"I've felt for some time now that the freedom movement, broadly defined, was divided and losing the battle, slowly but surely, for our economic, financial and political liberties," acclaimed economist Mark Skousen says. "We're like a herd of cats, everybody doing their own thing."
In 2002, while serving as president of the Foundation for Economic Education, Skousen had an epiphany: Why not corral the free-market feline fracas in "the world's most libertarian city" for a few days to "learn, network, and celebrate liberty"? The result was FreedomFest, a fun, engaging, always eclectic, occasionally eccentric swirl, which, yes, delves deeply into politics and policy -- immigration, energy independence, geopolitics, science -- but, unlike the myriad Manichean which-way-to-power political confabs, also expands its cultural purview in serious ways. It is almost certainly the only politically minded conference this year that will cover Billy the Kid, baseball, Edgar Allan Poe, and new discoveries of the Hubble telescope, as well as feature both science fiction writer Orson Scott Card and Steve Forbes -- the latter, I'm told, may give his keynote speech dressed as George Washington. "Freedom," Skousen explains, "means different things to different people."
Skousen was kind enough to chat recently with TAS about convening the seventh installment of FreedomFest at this strange moment in history during which the federal government is expanding almost as rapidly as Americans' professed skepticism of it is yet the momentum seems about as slowed by public opinion as Obamacare was.
TAS: Are things better or worse for liberty in American now than you thought they'd be at the conclusion of last year's FreedomFest?
Mark Skousen: Definitely much worse -- new taxes, new regulations, new entitlements, ObamaCare. There's even a new law that requires Americans to report if they own more than $50,000 in assets in foreign countries. This may be the beginning of foreign exchange controls.
TAS: Is there, then, a greater sense of urgency for this year's incarnation of FreedomFest?
MS: Yes. We're holding a special "emergency" session this year -- actually a series of sessions -- on the Obama agenda and how it is destroying our economic liberties. Liberty-minded citizens are fed up with the direction this country is taking. The tea parties are a reflection of that anger.
TAS: How will the "Crisis in America" emergency session go about addressing all of that?
MS: That's the great thing about FreedomFest. I really don't know. Ours is an open forum, and I'm just as anxious as you are to know what our top experts think is the problem and what to do about it. We have experts coming from all parts of the world -- Europe, Russia, Africa, Asia, Latin America, and North America -- to give us a world perspective. We have experts from the Wall Street Journal, like Steve Moore, Investors Business Daily, Cato, Heritage, Reason magazine, Newsmax, Fox Business, etcetera. You know, many countries have not lost their freedom and are not suffering from a financial crisis. We can learn from them, too. This is not an exclusively American event. It's a worldwide phenomenon.
TAS: Perhaps one of the most surprising things about our recent travails is how, far from the Great Recession ushering in a new ear of proletarian fealty to Leviathan government, skepticism of both government response to the crisis and big government itself appears to grow more widespread every day. Is it your view that more Americans are receptive to the sort of ideas espoused at FreedomFest than at any time in recent years? And, if so, will the fest deal at all with how to reach out to newly disillusioned independent and nonaligned voters?
MS: We are libertarian, but we encourage people across the political spectrum to attend our conference. We make a big point of avoiding labeling people liberal or conservative, rightist and leftist. So we avoid that kind of alienating that goes on. Each speaker and attendee is judged by their own individual thinking. We've had social democrats that love FreedomFest and return every year because they don't feel intimidated. We have over ten debates this year, so people can side with one view or another. We encourage diversity, but the conference is run by libertarians.
TAS: As a corollary to that last question…Obviously the Bush years were no great shakes for libertarian-minded Americans. Do you worry that these freshly minted Tea Party free-marketeers may be fair weather friends of liberty once Republicans regain power?
MS: Absolutely. George Bush was supposed to be a small government conservative but he turned out to be a big-government Republican who favored the nanny state, war, and deficit spending. It was a great tragedy. I have my concerns about the tea partiers, especially those who are against immigration, illegal or legal. One of our big debates will be on immigration. Or on energy independence, another debate topic.
TAS: Another way of putting this, I suppose, would be to ask is "rugged individualism" still in our DNA?
MS: We used to be rugged individuals, but the big fear is that we are gradually becoming benefit corrupted by Medicare, Social Security, and other entitlements.
TAS: Is this not only a moment of opportunity, but also a time of danger for libertarians?
MS: That's why John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, and other "new" libertarians come to FreedomFest and are big fans. John Mackey wants to create a new brand of capitalism and libertarianism. This will come out, I'm sure, in the debates on "Anarchy & Limited Government" and "The Philosophy of Ayn Rand."
TAS: I know the Washington Post just focused on a FreedomFest exhibitor with very unorthodox views -- do you worry at all about individual speakers or panelists becoming lightning rods that detract from the overall message?
MS: The Post highlighted the Sovereign Society, an organization that is doing a series "Escape from America," on how Americans can invest and live and work abroad, and maybe even take on another country's citizenship. These are not nut cases, but real experts -- CPAs and lawyers -- who give people legitimate options. We had a similar session last year that was packed, standing room only. We've had to create a bigger room for them this year. I know this is a controversial area, and we try to find top experts so that people aren't led astray, so they don't get involved in crazy tax evasion schemes or get into trouble.
TAS: Freedom Fest always meets in Las Vegas. Why? Have you ever considered other cities?
MS: We hold FreedomFest in Las Vegas, because it is truly the only libertarian city in the United States, if not the world. And it works. Yes, the old Las Vegas is there if you want it -- the gambling, the strip clubs. But led by Steve Wynn, there's a new Las Vegas, with the great entertainment, five-star restaurants, top hotels, spas, architecture, even museums. It's also the cheapest place to hold a convention, much cheaper than Orlando. I doubt if we will ever move.