I first started working for David, I was advised by former employees that, at a minimum, I’d need to start reading the Washington Post cover to cover every morning if I wanted any hope of keeping up with him. David’s voracious news consumption combined with his remarkable memory meant that he had an encyclopedic knowledge of just about any topic. And not just politics and policy—he trounced much younger colleagues in pop culture trivia. He was always up on the latest, writing, “I want to find out what happens next—in everything from sports to politics to TV soaps to the newest scientific discoveries.”

In Cato Policy Report, which he edited for several decades, his editorials and humorous “To Be Governed” section showcased his wit. The quintessential libertarian, no political party was safe from his barbs, whether he was opining that, “When a liberal talks about patriotism, it’s a good idea to watch your wallet,” or that “Electing a Republican government, like entering a second marriage, is a triumph of hope over experience.”

Libertarians are sometimes caricatured as grouchy, “atomistic” individualists who always think the sky is falling. David frequently and eloquently debunked the idea that individualism and community are at odds:

In fact, we consider cooperation so essential to human flourishing that we don’t just want to talk about it; we want to create social institutions that make it possible. That’s what property rights, limited government, and the rule of law are all about.

And he was a relentless voice of optimism, reminding us that we live in one of the best and freest times to be alive:

More people in more countries than ever before in history enjoy religious freedom, personal freedom, democratic governance, the freedom to own and trade property, the chance to start a business, equal rights, civility, respect, and a longer life expectancy.

War, disease, violence, slavery, and inhumanity have been dramatically reduced.

And it is libertarian ideas and liberty‐​minded people that have made that happen.

It’s true that libertarians can sometimes be defeatist. It’s hard not to be discouraged by all the ways that government restricts liberty. But if we truly believe in the power of ideas to change the world, David’s contributions were more consequential than any government statute could ever be.

David defined libertarianism for my generation, and for generations to come. He reminded us daily that classical liberal ideas have already won out against superstition and tyranny; that freedom and progress have triumphed time and again against despotism. That cultural shifts to a more cosmopolitan and tolerant society have brought down more barriers and given people more choice than many changes in law or politics. We should not be despondent—like David, we should be excited to see what happens next.

As he might observe, in the words of Dr. Johnson:

How small, of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!