The Many Routes on a Career in Libertarianism

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Many young libertarians are much like myself at their age.  They read everything about free markets, intently listen to every economics lecture, and as graduation approaches, most ask themselves, “How can I take these principles and apply them to the real world and make libertarianism my career? What route should I take from the several before me?”  Usually, the people pointing the way forward are esteemed professors.  I am neither of the two…neither a professor nor highly esteemed.  So, what gives me the right to dispense wisdom to the next generation?

Unlike many professors, I’ve seen the world of libertarianism from more than a single career route, academia.  Instead, I’ve been around the whole block…several times as a matter of fact.  To give you a brief summary, I was on a PhD Economics program for almost two years and published in academic journals, but I didn’t just hit the books. I also worked in DC think tanks, and after that made the jump to a short-lived career as a free-market-leaning lobbyist on K Street.  Furthermore, some readers may recognize me from a certain libertarian-oriented investment newsletter.  And currently, I’m an investment banker working on cross-border mergers and acquisitions for a major global bank.

So, I’ve been in academia, policy, lobbying, and finance.  From K Street to Wall Street and the ivory tower in between, I’ve seen it all.  While I might not be an esteemed professor with a hundred academic publications, my path has taught me a lot more about career options than your typical bookworm professor will ever learn.  The following descriptions of these paths are based on my personal experiences.  I cannot testify that this will be your exact experience in following each path, but I hope you can take away some lessons from this article if choosing a career in libertarianism.  From my experience, here are the pros and cons for young libertarians to consider among each of the following career routes:

Academia

In theory, academia seems like the perfect place for someone who wants to study about free-markets.  However, in reality, it’s not as sweet as it sounds.  First of all, there’s the problem of finding a PhD program that supports the Austrian Economics school of thought, but that’s just a part of it.  Even if you find an Austrian program, you’ll still have to deal with much of the BS in academia.

To frame the issue succinctly, in many cases, academia is a lifelong exercise in ass-kissing….from the second you step into the door of your graduate program to the day you get tenure and even beyond.  Many Academics pretends to be all about the truth, scholarship, and rigorous research, but, when you see academia from the inside, it’s anything but a meritocracy.

In some cases, this won’t be true.  Some universities will treat you better others, but the problem is that much of your career will depend on others rather than your own effort.  To explain this better, let me share an experience in the private market.  I had one boss who simply hated my guts –I mean the guy really didn’t like me.  But, he didn’t fire me because I produced good results for the company.  If the head of economics department dislikes you in academia, it doesn’t matter if you’ve published in a hundred academic journals, you’re getting the boot.  Your career can be meritocratic but you have to find yourself with the right group of people –it’s a bit of career roulette, a game I’d rather not play.

I’ll give you another example of the problem from my PhD economics program experience….the Phd classrooms were almost completely silent.  This was the polar opposite of my undergraduate experience at Loyola University of New Orleans.  At Loyola, students would challenge professors and question their ideas to dig deeper into the facts –our classrooms closer resembled a meeting of the debate team than your typical economics lecture.  In the Phd classes, where the students should have been ten times more passionate about economics, there was hardly ever any debate.

Why? Well, do you really want to challenge the ideas of a professor who might be on your dissertation committee, who controls your scholarship/stipend, who could recommend you for a teaching position in the future?  To challenge a professor on a Phd program either makes one extremely ballsy or downright stupid –usually the latter.  Rather than finding the Phd program intellectually stimulating –the very reason for my attendance –I found it full of group think and people ready to pucker up for their professors.  And don’t think that I attended some sort of “commie pinko” PhD program –no instead, I was at the biggest Austrian PhD program in the country.

But, this is just the start of it.  Look at the students graduating from Austrian-based programs.  Where are they finding jobs? Of course other Austrian schools where their professors have connections.   Very few graduates send their resume to a random university and land a job.  To be fair, in almost every profession, “who you know rather than what you know” applies….but in academia this much more true than in the real world outside the ivory tower.

The problem is more than just being a kiss-ass and always agreeing with your professors –the process to an academic job will also shape your research.  If you signed up wanting to be some sort of revolutionary –a Rothbard or Mises –think again.  You will be encouraged to write on some obscure topic that won’t ruffle anyone’s fetters.  That’s why many recent Austrian PhDs are experts in completely obscure topics such as an in-depth analysis of 16th century free-market African tribes or the free-market economics of carnies and circus clowns.

Rather than tackling the Krugman’s and Stiglitz’s of the world on macroeconomic topics, you will end up tackling minutia that is safe for your career and that no one really cares about.  I have many friends who have followed this route and let me say that I do not mean to offend them with my comments in the previous paragraph.  I say this only because young libertarians need to know the direction academia will steer them, not because I mean to demean anyone’s work in mean spirit.

There are upsides as well.  In no other path will you gain so much in-depth knowledge of economics.  You will read anywhere from 300 to 400 pages of economics per week on your PhD program.  That’s a fun process for the intellectually curious.  However, do consider that knowledge has diminishing marginal returns as well.  Your first libertarian book may have been life-changing…your 79th book is pretty boring and useless.

Academia works for some people and it may be a good fit for you, but in my case, I just couldn’t pucker up.  This is academia as I saw it.  Some have had much better experiences and some have had it even worse.  If you can find a university with a group of good and open-minded people, you could have a very fruitful career and different experience, but realize that this might not be the case.  Personally, I like working in meritocracies and in many cases, academia just isn’t that….if you need any further proof, just see how Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises were treated by the academic system

Policy/Think Tanks

Let’s start with something positive on policy.  In many ways, it’s more attractive than academia as the research is more rigorous and focused.  At a think tank, one researches and writes 9 to 5 every day.  There are no classes to get in your way and no danger of a personal lack of motivation –a problem plaguing the low publication count of many professors.  If you’re on the clock at a think tank, you are producing research and are kept fairly busy.  Furthermore, you will be working on issues directly affecting policy on the Hill.  In the vast majority of cases, the research will be more relevant than the 16th century African trade routes. On top of that, an established think tank can give you a pretty big microphone. As an academic, you have to personally push your research into the spotlight.  At a think tank, there is a whole public relations machine pushing your research into prominent places.

However, before you get to use their microphone to sing your own songs, you’re going to have to do your time as a roadie lugging around the gear and tuning other people’s guitars.  If you’re told to jump, you answer “how high?” If the think tank opposes the Democrat health care plan, but supports the Republican plan –then, you do it, regardless of how bad or unlibertarian the Republican plan might be.  Most young people following this route hope to one day rise up in the policy ranks and then make their own ideas heard.  And it’s true, you can do your own research projects at think tanks, but at the end of the day, you are in somebody else’s pocket.

I saw this first hand when markets were crashing in 2008 and the government pushed forward unprecedented uses of bailouts and power.  Many policy analysts, much older than me, were forced to support positions that they personally detested.  Nonetheless, their respective think tanks made them rally behind those atrocious policies as those were the orders from up on high.

Though I love the greater efficiency and policy relevance of think tanks, the 2008 crisis shattered my career hopes for this route.  As the low man on the totem pole, I was hoping to rise up to a senior position where I could make my ideas heard rather than following the research agendas of others.  And in 2008, I was seeing my seniors in D.C., the people who I was trying to become, still taking orders from the man.  Unless you’re running the think tank, you will ultimately never call the shots on anything. At times, you will be allowed to do your own research and it will be a lot of fun.  But at the end of the day, you support the causes your think tank wants you to support.

If one is extremely lucky, one can find a job at a think tank that shares about 80% of one’s beliefs.  But even then, you will work on many projects that feel morally wrong from a libertarian point of view.  Policy is not a good place for the morally inflexible.  As country singer Glen Campbell said in one of his hit songs, “There’s been a load of compromising on the road to my horizon.” The same will be true for your career on the policy route.  You will have to support a lot of other people’s causes on the path to supporting yours.  Unless you’re lucky enough to work for someone like Ron Paul, by the end of your career, you will be an empty shell of the principled libertarian who first stepped foot into DC.

The real question here is a very personal one.  Do the ends justify the means?  If you bend on a bunch of principles along the way to get your message across, is it worth it in the long run?  I don’t know if there’s a definitive answer, but for me, it was “no”.

Lobbying

Oh boy, what are you doing even looking at this section?  Actually, there’s good reason to consider lobbying.  For one, it is the efficiency of profit and loss applied to policy change.  As a lobbyist, you’re no longer passively writing articles and working on policy in your spare time.  Instead, you will be pushed to produce results.

If I could rank academia, think tanks, and lobbying in output, lobbying would easily be at the top.  While academic research is thorough, it is lazy.  Professors sometimes produce only a handful of articles per year –that’s true even for younger professors “desperate” for tenure.  And as previously mentioned, the research is often unfocused and irrelevant to the real world.

Think tanks stick to relevant topics and no one has tenure.  So, it’s definitely a productive route, but at the end of the day, it’s still a non-profit –the fire of profit and loss does not push one to produce more than necessary.  However, in the lobbying world, you will produce each and every day and the topics will necessarily affect policy.  Furthermore, the microphone here is very loud.  Through the help of K Street lobbying groups and public relations firms, it’s very easy for a 23-year old kid to ghostwrite his way into the biggest publications in the country.  Seeing your work read by millions is definitely a cool feeling.

There’s just one big problem with the lobbying side of things.  It’s a rotten world. I knew people on K Street who were hardcore Barack Obama supporters and worked daily to oppose his policies.  To put it lightly, there is something wrong with these people –they have no moral compass whatsoever.  Pay them to lobby for Obama.  They’ll do it.  Pay them to lobby against him.  They’ll do it as well.

And that’s how most of these places work.  Even if you find a libertarian-leaning lobbying group, you’re going to have to bend on your principles.  At a lobbying firm, the goal is not to stand for anything but rather to push through or dismantle the bills passing through the halls of Congress.  If that means smashing Obamacare and replacing it with an equally bad government program, then that’s what you’ll have to do for the lobbying group.  Sometimes, the alternative will be a free-market reform and sometimes, it will be just another government program.

In lobbying, your principles will require the flexibility of a Stretch Armstrong doll.  However, bending on your principles won’t be the worst of it -the worst of it will be your colleagues.  Think about it.  These are people with absolutely no moral compass in their political ethics …more unfortunate for those around them, their personal ethics lack the same compass.  In turn, expect the nastiest office politics of your life.  Wall Street is often illustrated as a cutthroat office environment….having worked in finance let me tell you that Wall Street is full of sweethearts compared to the people on K Street.

From the first day, you will be thrown into a den of wolves ready to blame you for anything and ready to backstab at the blink of an eye.  Unlike many other offices, the problem with lobbying is that it’s a bit of a level playing field which makes the office politics worse.  In most professions, your bosses will know a lot more than you which is a great thing for a recent graduate.  That’s where you want to be at the start of a career.

But imagine if your bosses have no tangible skills other than writing press releases and talking to contacts on the Hill.  As a result, anyone in the office can potentially replace anyone else.  In such an environment, everyone is a threat to everyone else’s job.  It doesn’t help that most of these people are hyenas by nature. It gets nasty –real nasty. Are you ready for that?

If I’ve learned anything from working in so many different places, it’s that people matter the most.  On paper, my first job in high school was horrible –I was an antique furniture mover –they made it heavier back in the day. However, what should have been an otherwise miserable job was a great experience which I still look fondly on today.  The boss was a great guy and the co-workers were all my good friends.  On paper, my lobbying job should have been a dream job: research economics and publish articles in the country’s most-read publications.  However, the experience was possibly the worst time of my life, the difference was the people.

While you’re searching for a career, make some compromises but trust me, if the choice is between working with scum at a “dream job” or working with great people as a back office accountant –go for the back office accountant position.  For very ambitious young people, this is a difficult decision to understand, but just trust me, it’s not worth it.

If you’re going to be a lobbyist, it can be fun as you’ll see policy shifting from your window on K Street, but come ready with a thick skin and a knife in your teeth.

The Private Market

The greatest advantage of being an activist libertarian while holding down a regular job is the nearly absolute academic freedom.  Take this article as an example in of itself.  I am able to speak bluntly about academia, policy, and lobbying for the very reason that I don’t owe anything to anyone.  My job is not dependent on a grant, a think tank, or the opinions of my academic friends.  I pick up my paycheck through my own merit.  As a result, I can say pretty much anything that I want.

Well, to be honest, there are some limits here as well.  In an age where employers and clients can search for your name on the internet, one’s libertarian writings on the side could be a problem. I’m not saying that there is vast discrimination of libertarians out there, but take this as an example situation: you are hiring a new junior accountant for your department and have two equally talented prospects, Joe and Greg.  While searching for their names online, you find that Greg loves writing radical Marxist articles online while nothing comes up for Joe.  Who are you going to hire?  At some point, the hiring manager is going to be a big fan of Barack Obama, the US military, or any number unlibertarian causes, he or she may not look kindly on your libertarian articles and beliefs shared by a small spectrum of the population.

Nonetheless, the advantage here is that you can decide what to publish and what not to publish. No one forces you to write anything; so you are allowed to set your own limits.

There are some additional drawbacks as well.  For one, time is a big issue.  With a 9 to 5 job, plus a commute, kids, and other responsibilities, chances are that you won’t have much time to write or read about libertarianism in comparison to a professor or policy analyst.  While you might not become the next Murray Rothbard or Mises following this route, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s nothing for a libertarian to contribute here. Many of the most popular writers on libertarian websites such as LRC are pulling in regular paychecks just like anyone else.

Another route to consider is that of the donor.  The often unsung heroes of the libertarian movement are the donors giving to free-market institutions.  It is really the donors who propelled people like Ron Paul just as much as it was intellectuals like Mises. Many donors have never written a single libertarian article, yet they are playing an amazingly important role in the movement.  Furthermore, the route of the donor answers another often-asked question among young libertarians, “If I go into the private market, should I try to do something libertarian-oriented like start a BitCoin business or work for an a libertarian-leaning organization?”

In my opinion, you should go out and become as influential as you can be in whatever profession sparks your interest.  Some of the biggest donors out there have absolutely nothing to do with libertarianism yet they’re some of the most influential people in the movement.  Go be a petroleum engineer, a gynecologist, a computer whiz, whatever….It really doesn’t matter.  If you produce value for society through voluntary means, you are tens times the libertarian of professors living on the government dole.  Remember your Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged…who is holding up the world, it’s not the guy writing articles about 16th century African tribes –despite what they might think.  Work in business, make money, become successful and don’t forget your beliefs.

Some Concluding Thoughts

If you look down this list, it seems that every category has some very serious negatives –particularly for the principled among us.  If one is willing to change direction with the prevailing wind, most of the problems stated above are not really problems at all.  However, I certainly hope that the young libertarians reading this haven’t become so worldly before even making their first steps toward a libertarian career. The last thing the world needs is more libertarians willing to bend for career advancement.  We already have plenty of those…

For life in general, but especially in politics and policy, it is tough to be a principled and decent person.  The institutions on high are corrupt and have been so for a long time, if not always.  When you go speaking truth to power, don’t expect to be received with open arms.  The same story has been playing out for centuries.  Think of Jesus.  He didn’t exactly apply for a job at the synagogues.  He wasn’t an employee or advisor to the Roman Empire.  He kind of had to do his own thing –and even then, they killed Him for it.

If you’re a libertarian activist, you will be walking a difficult road, but it’s certainly one which I hope that many more young people will take.  So, what is one to do?  Well, I don’t have a good answer for you –some things you’ve got to figure out on your own and the decisions will depend on your personality and strengths. Furthermore, my experiences are just one story.  Talk to as many career libertarians as you can –they will share stories both good and bad.   May my experiences at the very least make your decisions toward a career in libertarianism a little more informed and hopefully at the most, easier.

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