Brian Schwartz works as a scientist, and in his off hours he blogs for the Independence Institute’s free-market Patient Power Now site. By focusing his intellectual activism on health policy, he has become an expert in that area, excelling at analyzing complex reports and incorporating that material into popular articles.
My interview with Brian is one of several I’ve recently released. Please see my “activism” category for additional interviews and discussions about political activism.
Ari: What originally inspired you to take an interest in political liberty?
Brian: After my freshman year of college I read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, and Frédéric Bastiat’s The Law. From these I realized the injustice and harmful effects of government policies that violate people’s rights.
As a student as a small liberal arts school, I was surrounded by students who considered their left-wing political views to be “tolerant.” It was really an “emperor has no clothes” revelation for me that their “tolerance” for voluntary exchange and relationship ended when money entered the picture. To me this was an arbitrary and meaningless distinction in terms of whether or not to recognize the right to freely associate, or not associate, with others.
My primary outlet for developing my ideas were columns for the school newspaper and other publications. A friend pointed out how rare it was that I had articles published in campus publications that various people called “Common Sense” (conservative) and “The L-Word” (liberal).
Ari: How did you get into blogging for a think tank about health policy? How’s that going?
Brian: In 2006 the Colorado Senate Bill 208 became law. This bill established a “Blue Ribbon Commission” on health care reform that would evaluate reform proposals from citizens and organizations.
When the Commission solicited proposals in 2007, I had recently read David R. Henderson’s excellent book, The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey. The chapter on health care policy was my first real introduction to the topic. In short, my response was “Health care and insurance in this country are really messed up, and bad government policies are responsible. This is just wrong!”
I had recently returned to Colorado from a fellowship Washington, D.C., where I frequented Cato Institute and Reason magazine events. Working as an engineer, I still had an appetite to for free-market activism. When I heard about the health care Commission, I remember having the fleeting thought that I could become “a free-market health care guy.”
At this point, early in 2007, the Commission’s activities were in the news, and I wrote my first op-ed about health care. Before submitting it anywhere, I ran it by Linda Gorman, Director of the Independence Institute’s Health Care Policy Center. She liked it made some suggestions, and the Boulder Daily Camera published it. Looking at the article now, I can see how my current deeper understanding of health care policy would allow me to make the same points in a more concise and effective manner.
In early March I asked Linda if anyone was writing a free-market health care reform proposal for the Commission’s consideration, and said that if there was one, I’d like to contribute to it. Linda said she didn’t know of anyone. By the next week, after some prodding from you [Ari], I decided to submit a free-market proposal myself.
At that point I didn’t know what the proposal would consist of, as problems with health care policy involve a tangled web of federal and state legislation and regulations. Figuring out which issues to focus on was certainly a “drinking from a fire hose” process. I spent much of my evenings and weekends educating myself and writing, and eventually took a couple of vacation days off from work to finish the proposal.
By the end of April the (now defunct) Rocky Mountain News published an op-ed of mine summarizing the proposal. By the end of the year I’d had health care articles published in the Denver Post, and again in the Rocky Mountain News and Daily Camera.
In late June Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, arranged a lunch with me, you [Ari], and Linda Gorman to discuss (then) Governor Bill Ritter’s plans for health care policy in Colorado. I don’t think I’d met Jon before, or if I had it was very briefly. So I wasn’t prepared for Jon’s onslaught of crude jokes directed at me. I thought it prudent not to reply in kind with a “mom joke” of some sort, though he might have appreciated my playing along. But I think I “passed” in Jon’s eyes by merely being surprised and amused, rather than hurt or offended.
Anyway, by the end of the lunch Jon agreed to have my published health care articles posted on the Independence Institute site. They have been ever since. Jon also suggested that the II would support a blogger to follow and critique Colorado health care policy developments.
At the time I suggested that you do it, but eventually I changed my mind, and you had your own projects going on. In February 2009 at the Leadership Program of the Rockies retreat I asked Jon if the offer was still open. He said he’d think about it.
About a month later I saw Jon at a Americas Future Foundation event in Denver, and he asked me if I would do the health care blog. I called him soon after, suggested a monthly pay rate, and he accepted. The rate was probably less than he had in mind. PatientPowerNow.org went on-line in April 2008.
Ari: How do you mesh your professional and personal life with your activist life?
Brian: My main profession is in physics and engineering, so I keep my activism out of the office. To bring politics into the office is just not wise professionally. While “water cooler” conversations about policy issues are tempting to contribute to, I either refrain from participating or limit myself to a quick comment and then get back to work.
Ari: What tips do you have for the budding free-market activist? Why should others get involved?
Brian: If you value political and economic liberty, then integrity requires that you act to promote them. This does not necessarily mean that you must personally become an activist. Rather, you can donate money to organizations and causes that you think effectively promote liberty.
One reason for doing this is that, if you don’t enjoy any forms of activism, you probably won’t be good at them anyway. Related to this is your comparative advantage. Say you love your full time job, and it pays well. Or that you can make money freelancing in something you like more than activism. The extra time doing what you like can translate into extra income, which you can then donate to a free-market organization.
For example, say you’re good at computer programming—as a disproportionate fraction of free-marketers are—and are excited by your idea for an iPhone app. But free-market activism drains your energy. Then it’s certainly better to enjoy working on what you like, the iPhone app, and donate some of the revenue from it to an organization you like.
If you do get involved in free-market activism, I recommend that you:
Utilize your strengths. Think of your local community (or national community) of free-market activists as a sports team. Not everyone can, or should, play the same position. So figure out what position or positions you’d like to play. For example, you could write op-eds, blog, be on talk radio, talk to local groups, organize talks and other events, attend events and video the opposition doing silly things (e.g., WhoSaidYoSaid.com), or design websites.
Get to know people in your local free-market community. If there are local activists that you admire and would like to emulate, then figure out how to meet them so you can pick their brain. If there’s a Liberty on the Rocks chapter near you, attend. Even if you want to be active, but are not sure how specifically, then getting out to meet people is a good way to figure it out, too. You might start out by helping out on someone else’s project.
Being part of your local or state level free-market community also makes activism less solitary. Speaking for myself, this helps me stay motivated. It’s good to provide and receive positive feedback to others.
Specialize. It’s easier than you think to become a local expert on a specific topic influenced by state and local policy, such as education, energy policy, transportation issues, or health care. If you do this, you can quickly become a “go to” person for interviews on local talk radio shows or newspapers.
Once you know one policy area very well, you’ll realize how little you know about other ones. It takes a while to know the nuances of a specific policy issue, how to respond to common arguments against freedom, how current policies the interfere with free-markets cause problems, and how more market-oriented solutions work elsewhere or have worked in the past.
If you can, choose a field that is somewhat related to your profession. You’ll have more credibility that way. For example, Paul Hsieh, MD [read the interview] specializes in health care policy and heads Freedom and Individual Rights in Medicine. But be careful not to mention your employer when advocating policy. Whatever your views, your employer mostly likely doesn’t want to be associated with them.
Learn persuasion techniques. I’m not talking about psychological tricks, but ways to communicate your ideas more effectively. I highly recommend Michael Cloud’s CDs and book on the matter.
On writing in general, I recommend On Writing Well by William Zinsser.
Write about topics that irritate you. On a recent EconTalk podcast, George Will explained how he chose topics to write about by quoting William F. Buckley: “The world irritates me three times a week.” Okay, I admit that this is kind of negative, but I find that if something irritates me enough, it’s more difficult not to write about it than to write about it.