SUNNI: Hi, John, and thanks for letting me play my version of "20 Questions" with you today. How are you?
SUNNI: Glad to hear it! I have a lot of things I'd like to touch on with you, and I don't want to take too much of your time, so let's jump right in. In doing some research, I found you being referred to as an "ex-leftist libertarian". I thought that a very odd phrase, since many individuals come to the freedom philosophy from a left perspective -- and lots of pro-freedom people are more concerned with personal and social issues than economic ones; that's generally considered to be a "leftist" slant. What do you think of that phrase? Does it fit you?
JOHN: I think that depends upon how "leftist" is defined. Usually people who define themselves as "leftists" are opposed to capitalism, economic freedom, and believe that the coercive power of government should be used to create more equality and social justice in society. Usually people on the left have sympathy for democratic socialism. When I was in my very early 20's I believed that democratic socialism was a more "just" economic system than democratic capitalism was. However, soon after I opened my first small natural food store back in 1978 with my girlfriend when I was 25, my political opinions began to shift. Operating a business was a real education for me. There were bills to pay and a payroll to be met and we had trouble doing either because we lost half of our initial $45,000 of capital in our first year. Our customers thought our prices were too high and our employees thought they were being underpaid, and we were losing money. Renee and I were only being paid about $200 a month and the business was a real struggle. Nobody was very happy and Renee and I were now seen as capitalistic exploiters by friends on the left who believed we were overcharging our customers and exploiting our workers -- all because we were apparently selfish and greedy.
I didn't think the charge of capitalist exploiters fit Renee and myself very well. In a nutshell the economic system of democratic socialism was no longer intellectually satisfying to me and I began to look around for more robust theories which would better explain business, economics, and society. Somehow or another I stumbled on to the works of Mises, Hayek, and Friedman, and had a complete revolution in my world view. The more I read, studied, and thought about economics and capitalism, the more I came to realize that capitalism had been misunderstood and unfairly attacked by the left. In fact, democratic capitalism remains by far the best way to organize society to create prosperity, growth, freedom, self-actualization, and even equality.
I no longer think of myself as a leftist, but I definitely don't think of myself as from the right either. For the past 25 years I've thought of myself as a libertarian, but I'm now beginning to move away from that label as well. I have a number of intellectual problems with libertarianism as a political philosophy as it currently exists. I believe we need a new social/political/economical/environmental movement in the world today and I've got some definite ideas what this movement should look like.
SUNNI: You sure seem to be popular in the libertarian community, despite having arrived here through a side door, so to speak. How do you account for that? [laughs]
JOHN: I'm not aware that I'm popular in the libertarian community. On the contrary, I've frequently found myself criticized for lacking sufficient doctrinal purity by many in this movement.
SUNNI: Perhaps it's the celebrity element at work, then, John ... In doing background research for this interview, I came across mentions of you at several libertarian sites -- Advocates for Self-Government and several blogs. I don't recall seeing any critical comments. But I'm sure that you'd get them after a speech -- the movement doesn't suffer a lack of critics. [laughs]
JOHN: It could be the celebrity element. I'm not shy about telling the media or anyone else that I'm a libertarian. I suppose I've brought some favorable publicity to the libertarian movement. I hope so anyway.
SUNNI: I'm sure you have. One of the Conspirators who blogs with me is a huge fan of Whole Foods Market -- she's a stakeholder in more than one meaning of the term -- and I know a number of loyal Whole Foods Market customers in the pro-freedom community. I know that some wouldn't bat an eye at its Declaration of Interdependence, for example, but others might be surprised to see how often the word "collective" and its variants show up on the Whole Foods Market web site ... or to see ideas like "shared fate" and "community citizenship" in its core values statement. How do you square all that with being libertarian?
JOHN: I personally don't see any contradictions here. Human beings are highly social animals and we evolved over hundreds of thousands of years living in small hunting and gathering tribes. I believe that much of our fulfillment as human beings comes from our participation in the various social organizations that we belong to. Today we are raised in families, live in neighborhoods and communities, and are members of a number of greater collectives. For example, I am a member of the following collectives: Austin, Texas, The United States, Homo sapiens, vertebrates, DNA-based life forms, planet Earth, Milky Way Galaxy, etc. I'm also a voluntary member of a number of organizations including my marriage with Deborah Morin, Whole Foods Market, various long-distance backpacking groups, various animal welfare/animal rights groups, and various libertarian organizations, plus many others. Even my physical body is a collective consisting of many billions of cells working together in various organs to stay alive and pass on its genetic material into the future.
I think the reason why many libertarians object to the words "collective", "shared fate", and "community citizenship" is that they associate those words with coercive, involuntary organizations such as the forced collectivization of Soviet agriculture under communism or other totalitarian political organizations. Needless to say I don't use these words in these contexts. I believe in voluntary cooperation as the key principle for organizing any collective organization. Whole Foods Market is a collective based on voluntary cooperation between all the various stakeholders. No one is forced to cooperate against their will and all are free to withdraw from the collective organization anytime they wish to. A collective without freedom is by nature coercive and is therefore unlikely to lead to human flourishing. However, collectives based on freedom and voluntary cooperation can lead to very high levels of human flourishing. Indeed, I seriously doubt that high levels of human flourishing are even possible without voluntary cooperation from millions of various communities and collectives.