David Boaz: Liberty's North Star

A tribute to my mentor and friend in his final days.

David Boaz, delivering his final public lecture, in February 2024.

David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, passed away on June 7th. I wrote this tribute to him while he was in home hospice.

My friend and mentor David Boaz is dying. I hope you’ll indulge me in some thoughts on why David matters to me—and also why he should matter to you. Tributes like these typically get published after their subject has died, but I wanted to say this before, because, for however brief a time still, we all share the world with a good man.

David’s legacy is the Cato Institute, where he served for four decades as its executive vice president, a title that doesn’t fully capture his influence. David was the north star of Cato, the maintainer of its principles, its guide, and oracle, and fiercest editor. Those of us who care about making the world better by making it more free have David as our role model and inspiration.

I owe him my career. The first book about libertarianism I read, while I was still an undergraduate, was his Libertarianism: A Primer. (The book was later republished in a second edition as The Libertarian Mind, and it remains the best one-volume introduction to libertarianism.) David’s Primer convinced me. Not only of the fundamental morality and justice of a political system aimed at maximizing the liberty of all to author their own lives and live in peace with others doing the same, but also that I wanted to dedicate my life to helping realize that world. Through college and then law school, that was the dream. And the dream on top of that dream was to work at the Cato Institute, because that’s where David worked, and it was the organization dedicated to putting into practice the ideas he set out and defended in his primer.

So as law school wound down, and we all figured out what we wanted to do next, I already knew. I just had to somehow make it happen. I’d refresh the Cato jobs page, looking for something I might be a fit for. But I was a fit for none of it, because, even though I did very well in my Constitutional law class (and very poorly in my contracts class), I didn’t have anything like the skills it took to work at a think tank. I’d interned a bit, but my knowledge of the actual details of public policy was quite far from an expert’s. I’d thought a lot about political philosophy, but unless you’re heading into academia, no one’s going to pay you to do that.

But then, a month or two before graduation, when I’d resigned myself to becoming an attorney, I spotted a job at Cato that I at least wasn’t obviously unqualified for. It was called “Staff Writer,” and all I could really gather about it was that you wrote some publications about what Cato’s scholars were doing. I was a pretty good writer, and a pretty good synthesizer, and so I applied. And got invited for an interview—with two complications. First, I had to write a report on a Cato event as a test. Second, the job wasn’t just in the same building as David, but reporting directly to him. That meant the very first time I’d meet my intellectual hero was in an interview. I was terrified.

So I cheated. I shouldn’t admit as much, but I came clean to David long ago. I got help on the writing test, from my college friend, and then future Cato colleague, and then future Free Thoughts podcast co-host, Trevor Burrus. And Trevor’s dad. Who was himself an attorney and a skilled editor of legal writing. Between the three of us, I aced it, and the interview was confirmed.

I flew from Denver to DC for just a day. They parked me in a hotel room across the street from the Cato building, and I scanned it from my window, thinking maybe I could see the office that was his. Then I was in in the lobby, and then the elevator up to the sixth floor, and then sitting in the reception area outside David Boaz’s office, and I was positive I’d blow it, because my intellectual hero was on the other side of that door, and somehow I had to convince him I was good enough to work for him.

The way David interviews you isn’t “Tell me about a time you were challenged and how you overcame it” or “Tell me about a time you failed, and how you responded.” It’s “You think you know about this libertarianism stuff, now prove it.” He grilled me. It was a minute of pleasantries and then question after question probing the most difficult points in libertarian theory and practice. And the whole time I’m thinking, “That’s David Boaz. He’s right there.” (As I write this fifteen years to the day after I first walked into Cato with David as my boss, and now with him upstairs on his deathbed—and over the last few days, when I walk into that bedroom to help him with something, or to just check with the hospice aid while he sleeps—I still think, and marvel at my good fortune, “That’s David Boaz. He’s right there.”)

As the interview went on, the relentless exchange of questions and then answers he’d smile skeptically in response to, I knew it had to be coming: he’d ask me about foreign policy, and I didn’t know anything about foreign policy. When it arrived—something about the Iraq War, which David had opposed—I felt my inexpertise, and groped for anything that might make me sound reasonably competent. What I came up with was a paraphrase of an exchange from The West Wing, and while I’m now sure David knew that’s where I got it, he graciously didn’t tell me so at the time.

And somehow he was satisfied. He asked me to sit outside his office again, and then came out and offered me the job. My new desk was that cube right outside his door. Further, I wasn’t just reporting to him, but as staff writer, I was David’s right-hand man and primary conversation partner during working hours.

David became what he became, and built the organization he built, because he feels the moral weight of freedom’s call—not just for himself, because everyone wants freedom for themselves, but for everyone. His tireless advocacy for gay rights, long before such a thing was popular in Washington, and his early calls to end the war on drugs, speak to what made David a libertarian, and not a Republican masquerading as one. Freedom isn’t just lower taxes. It’s liberation and emancipation for those most ground down by its lack, and those so marginalized that they don’t have any power to stand up to the state, or to the oppressive social hierarchies that give it marching orders.

But David also became what he became, and built the organization that he built, because he loves this stuff. He can’t get enough of ideas, their conflicts, and their evolution. He and I would talk for hours, floating propositions, probing distinctions, and poking holes. The point, for David, was exploration and learning. Winning mattered to him, of course. He’s dedicated his life to seeing one set of ideas (political, economic, and social liberty) win out over their opposites. And he was the most skilled debater I’ve ever seen in action. Yet David knew—and appreciated at a deeper level than almost anyone—that progress is a conversation. It’s persuasion, not force. It’s mutual exchange, not dominating pronouncements.

It was in these conversations that David moved from a boss to mentor to cherished friend. Everyone at Cato was a little scared of David, even while they also loved him, because we knew not just that Cato existed in his image, but because he set the standards higher than anyone else, and knew all of us were capable of meeting them. (He could also spot a typo with superhuman perception.) But as staff writer, those lucky few of us who held the role over the years came to understand David as a deeply humble and humane man. In retrospect, it is obvious he’d be that way, because you don’t fight to give everyone, everywhere the opportunity for self-authorship and equal dignity if you don’t care, profoundly, about humanity. 

David taught me to be a better advocate for the ideas that matter so much to both of us. And he gave me the career that has been so much better than I ever could’ve imagined. But he also made me a better man through our friendship, and conversations, and his example of taking one’s principles seriously.

At a time when so many in his movement have turned away from or softened their commitment to those principles—out of expediency or cowardice, or for money or to better cozy up to politicians, or because that commitment to principle was mainly rhetorical in the first place—David held firm. It would’ve been impossible for him to do otherwise. David just is principle. If our being can have a fundamental nature, that’s his.

They say not to meet your heroes because they’ll disappoint you. Mine didn’t.

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