by Priscila Guinovart
Alfredo Pascual is originally from Uruguay, where he studied a Bachelor of Business Administration and worked first for the private and then for the public sector. Then he decided to pursue a career in policy institutes and that’s why he is now living in Germany and studying a Master of Public Policy. He’s also a Students For Liberty Local Coordinator, and works part-time for the Austrian Economics Center. Within the Liberty Movement, his primary interest is Drug Policy, and he is currently writing his Master’s thesis about the legalization of cannabis in Uruguay.
In March 2014, he traveled to Cuba to support the opposition movement, where he was detained, interrogated and thrown out of the country.
First of all, I’ll make this very simple for you: why Liberty?
Actually it’s not easy. It might even be counter-intuitive. James M. Buchanan points out in his brilliant essay “Afraid to be free: Dependency as desideratum” that among the sources of collectivism the most interesting is the one he calls “parental socialism.” Not to confuse with paternalism. In Buchanan’s words:
“In one sense, the attitude is paternalism flipped over, so to speak. With paternalism, we refer to the attitudes of elitists who seek to impose their own preferred values on others. With par, in contrast, we refer to the attitudes of persons who seek to have values imposed upon them by other persons, by the state, or by transcendental forces. This source of support for expanded collectivization has been relatively neglected by both socialist and liberal philosophers, perhaps because philosophers, in both camps, remain methodological individualists.
Almost subconsciously, those scientists-scholars-academics who have tried to look at the “big picture” have assumed that, other things being equal, persons want to be at liberty to make their own choices, to be free from coercion by others, including indirect coercion through means of persuasion. They have failed to emphasize sufficiently, and to examine the implications of, the fact that liberty carries with it responsibility. And it seems evident that many persons do not want to shoulder the final responsibility for their own actions. Many persons are, indeed, afraid to be free.”
If people don’t want to be responsible for their actions because they are afraid to be free and prefer to delegate that responsibility in the collective. Libertarians have a big problem if they want to promote liberty as the highest value. How can you say liberty is the most important thing if you are surrounded by people who don’t share that view? We cannot just assume that everyone wants to be free and responsible. In this situation, the best case for liberty I can think of is the one Aaron Ross Powell makes in his essay “The Humble Case for Liberty.”
The basic idea, if I remember correctly, is that what we don’t know tremendously outweighs what we do know. That should humble us and make us libertarians. The reason for this is that history shows us that the combination of ignorance and coercive power can have terrible consequences, no matter how good the intentions behind were. The possible harm tremendously outweighs the possible good. Because those in power are also ignorant people just like you or me, let’s limit their coercive capabilities. To sum up, why liberty? Because I don’t know what’s the best for everyone else.
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How do you think libertarianism could help the world and why, in your opinion, is its basis so often misunderstood?
It could help because liberty tends to work while authoritarianism doesn’t. It all can be summed up in one of the most famous F.A. Hayek quotes: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” However, don’t think liberty is the magical answer to everything. Liberty means having the possibility of trial and error, which could have unpleasant results, especially in the short term. Answering your question: it could help the world by fueling change, not by providing solutions.
The basis of libertarianism are generally misunderstood because not even libertarians can agree on its basis. And that’s a good thing! I don’t want any manual of how to be a libertarian nor rules to define who is and who is not part of “us.” I’m not libertarian because I want to have a libertarian king who knows better than everyone else ruling with an iron fist. Libertarianism for me means to stop thinking there’s only one best way to manage society. That’s what left and right are about: thinking that society should divide itself into two opposite factions trying to get to power to rule “their way” and show that way it’s the best one. Then you have other people thinking that the best way must be somewhere in the middle between left and right. Unfortunately, you also have many libertarians fall into this arrogant presumption of thinking that if they were the ones in power making decisions then everything would be better. All these people share the same thought: there’s “one best way.” I shy away from that fatal arrogance. For me libertarianism just means accepting there’s no “one best way.”
You’re Uruguayan and you’re coordinator for European Students For Liberty. What took you to ESFL? What do you like most about the organization?
I was part of the Hayek-Club of my university before being a ESFL Local Coordinator. I had the problem that whenever I talked with non-libertarian friends and acquaintances about my activity in the Hayek-Club I got the feeling that the student group was perceived as boring and even conservative. I needed to change that image and ESFL provided me with the means.
After I joined Students For Liberty I started to find libertarians everywhere, even in Latin America. That’s one of the greatest things SFL has: to be a world-wide network connecting liberty-minded students. Last February I had the pleasure of meeting some of the Estudiantes por la Libertad leaders at the ISFLC15 in Washington DC and they are amazing people full of happiness and energy! Surprisingly, I only started to know about their work after I joined SFL here in Europe. While I was in Uruguay I was unaware of the existence of Students For Liberty. But that’s rapidly changing. A couple of weeks ago I also met in Uruguay the girls that will begin with SFL over there and they are also highly motivated and seem to be the kind of person you want to have working for liberty: intelligent, humble, friendly, and open. I think we’ll have many good news coming from Latin America in the near future. It won’t be easy. Libertarian students have things much more complicated in Latin America than what we do here in Central Europe. It’s not the same to organize a libertarian event in Germany than in Venezuela. But there are students everywhere that don’t want to give up. A great example are the guys from SFL Honduras who were recently recognized for foiling a Marxist university hijack.
Uruguay decriminalized cannabis. Yet, despite being a libertarian, you aren’t quite pleased with this step. Why is that?
Uruguay didn’t decriminalize cannabis. In Uruguay cannabis has been decriminalized since 1974 already. What they did now was to try to solve the contradiction that weed consumption was legal but there was no legal way to obtain it. To do that they designed a very paternalistic project with the state playing a central role. I might have been very critical in the past. It’s what I do best, being skeptic. And it’s again part of what libertarianism means to me: to never stop questioning. Although I’m still very skeptic that the new cannabis regulations will work, I’m still happy that something different is being done. A couple of weeks ago I interviewed policy makers from every major Uruguayan political party and I was amazed to see that you can find people from completely different political backgrounds that understand that the war on drugs has been a failure and something different has to be done. The new legalization was done “the Uruguayan way”, which means a very statist way. Even if it doesn’t work because of over-regulation, it will still be a great learning experience as long as we can identify the new problems.
You must tell us about your experience in Cuba. Why did you go there and what happened?
I went to Cuba to support the opposition because I was offered the chance to do something for liberty over there and it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I went there to support some dissidents but my mission was a failure because I was caught by the police almost immediately. The authorities interrogated me for hours, then they had to let me go “free” but accompanied by a new “friend” and finally I could leave the island a day and a half after being detained. I have, of course, many interesting details that I experienced during that time and I might write about it some day. I’ve been avoiding it because I don’t want to be recognized for that. To be honest: I didn’t do anything of value. It was a waste of time and money and I went through unnecessary risks. I wouldn’t recommend anyone to try to do something like what I did, and I don’t think it’s a productive way to bring freedom to Cuba. My perception is that there’s a big divorce between political dissidents and the rest of the society. As long as the political opposition can’t get closer to “normal” people, I doubt they can be an agent of change.
Ron Paul is for all of us a major influence. Why do you think his ideas cross American borders?
I can speak for myself. Back in 2008 what attracted me was his views on foreign policy. I was amazed and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. After the financial crisis, I guess his stances or monetary policy became even more popular, both in the US and abroad.
Who else influenced you and who inspires you?
I follow Snowden’s advice of not admiring people for who they are and admire heroic actions. It’s the day-to-day work for liberty of many people I know what inspires me.
How do you think libertarianism could be spread?
To me, the closest I can think of “spreading libertarianism” is to propose policy changes to failed policies, such as the war on drugs, which is my focus right now. And it’s fantastic because I have been working with people from different political backgrounds, finding common ground with people that otherwise think they are opposites. What’s fascinating is that they all understood that the single “solution” to drugs of the last decades has failed and it’s time to try new ideas. That’s what libertarianism is about, trying new ideas, and know these ideas might not be the best and should also be subject to change in the future.