The Responsible, Driven Libertarianism of Matt Welch
Last month I shared with readers my “Summer of Recovery” reading list. One of the books included was “The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong With America” by Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch. In National Review, Veronique de Rugy wrote, “I would argue that it is especially worth reading if you are skeptical of libertarianism or even a straightforward anti-libertarian. For instance, if you think libertarians are irresponsible, dope-smoking, unserious, head-in-the-clouds pacifists, this book is for you. (It will prove you wrong, I hope.)”
Welch is editor-in-chief at Reason, a “small l” libertarian magazine. He had previously worked at the Los Angeles Times and National Post. In the 1990s, Welch lived in central Europe and co-founded Prognosis, the first post-communism English newspaper. He also worked as UPI’s Slovakia correspondent and managed the Budapest Business Journal.
“After writing a book with Matt, I can fully appreciate what it’s like to be Alice B. Toklas, Art Garfunkel, Spiro T. Agnew, and, sadly but especially, Andrew Ridgely of Wham!—the minor partner in the presence of a genius,” co-author Nick Gillespie told me. “The great thing about Matt is that his ideas and analysis are generated not by abstract ideology or pre-existing dogma but by his vast and continuing experience with the world. … Regardless of ideology, most writers on politics and culture are about as engaged with the world as a school of blind cave-fish. Matt’s like a kid detective, the Encyclopedia Brown of finding out what’s going on and why. It makes his writing great and it makes him one of the greatest collaborators since Coco Chanel.”
When I started this interview feature over a year ago, I wanted to highlight important writers and leaders while showing their interests and lives outside of the political realm. Or in this case, show that some libertarians have a pragmatic side.
1. If there were a television channel that only showed one movie over and over, what movie should it be?
WELCH: The Sorrow and the Pity. It’s the only way I’ll ever get around to finally sitting through the damned thing. Which is important, because my wife and her family are from Lyon.
2. What’s one of your favorite movie quotes?
WELCH: “Don’t answer the phone.” From Memento, tattooed on Guy Pearce’s arm, which he realizes only after removing a bandage … while he’s talking on the phone. Unfortunately, because I don’t have any tattoos, I sometimes forget this important piece of wisdom, and then pick up the phone at work. It always ends badly, though rarely in murder.
3. In A Clockwork Orange, Malcolm McDowell is strapped in with his eyes propped open and forced to watch images until he is “cured.” If you could give President Obama the “Clockwork Orange treatment,” what movie would you make him watch?
WELCH: The Candidate. Not only because it’s about a youthful, attractive liberal activist lawyer who, after bursting on the scene as lefty teller of then-unpopular truths, retreats into a political blank slate upon which voters cast their hopes and dreams, getting corrupted by the process of finding ever-more platitudinous middle-of-the-roadisms as he gets closer to landing the mother of all upset victories …. but because the whole worldview and tenor of the movie is one that the Left has largely let go—that of paranoid and cynical anti-authoritarianism. That era produced not only some of the best culture of the modern era, but some of its best policies, including (but not limited to) liberal-led deregulation of airlines, trucking, beer and much else besides.
4. What pop culture souvenir do you own that people would be surprised to learn that you cherish?
WELCH: Two different vinyl copies of Deney Terrio’s Night Moves: The Professional Approach to Disco Dance Instruction. I can still do a mean box-step, if pushed.
5. What’s your current “guilty pleasure” non-news television show?
WELCH: I will confess to watching those chef-competition deals whenever I’m flying on an airline that has TV and there’s no baseball on. Other than that, little TV, and even littler guilt!
6. How do you think pop culture and entertainment affect people’s political beliefs?
WELCH: In free democracies, I think the main impact, in a kind of indirect way, is on our rapidly evolving sense of tolerance. We see exponentially more different ways of living than we did even 10 years ago, whether it’s Mormon polygamy or middle-class weed-selling or a thousand new variants on foodyism or being gay without being named “Ellen” … and all that stuff certainly reinforces acceptance of what used to be out-groups. Perhaps most importantly, we now constantly repackage and reuse culture to suit our whims, which means we are less passive receptacles and more what the press thinker Jay Rosen calls “the people formerly known as the audience.” Controlling the means of cultural production is a powerful (and fun!) development, with impacts we are only beginning to vaguely understand.
In unfree societies, pop culture and entertainment is downright revolutionary, in all sorts of underappreciated ways. Politicians everywhere dislike free speech, but authoritarians are usually smart and cruel enough to understand you can’t own and loot the economy unless you also police a narrow band of tolerated expression. Which is one very good reason that authoritarianism is on the run—people want to rock.
7. What is your favorite home-cooked meal?
WELCH: Anything my mother-in-law makes, especially if it involves a murdered duck.
8. What was the first rock concert you ever attended and where did you sit and who went with you?
WELCH: R.E.M., Irvine Meadows, July 28, 1985, three days before my 17th birthday, Fables of the Reconstruction tour. A beautiful, bizarre bout of jangles and mumbling in which Michael Stipe sang the first seven songs or so with his back turned to the audience, then danced his fool head off to “Can’t Get There From Here.” The Three O’Clock and True West opened, though I had to go look that up. I went with a crew organized by my good pal Paul Marr, who was the first person to successfully trick me into listening to music by bands who hadn’t disbanded or choked on their own vomit (Thanks, Paul!). We certainly sat in the nosebleeds.
9. What books were on your summer reading list?
WELCH: Just finishing Ancient Gonzo Wisdom, a mostly depressing collection of Hunter S. Thompson interviews. Have cracked open Jonah Keri’s The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First. Will be getting to Ken Layne’s Dignity, Caleb S. Cage’s I Shot a Man in Reno, Michael Scott Moore’s Sweetness + Blood: How Surfing Spread from Hawaii and California to the Rest of the World With Some Unexpected Results, and Heather Havrilesky’s Disaster Preparedness, then will likely wash it all down with Joe Pepitone’s foul baseball/fracking memoir Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud.
10. What’s the coolest thing you’ve been able to do because of your role in the politics?
WELCH: Losing the keys to the Prague Castle was kinda cool, in theory (and with the passage of time). …. The work itself is the coolest thing, dorky as that might sound. Putting together our special July “Criminal Injustice” issue, for example, and getting reactions like Jonathan Rauch saying, “This kind of enterprise is why God invented magazines,” well, that’s pretty cool! Our former staffer Radley Balko (who helped edit the aforementioned issue, along with our great Senior Editor Jacob Sullum) has helped get a guy off death row, and if there’s anything cooler than that in journalism, I’d love to hear about it.
I’m old enough now to have had plenty of interactions with various semi-famous or semi-famous-for-politics people, but that also means I’m old enough to no longer confuse famous with cool. Though I do have very pleasant if hazy memories of doing unspeakable things backstage with the guys and gals from Giant Sand and The Psycho Sisters back in the early ’90s Prague.
11. If Republicans and Democrats had theme songs for 2011, what would they be?
WELCH: Democrats: “I Wanna Be Sedated.” Republicans: “Don’t Let it End.” The rest of us: “Idiot Wind.”
12. Tell me about the moment you decided to enter the political arena.
WELCH: Not sure to this day whether I’m in the “arena” or not (especially since Eliot Spitzer was canceled like one day after we went on his show to promote The Declaration of Independents!), but my first political act was refusing to register with the Selective Service back in 1986, which means I can’t get a federal student loan if I ever decide to get one of those undergraduate degree thingies. My second was organizing a “smoke-in” at the UCSB student pub with the late great Frank McConnell on the day the indoor campus smoking ban went into effect. And then I was part of some march of filthy hippie street musicians in Prague, in a dispute over busking licenses. The moral of the story: Don’t conscript me, don’t tell me where I can’t smoke, and let me play my damned soft rock!