An Interview With David Theroux

David J. Theroux is the founder and president of The Independent Institute, a non-partisan, scholarly research and educational organization in Oakland, California.  


What is the mission of The Independent Institute, and what does it do to achieve that mission?  

The Independent Institute is a non-partisan, scholarly, public policy research and educational organization that conducts peer-reviewed studies of major economic, social, legal, and environmental issues.  Through the production and publication of books, The Independent Review (quarterly journal), conferences, and media and other programs, The Independent Institute regularly identifies and advances pioneering, libertarian and free-market solutions in order to boldly redefine and redirect public debate. Our mission is to win the war of ideas, and we utilize every available means to do so.  

One of the things that the Institute is known for is its scholarly journal The Independent Review.  How can one subscribe?   

Our quarterly journal , The Independent Review, is edited by the distinguished economist and historian, Robert Higgs, Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute. While it is a scholarly journal—that is, it adheres to rigorous academic standards of peer-review for all articles--it is also edited to be readable. Rather than relying on arcane jargon or movement hype, its articles are written in clear and lucid English.  

Individual subscriptions are available for $28.95 per year ( or are complimentary as part of anyone becoming an Independent Associate Member with a tax-deductible contribution of $500 or more. Independent Associates can also receive complimentary copies of new Institute books and other publications along with other benefits. Membership information can be found  

What did you do before you founded the Institute?

My educational background is that I received three undergraduate and graduate degrees in applied mathematics and mechanical engineering from the University of California and an MBA from the University of Chicago. I have worked as a research energy engineer, founding Vice President of Academic Affairs at the Cato Institute, and founding President of the Pacific Research Institute. In 1986, I founded The Independent institute. I have been director of eight companies and six non-profit foundations.  

When were you born, and where did you grow up?

I was born in 1949 in Lansing, Michigan, and I was primarily raised in the suburbs of New York City, where I went to elementary school in Westfield, N.J., middle school in Armonk, N.Y., and high school in New Canaan, Conn. Incidentally, Dave Barry and I happened to both attend the same middle school together.  

How did you get a cool name like David Theroux?  Do people often ask you if it has anything to do with Henry David Thoreau?  

Although Thoreau has long been an inspiration for me, my full name is actually David Jon Theroux, and I was named after my mother’s father, whose name was John David Withrow.  My father’s family is originally from French Canada, where the first Theroux in the Americas was a member of a number of the expeditions of the French explorer and navigator Samuel de Champlain (1567-1635), who mapped much of northeastern North America and started a settlement in Quebec. Our wing of the Theroux family migrated down from Quebec to the Boston area and then fanned out west from there.  For instance, the novelist Paul Theroux, who is a second cousin of my father, still resides part of the year in Cape Cod .  

After my birth and during my first year, for business reasons, my parents  moved and we lived in Needham, Mass., a short distance from Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau retreated to write his famous book, Walden. It is unclear whether there is a family tie to Thoreau (who had no direct descendents), but French names were often misspelled or re-spelled in order to be more functional in the English-speaking  American republic.  Hence, we may never know for sure.  

Which people have influenced you the most?  

My parents were enormous influences on me in my education and development of personal values. My father was a mainstream liberal, and my mother was a Goldwater conservative. My loving wife, Mary, has by far been the greatest influence on me of anyone since.  

Ideologically, I was earlier particularly influenced by the work of the Nobel Laureate economist F.A. Hayek.  In 1970, while I was in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, I stumbled across his essay, “Why I am not a conservative”, which had been reprinted from his book, The Constitution of Liberty. I found the essay intriguing, and having free time on my hands, I soon read much of his other work, as well as that of Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, Israel Kirzner, Yale Brozen, and many others. In addition, I first became aware of the work of various revisionist historians such as Harry Elmer Barnes and James J. Martin.  

I was struck by the enormous power and relevance of classical liberal and libertarian ideas. Especially during that period of social conflict, it seemed to me that such ideas had enormous potential for the future. Unfortunately, the libertarian paradigm was essentially unknown and had little, if any, public standing. Indeed, the Zeitgeist was strongly biased against such ideas.  

In the process of my reading, I had discovered the Foundation for Economic Education, Institute for Humane Studies, Rampart College, and other groups that were working at the edges of the intellectual world to affect a new libertarian intellectual movement. When I first attended the University of California, I became friends with IHS’s founder and president, the economist F.A. (“Baldy”) Harper, because IHS was then located in the Bay Area.  Although I had read some of the popular work of Murray Rothbard, it was Baldy who more directly  encouraged me to read Rothbard’s major works, including Man, Economy and State and Power and Market as well as major works by others in economics, revisionist history and libertarian political theory, including people ranging from Robert Nozick to Lysander Spooner.  

I soon learned of the diverse and very rich legacy of libertarian writers and writing, which only confirmed my view of the power of libertarian ideas, but also the sad and ironic fact that such ideas were virtually unknown. It became clear to me that orthodox conservative and liberal perspectives were not merely inadequate and in fact remarkably primitive and unsophisticated, they persisted by default and not for the power of their reasoning. This became particularly evident as one watched the pathetic conduct of war and neo-mercantilism in the modern world.  

I increasingly decided that in the course of my own career and in whatever modest way I could, I would seek to work with others to effectively create a new movement for liberty.  

What are you passionate about?  

I am passionate about the enduring values of integrity, honesty, truth, justice, love, and the rights of all individuals to be free to make their own choices and from aggression from others. I believe that life is our great fortune and blessing that should not be taken for granted. I am very passionate about advancing excellent programs that give the ideas of liberty every opportunity to be heard and taken seriously.  

But above all, I am very passionate about my wife and family and those who share our ideals and dreams.  

How would you describe your political philosophy?  Did it evolve over time?  

I have always been very individualistic and self-reliant, in part because when growing up, we moved quite a bit, and I did not have the opportunity to develop long-term friendships with many other children.  My upbringing also educated me to believe firmly in the ideas and legacy of the Declaration of Independence and the Founders’ vision for a free republic.  

However, my independence also has made me a skeptic of the claims of others. Hence, although libertarian ideas came naturally to me, it took a while for me to fully accept many of its applications until I had had the time to closely examine the arguments and evidence involved. But upon my doing so, I was fortunate to acquire a broad knowledge and deep appreciation of libertarian ideas and the nuances of them that proved to be of enormous value as I pursued my future work.  

When and how did you become interested in liberty?  

During the Vietnam War, I became increasingly disillusioned over the official claims regarding the war and how these could be squared with basic civilized values. Clearly, communism was a great enemy of liberty, but killing innocent people and collectivizing American society was no answer.  Quite the contrary, it only served to discredit in the minds of many that freedom was dysfunctional and some form of central control was necessary.  

So, I decided to try to understand what exactly was driving those who opposed the war and whether there were libertarian elements that could be tapped. I began subscribing to various anti-war and counter-culture publications such as the Berkeley Barb. I found that on clear issues of opposing mass murder and aggression against peaceful people, it was more likely that average students who shared doubts about the war were more libertarian than were the members of such groups as Young Americans for Freedom, who supported the increased bombing of cities while claiming to be for free choice and the Constitution.  

I then sought to carve out and project a more consistent libertarian vision that would appeal to people whose consciousness had at least been raised to the level of recognizing and opposing the fact that a government conscripting people to slaughter the innocent and otherwise exercising arbitrary power over others was wrong and certainly fundamentally at odds with the ideas of Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, et al.  

This led me to create the Bay Area Libertarian League that then created chapters on numerous college campuses in the San Francisco Bay Area in order to host events, distribute libertarian publications, and otherwise recruit people to libertarian ideas. In the process, we worked with any and all libertarian, free market-friendly, civil liberties, and anti-war groups.  

Who are your heroes, and why?  

My number one hero is my wife, Mary, whose opinions, courage, and impeccable character and wisdom I greatly treasure.  My other heroes are people of enormous personal character who have shunned political and personal opportunism and strove without compromise for truth, liberty, peace and justice despite adversity.  I am referring to an enormously rich history of people such as John Locke, Thomas Paine, Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Lord Acton, Frederic Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Herbert Spencer, Germaine de Stael, Rose Wilder Lane, Richard Cobden, Lysander Spooner, Thomas Gordon, Ludwig von Mises, William Graham Sumner, Murray Rothbard, Voltairine de Cleyre, H.L. Mencken, Benjamin Constant, Thomas Szasz, Albert Jay Nock, Garet Garrett, and many others. Some of these people made errors and may have been inconsistent, but their commitment to truth and excellence shines as a beacon for us all today and for the future.  

Libertarianism is a theory of justice, and anyone who works tirelessly to advance such a crucial standard of the rule of law is a hero to me.  Those whose actions cut corners and work to undercut this standard are at best irrelevant to the future of liberty, but more likely part of the problem, regardless of how they describe their own views. Heroes of today are hence all of those people who stand forthright against the lies and power politics of the welfare-warfare state.  

Who are some of the most interesting or remarkable people you’ve met?  

I have had the great pleasure and privilege of meeting and working with an enormous number of incredible people in a wide range of fields.  Some of these people include Ludwig von Mises, Thomas Szasz, F. A. Hayek,  Milton Friedman, Anthony de Jasay, Robert Higgs, Peter Bauer, William Hutt, Arthur Seldon, Ronald Coase, James Buchanan, Merton Miller, Israel Kirzner, Arthur Ekirch, F.A. Harper, Thomas Sowell, James J. Martin, Aaron Wildavsky, Fritz Machlup, Joseph Peden, Jonathan Hughes, Gary Becker, Vaclav Klaus, Henry Veatch, M. Bruce Johnson, Henry Manne, P.J. O’Rourke, Gordon Tullock, Ralph Raico, Ronald Hamowy, Karl Menger, Richard Vedder, Bruce Benson, Ronald Hartwell, Charles Murray, Nathan Rosenberg, Bruce Russett, Richard Epstein, Vernon Smith, Harry Wu, E. G. West, Alvaro Vargas Llosa, Jonathan Kwitny, Julian Simon, George Gilder, etc.  In addition, I have had the pleasure of working with such diverse people as William Appleman Williams, Gore Vidal, Lewis Lapham, Felix Morley, Robert LeFevre, Czeslaw Milosc, Robert Conquest, John Templeton, William Simon, Marvin Wolfgang, Walter Wriston, Robert Bartley, George Stigler, Lloyd Gardner, Tom Peters, Nadine Strossen, Justus Doenecke, Joyce Appleby, Nathan Glazer, John Stossel, Daniel Ellsberg, Nathaniel Branden,  Robert Dole, Jerry Brown, James Bamford, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul, David Packard, Alan Greenspan, Barton Bernstein, Martin Anderson, Alexander Cockburn, George Shultz, and many others. There are just too many such people to list properly.  

Which countries have you visited?  Would you care to share some of your experiences from those countries?  

I have had the opportunity to visit most countries in Europe, much of Asia, parts of north and east Africa, Latin America, South Pacific, and throughout North America. People worldwide are universally the same in their common sense, ambitions, and values. The problem is the structure of government power under which they live.  The lessons of liberty are the same worldwide, and what holds people back are the misconceptions they continue to hold regarding their own rights and nature and power of government officials.  The best analysis of this problem is that by Etienne de la Boetie in his classic book, The Politics of Obedience: Discourse of Voluntary Servitude.  

Which kind of activism do you think is more effective, political or non-political, and why?  

The struggle for liberty is fundamentally a war of ideas. The paradigms of statism and interventionism have ruled the minds of the best and brightest for many decades, and unless we can win the war of ideas with a superior ideological system, statism will only endure and intensify. The political system that claims the right and necessity to impose rules on us all is central to the problem, and by its very nature dissipates resources into trivia and insists upon compromise with little or no positive results. To accept its legitimacy and become ensnarled in its web only exhausts limited resources and sidetracks from the real task of discrediting the system itself.  

However, every successful social movement is a combination of fostering a persuasive intellectual movement that wins the hearts and minds of a critical mass of the public combined with the consequent organization of the public to take action to resist and “just say ‘No’” to state power and realize the just application of such ideas.  

What do you think are the most effective things an individual can do if he wants to be free?  

The first thing to do is learn all about the economics, ethics and the history of liberty in order to understand the world and how it got to be the way it is.  The second task is to find readily accessible and effective ways to apply such ideas in order to influence opinion leaders and large numbers of the public. We believe that the highly effective program of the Independent Institute is perhaps the most cost-efficient way to do so, and anyone who becomes a member not only tunes directly into the ideas of liberty but leverages membership funding to directly affect many thousands of academics and students, business and civic leaders, the media, and countless millions of other people.  

What do you think about the way the federal government has responded to September 11?  

The aftermath of 9/11 has been a textbook case of how war crises are used to expand government power for the benefit of special interests and destroy liberty in the process. The neo-conservatives who control the Bush administration have sought for over ten years for an opportunity to invade and conquer the Mideast and to further impose a worldwide U.S. military empire, and 9/11 has given them the chance to do so, regardless of the consequences. When things do not go as they have claimed, the neo-conservatives change their story and then demand even greater government power.  

The result domestically has been record federal spending and deficits, corporate welfare, protectionism, trampling of the Bill of Rights, and economic stagnation. Internationally, the U.S. is now viewed as an imperial bully that unapologetically lies to justify its warfarism and remains arrogant despite the enormous bloodshed, hardship and suffering caused to innocent others.  

Not only did the federal government create the terrorists directly by its earlier recruiting, organizing, funding, and arming of the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan as well as such cutthroats as Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, etc., but U.S. sanctions, covert operations, foreign aid, and military interventionism in the Mideast and elsewhere is the greatest danger today to world peace as increasing numbers of Islamic extremists are being recruited worldwide in response to U.S. hegemony, and the prospects for a neo-Marxist movement in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere grows more likely.  

What do you think are the greatest current threats to liberty, and what do you think we should do about them?  

The greatest threats to liberty are U.S. interventionist policies worldwide. The dangers are two-fold: (1) Such interventionism fosters world conflict and bitter anti-U.S. sentiments and enemies, endangering the liberty and safety of Americans here and abroad as well as people worldwide, and (2) the “war on terrorism” domestically is producing huge new grabs of government power as every conceivable interest group pushes for its own share of the “terrorist war” pie.  

What are some great books you’ve read that most readers of The Root may not have heard of?  

I would strongly suggest that your readers read Crisis and Leviathan, by Robert Higgs, in order to understand the nature of government power and what is going on now. Higgs authoritatively documents how and why “War is the health of the state.”  If you have not read this book and/or articles based on it, you cannot really understand liberty and be effective in combating statism.  

The lesson to learn regarding what needs to be done is that the “Achilles heel” of government power is the public mythology that persists that claims that government protects people from crises and that government officials must be given special powers whenever a crisis is declared. If people were to understand that government power is inherently a scheme to redistribute wealth from the many to the few and that interventionist wars are a cover to do so, everything regarding the status of government power would radically change.  

For an extensive discussion and compendium of references on liberty and government power, please visit

A sampling of key books would include the following:  

Bacevich, Andrew J. American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. DiplomacyCambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002.  

Barnes, Harry Elmer, ed. Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: A Critical Examination of the Foreign Policy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Its Aftermath.Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1966.  

Benson, Bruce. To Serve and Protect: Privatization and Community in Criminal JusticeNew York: New York University Press for The Independent Institute, 1998.  

Hummel, Jeffrey Rogers. Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil WarChicago: Open Court Publishing Company, 1996.  

Liggio, Leonard P. and James J. Martin, eds., Watershed of Empire: Essays on New Deal Foreign PolicyColorado Springs, Colo.: Ralph Myles, 1976.  

Martin, James J. Revisionist Viewpoints: Essays in a Dissident Historical TraditionColorado Springs: Ralph Myles, 1971.  

Martin, James J. The Saga of Hog Island: And Other Essays in Inconvenient HistoryColorado Springs: Ralph Myles, 1977.  

Mearsheimer, John J. The Tragedy of Great Power PoliticsNew York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003.  

Mises, Ludwig von. Omipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total WarGrove City, Penn.: Libertarian Press, 1985.

Porter, Bruce. War and the Rise of the State: The Military Foundations of Modern PoliticsNew York: Free Press, 1994.

What do you like to do when you’re not working at the Institute?  

Aside from plotting the demise of statism, my favorite pastimes are reading, swimming, travel, good food, films and music, and spending time with family and friends.

Thanks, David!


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