David Boaz, a Leading Voice of Libertarianism, Dies at 70 - The World News

David Boaz, a Leading Voice of Libertarianism, Dies at 70

David Boaz, an apostle of “reasonable, radical libertarianism” who argued that Americans are entitled to pursue life, liberty and happiness without government meddling in their bedrooms or boardrooms or with their cannabis, died on Friday at his home in Arlington, Va. He was 70.

The cause was complications of esophageal cancer, his longtime partner, Steve Miller, said.

Mr. Boaz encapsulated libertarianism, the philosophy that prioritizes individual freedom over government overreach, with characteristic perspicuity:

“You learn the essence of libertarianism in kindergarten,” he wrote in “Libertarianism: A Primer,” a 1997 book that was updated and rereleased in 2015 as “The Libertarian Mind: A Manifesto for Freedom.” “Don’t hit other people, don’t take their stuff, and keep your promises.”

As executive vice president of the Cato Institute, the Washington-based libertarian think tank, since 1989, Mr. Boaz was a frequent contributor to its magazine, Reason. He also wrote opinion essays for The New York Times and other publications, advancing a philosophy that had been embraced for centuries by thinkers like John Locke, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman, but whose practical application posed challenges to some potential disciples.

Summing up his holistic view of individual liberty, Mr. Boaz told The Times in 1984, “I don’t think it’s any of the government’s business to protect people from themselves, whether it’s seatbelts, cyclamates or marijuana.”

Nor, he argued, did it make any sense to deny gay people legal equality. Government benefits, for example, should not be withheld from same-sex partners in stable relationships, he said, when children of single-parent families or of unmarried heterosexual partners were receiving that support. Mr. Boaz was openly gay and a founding member of the Independent Gay Forum, a website that aggregated articles by gay conservative economists in the mid-1990s.

Mr. Boaz issued an early plea to declare defeat in the government’s declared war on drugs, saying that antidrug laws violated privacy and had failed.

“We can either escalate the war on drugs, which would have dire implications for civil liberties and the right to privacy, or find a way to gracefully withdraw,” Mr. Boaz, who neither drank nor smoked, wrote in The Times in 1988. “Withdrawal should not be viewed as an endorsement of drug use; it would simply be an acknowledgment that the cost of this war — billions of dollars, runaway crime rates and restrictions on our personal freedom — is too high.”

In an explanatory article for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Mr. Boaz wrote that libertarians believe that government’s primary purpose is to protect citizens from the illegitimate use of force and that “individuals should be free to behave and to dispose of their property as they see fit, provided that their actions do not infringe on the equal freedom of others.”

For libertarians, he added, “the central philosophical issue is not individuality versus community, but rather consent versus coercion.”

David Douglas Boaz was born on Aug. 29, 1953, in Mayfield, Ky., to Seth Thomas Boaz Jr., an elected Circuit Court judge, and Martha (Pruitt) Boaz, who had earned a master’s degree in economics and managed the household. An uncle by marriage, Frank Albert Stubblefield, was a Democratic congressman from Kentucky.

In addition to Mr. Miller, Mr. Boaz is survived by his sister, Mary Boaz, and his brother, Seth Thomas Boaz III.

Mr. Boaz first became enamored with libertarianism when he read Henry Hazlitt’s 1946 book, “Economics in One Lesson,” from his mother’s bookshelf. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in history from Vanderbilt University in 1975 and joined the conservative group Young Americans for Freedom.

“In my misguided youth, I was a teenage Young Democrat, a College Republican and a young adult Libertarian Party activist, before I gave up politics,” he once recalled.

Parting from the Young Americans, he persuaded Edward H. Crane, chairman of the Libertarian Party and a founder of the Cato Institute, to hire him for the campaigns of Edward Clark, a Libertarian, for governor of California in 1978 and president in 1980.

Described by National Review as “a titan in the freedom movement,” Mr. Boaz was at Cato for more than 43 years, retiring as executive vice president in 2022. When he died, he was a distinguished senior fellow at the institute, a position held by only three other people, all Nobel laureates in economics.

Mr. Boaz described libertarianism as classic liberalism and was opposed to what he called “the creeping forces of populism.” He told NPR in 2002 that to maintain his independence he was not enrolled in the Libertarian Party, adding that if libertarians, during the 2016 presidential campaign, had a gun to their heads and had “to choose between Clinton and Trump, the correct answer is take the bullet.”

But in April, looking ahead to a 2024 contest between President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump, he told CNN, “The big freedom issue that Biden has over Trump is that Trump tried to steal an election.”

Mr. Boaz challenged misty-eyed fantasts of American history. “I am particularly struck by libertarians and conservatives who celebrate the freedom of early America, and deplore our decline from those halcyon days,” he wrote in 2010, “without bothering to mention the existence of slavery.”

Asked why he spent his career advocating for what seemed like a Sisyphean movement, Mr. Boaz told Brian Doherty, the editor of Reason, in 1998: “Particularly if you’re a libertarian, you can’t say it’s morally obligatory to be fighting for these values — but it does feel right, and at some other level more than just being right, it is fun. It’s what I want to do.”

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