My name’s Matt, and I am a Libertarian. I know some of you guys haven’t seen one before, so if you want, take a pic­ture. Put it on Snapchat. Tell your friends that you actu­al­ly saw one. I’m also, in the ver­nac­u­lar of our time, what’s known as an old. Are there any oth­er olds in the office? 

If you look up an old per­son in the Urban Dictionary, you dis­cov­er that we love to bitch about how we feel in the morn­ing. We talk a lot about how we walked to school a mile each way uphill in the snow and rain every day. We might talk about those old rotary phones that you see in the old movies. And how if you want­ed to call your your grand­ma or your girl­friend, you only had one minute because because it cost an extra­or­di­nary amount of mon­ey. And it actu­al­ly cost a lot of mon­ey just to turn those dials.

And if you want­ed to get news, you were allo­cat­ed one twenty-five minute allo­ca­tion, and you had a choice of three TV net­works once a day, at the end of which Walter Cronkite told you, That’s the way it is.” There was no oppor­tu­ni­ty to go on Twitter and flame Walter Cronkite with an alter­na­tive point of view. And so it was hard to get infor­ma­tion. It was hard to con­nect with people.

For me as a teenag­er, it was extra­or­di­nar­i­ly hard to find cool music. When I start­ed get­ting into music in 1977, there was this thing called the Top 40. And it was an insid­i­ous plan by the music-industrial com­plex to make you lis­ten to real­ly shit­ty music. In August of 1977, at the top of the charts, Andy Gibb, I Just Want to be Your Everything.” You guys prob­a­bly don’t even know what that is. Have you heard of the Captain & Tennille’s Muskrat Love?” Every hour on the hour, they would cycle this garbage on the radio sta­tion that you were lucky to find, and that’s what you lis­tened to.

One day when I was at school, some cool kid was play­ing a band that I dis­cov­ered lat­er was called Rush. It was a live album that had just come out called All the World’s a Stage.” I talked my mom into dri­ving me to the record store which was two towns over—I lived in a small town. She thought I was crazy, but kids are obses­sive and even­tu­al­ly moms give way to that sort of thing. And when I got there, they did­n’t have the album I want­ed. They had a ton of copies of Captain & Tennille. They had even more copies of Andy Gibb. But they did­n’t have the one album I want­ed, so I set­tled for anoth­er album by Rush. And it changed my life because I real­ized from my per­spec­tive, not all music had to suck, and that there was a way, if you worked real­ly hard, to beat the music-industrial complex.

Well, this is before Amazon. This is before the music industry…which real­ly con­trolled every­thing from the top down. If you lis­ten to any cool music from the 1970s, it’s not just about sex and drugs, it’s about the record com­pa­ny man. You guys have heard these sto­ries? It’s because that guy, that evil guy, had com­plete con­trol over whether or not your music would make it to peo­ple. The cost of pro­duc­tion. The cost of pro­duc­ing vinyl records. The abil­i­ty to even get the ear of the guy that could decide whether or not your band had a future. It was very oppres­sive. It was a very closed system.

And then along came CDs, which low­ered the pro­duc­tion costs of music. And then along came Amazon. Whereas the founder of Wired mag­a­zine described it, you could final­ly get to the Long Tail of the Internet. So instead of choos­ing between Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus at the fat end of the Internet, you could go all the way down to the tail and find the sec­ond set of an awe­some Grateful Dead show from Cornell University, 1977. That was pret­ty cool. That was pret­ty empow­er­ing. But still, con­trolled from the top down. Still con­trolled by a lot of inter­me­di­a­tors that would tell you what what you could lis­ten to.

And then along comes a dis­rup­tive tech­nol­o­gy like Spotify. People in Silicon Valley are talk­ing about this in the con­text of the end of own­er­ship. You don’t have to buy that vinyl record any­more, you don’t have to buy that CD. You don’t have to let any­one tell you what you can and can’t have, because thanks to social media and apps like Spotify (there’s a thou­sand of them) you can cre­ate your own expe­ri­ence. You can even find those weird folk albums that J. Tillman made before he became Father John Misty. I know, that’s a weird music reference. 

Disruptive tech­nol­o­gy and the poten­tial of social media I think is the most pro­found thing we could all talk about. And I want to read the def­i­n­i­tion so I don’t screw it up. From Clayton Christensen—he’s the guy that came up with the phrase dis­rup­tive technology.”

A dis­rup­tive inno­va­tion is some­thing that allows for a whole new pop­u­la­tion of con­sumers at the bot­tom of the mar­ket access to a prod­uct or ser­vice that was his­tor­i­cal­ly only acces­si­ble to con­sumers with a lot of mon­ey or a lot of skill. 

Bottom of the mar­ket access to some­thing that was only avail­able to peo­ple with lots of mon­ey and lots of skill. I think he just described our polit­i­cal process, right? Think about the two-party duop­oly in this closed sys­tem we call Washington DC. Has any­one ever been to Washington DC? You see all the build­ings that line the halls, not just of K Street, but they they grow up like like a can­cer from the Capitol office build­ing. And it’s every sin­gle imag­in­able spe­cial inter­est that has gone to Washington DC to hoard pow­er, to hoard infor­ma­tion, and to con­trol the con­ver­sa­tion that is sup­posed to be for the peo­ple and by the people.

But that’s not how it works. I’m an econ­o­mist by train­ing. Since I’m clean­ing my clos­et, I should admit that as well. And eco­nom­ics as you know is the dis­mal sci­ence. There is noth­ing more dis­mal than the appli­ca­tion of micro­eco­nom­ics to the field of pub­lic choice. I went to George Mason University. There’s a gen­tle­man named James Buchanan who won a Nobel Prize for sug­gest­ing that polit­i­cal actors are just as self-interested as the rest of us. In oth­er words, politi­cians want votes, they want to con­trol pow­er. People with­in in the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment are self-interested some­times, which means they keep doing what they were doing even if it’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly the thing that needs to be done. And that’s why bureau­cra­cies grow inex­orably. That’s why in the most dis­mal inter­pre­ta­tion of pub­lic choice eco­nom­ics, democ­ra­cy con­sumes itself and col­laps­es and we all die.

So that’s sort of a bum­mer, right? And if you’re won­der­ing why noth­ing ratio­nal seems to hap­pen in Washington DC, it’s because of this iron law of pub­lic choice eco­nom­ics. They talk about con­cen­trat­ed ben­e­fits and dis­persed costs. In oth­er words, if you’re ExxonMobil, or an invest­ment bank, or Big Sugar, or fill-in-the-blank, you have a vest­ed inter­est in show­ing up and get­ting at the table first, and con­trol­ling the con­ver­sa­tion, and hoard­ing that infor­ma­tion as you’re lined up out­side of the halls of the Senate Finance Committee so that you can game the sys­tem and get what you want. That’s the con­cen­trat­ed benefit. 

And there’s a huge pay­off for this. You’re see­ing it in the busi­ness com­mu­ni­ty. More and more busi­ness­es are decid­ing that their prof­it cen­ter is going to Washington for a favor instead of cre­at­ing a bet­ter prod­uct at a low­er price and serv­ing con­sumer demand. This is a cor­ro­sive thing that can­not stand if this coun­try’s going to survive.

Now, the dis­persed costs, that’s all you guys. Every time Big Sugar pro­tects its monop­oly, it means that you prob­a­bly pay half a cent more for a cook­ie. And you don’t know that. You’re get­ting screwed and you don’t know it. And apply that across the board to every­thing that hap­pens in Washington DC and you’ll get a cer­tain sense for why things don’t work that well.

So, what might we do about that? How might we shift pow­er away from the insid­ers and back to the end user? How might we, in the terms of dis­rup­tive tech­nol­o­gy, low­er those fixed costs of know­ing what they’re up to, and shift it to a vari­able cost? I think that’s why we’re all here. I think that’s what we’re all try­ing to fig­ure out. Talked about pow­er. Talked about the respon­si­bil­i­ty of cit­i­zen­ship. Well, let me talk about the oppor­tu­ni­ty of those things.

We’re in a day and age where Walter Cronkite does­n’t get to tell you what to think. The music-industrial com­plex does­n’t get to tell you what to lis­ten to. And Washington DC and all of those inter­est groups that are lined up all down the streets of K Street, all out­side the Capitol. They no longer get to tell you how it is that you will enjoy your rela­tion­ship to the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. We could do that for ourselves.

And you’re see­ing that. I think a lot of the— We talk about grid­lock. I think it’s less about grid­lock today than it is about a par­a­digm shift. I think a lot of peo­ple have bet­ter access to infor­ma­tion. They set up their RSS feeds. If they’re respon­si­ble, they don’t just lis­ten to MSNBC or Fox News. They set up a whole feed. I use Twitter to do this. I don’t know what you guys do. And every morn­ing, thou­sands of my unknown friends have curat­ed a bet­ter pic­ture of what’s going on in the world than I could have pos­si­bly got­ten when I was a kid. That’s power. 

And now we can con­nect with each oth­er. We can raise mon­ey out­side of the two-party duop­oly. We can build Facebook pages with moms lit­er­al­ly hav­ing a big­ger foot­print in their local com­mu­ni­ties than either the Republican par­ty or the Democratic par­ty. That’s pow­er. And under­stand that real peo­ple, the peo­ple that are pay­ing the costs of stu­pid things the gov­ern­ment does, we’re busy. We have jobs, we have fam­i­lies, we have kids, we have things that are more impor­tant to us than what Congress is up to. I think that’s a ratio­nal deci­sion to make. 

Social media low­ers the cost of par­tic­i­pa­tion, but you still have that respon­si­bil­i­ty. You have to show up. You can’t just sit on the couch and bitch about what they’re doing. You have to appre­ci­ate that they’re going to con­tin­ue to do what they do. The sys­tem is designed the way it is to pro­tect pow­er. The only way you get it back is you take it back. 

Now, I think the way we do this is as a com­mu­ni­ty respect­ing indi­vid­u­als, respect­ing the dif­fer­ences that we would all have. I’ve met a lot of friends in this audi­ence, and we’re work­ing a lot on crim­i­nal jus­tice reform. I sus­pect once we get that done, we’re prob­a­bly to fight like cats and dogs over some­thing else. Because I’m a Libertarian and Libertarians real­ly aren’t com­fort­able until you’ve chased every­body else out of the room. It’s just how we are. We can’t help it.

So let me leave you with this. I think there’s an unprece­dent­ed oppor­tu­ni­ty to change our rela­tion­ship with polit­i­cal pow­er. And I don’t think we need to be afraid of it. I don’t think we have to com­pro­mise our core prin­ci­ples in order to do it. But I think we have to be will­ing to show up and fight that fight. It’s got to be non­vi­o­lent. It’s got to be a civ­il dis­course. But it should be relent­less, as well. It’s a process, and regard­less of who you think should win the pres­i­den­cy next time, win­ning the pres­i­den­cy has noth­ing to do with this. Winning a Congressional seat has noth­ing to do with this. It has to do with under­stand­ing the mechan­ics of dri­ving social change.

And to quote that great strate­gist George W. Bush, I think it’s a coali­tion of the will­ing. There’s a social tol­er­ance to com­mu­ni­ties that has to be accept­ed here. There are cer­tain things that we could work on togeth­er. And if you don’t want to work on that oth­er thing, you should respect that. And yes, argue about it over beers and call your best friend names. But under­stand that the com­mu­ni­ty is going to agree to do cer­tain things. And by the way, the com­mu­ni­ty is not a com­mu­ni­ty, it’s thou­sands and thou­sands and thou­sands of vol­un­tary asso­ci­a­tions across all com­mu­ni­ties, that some­times come togeth­er and do real­ly impor­tant things. 

You guys want to join me in this? Anybody? Well, talk to your friends. Maybe they’ve met a Libertarian, too. We don’t bite. Thank you very much. 

Further Reference

Conference web site [Wayback]