David Boaz, R.I.P.

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David Boaz died on June 7. He was 70 years old and had been suffering from cancer.

As executive vice president of the Cato Institute for 42 years — an astonishing continuity for a political activist — he was enormously influential in mainstreaming libertarian ideas and bringing them within the Beltway. He helped ensure that Cato was more than a lobbying group; it was an intellectual forum and resource.

For Reason Brian Doherty has written a thoughtful and detailed account of David’s life. I can’t add to the facts, but I want to add some personal observations.

David was such a strong feature of the libertarian world, and of my own world, that it’s hard to imagine he’s gone. There have been several generations of American libertarians, each with its own character; he contributed mightily to making the idea of liberty what it became in his own generation.

First was the founding generation of pure intellectuals — literary people such as Ayn Rand, Isabel Paterson, and Rose Wilder Lane; and economists such as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. These people kept an austere faith in individual freedom, amid the sordid, ever-hungry wilderness of collectivism.

Then there was the second generation, in which such intellectuals as Milton Friedman, John Hospers, and Murray Rothbard attracted vast cultural attention to libertarian ideas. This is the era in which the Libertarian Party was founded and in which young activists signed on to the movement, determined to spread its influence.

These activists began the movement’s third generation. Among them were David Boaz and the founder of this journal, R.W. Bradford. They brought libertarians together through conferences and seminars and journals, and eventually through electronic media. They had broad cultural acquaintance and were often not academics. (As an academic, I can say that this was all to the good.) They knew American life and understood its affinity with libertarian ideas.

From the first publication of Liberty, David was an intellectual contributor and faithful friend. I saw him frequently at conferences, where he distinguished himself as a confident, well-informed, acute, and very effective debater, a leader who richly deserved his popularity. We had some important differences of opinion, but they made no difference to our friendship. The last time I saw David, just before covid destroyed so much of America’s pattern of relationships, he was my generous host at a very small, very delightful dinner at FreedomFest in Las Vegas. His email messages to me continued. I heard from him several weeks ago, when he sent me a welcome message about Liberty. He didn’t mention his illness or approaching death; he was as imperturbable then as he had always been.

Thinking back over our relationship, I find it remarkable that he changed so little over those many years. But he knew what he thought, and he knew who he was. A person like that can do a lot of good in this world, and that’s what David did.

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