Fighting for Liberty in Congress: An Interview with Thomas Massie

Thomas Massie has been a Representative for Kentucky’s 4th Congressional District in Congress since 2012. As a member of the Republican Party, he has been one of the most liberty-oriented voices in politics. He is associated with the House Liberty Caucus. A few weeks ago, Heike Lehner and Kai Weiss sat down with him in his Washington D.C. office to discuss his life in Congress and what his experiences have been trying to make a change through the political arena.


What initially inspired you to even go into politics? 

I started out life as an engineer: I went to MIT, studied engineering, started a company, then sold most of my ownership in that company, and moved back to a farm. My inventions were in the field of virtual reality, computers, and robotics, so I went from virtual reality back to the land – back to reality. Now that I’m in Congress, I say I’m back in virtual reality. But living on my farm, I just wanted to be left alone, and do whatever I wanted, so my wife and I built our own house, according to our own specifications – and it’s off the grid, it’s not connected to utilities. My local government started passing rules and laws and more taxes, and I wrote letters to the editor, to the newspaper – this was in 2007, and it rallied people to come to meetings and stop the taxes from going up, with the regulations from being passed. One of the regulations for instance in the United States is called “zoning,” where they determine what’s an appropriate use of your property based on where it’s located, and in my county, which is enormous in size, there was no zoning, you could do anything you wanted with your property, put a factory on it, a used car lot, a day-care center – there were no regulations stopping you, and they tried to constitute a board who would decide all those things. Through my letter-writing and activism I started to stop that from happening, and people who felt like me encouraged me to run for local office – so I did, and it was a very local office: there’s only 14,000 people in our county, but I was the county executive, the one responsible for the day-to-day operations. I was also responsible for appointing all of the people on the boards: the sewer board, the water board, the conservation board, the library board, and each of these little boards who are composed of grandmothers and your cousins. They have so much power that I thought was important to be in a position where I could appoint them. Libertarian is not part of the vocabulary where I live, but people understand freedom, in fact, in eastern Kentucky, the notion is “You mind your own business, and your neighbors minds their business,” so even though they wouldn’t say they are libertarian ideologues, they would say they would mind their own business. So I found a lot of sympathetic people there, they encouraged me to run for office, I ran for that office, then gained some notoriety within that office for cutting spending, and then people encouraged me to run for Congress – so that’s how I got here.

How has your experience been in Congress, as someone who is considered to have more “extreme” views? Are you having difficulties to really make a change?

First of all, I’m not offended by your use of the word “extreme,” some people might be, but one of my friends once joked that the definition of an extremist is somebody who is completely consistent in all of his beliefs. In that sense, maybe I am extreme. People think that the word “partisan” and the word “ideologue” are synonyms, and that they are pejoratives. Like, “Oh, he’s a partisan, oh, she’s an ideologue.” They are actually two opposite words: a partisan sides with their party, whether the party is right or wrong; an ideologue has a set of beliefs that they adhere to whether their party does or not; so in that sense, I would much rather be called an “ideologue” than a “partisan” – and most of the people here are partisans. So half of my staff is in Washington, D.C., and half of my staff is in Kentucky. The staff in Kentucky says, “We are glad you take your ass whipping in D.C., so we don’t have to take an ass whipping in Kentucky.” You have to get your ass whipping somewhere, either in D.C., or in Kentucky, and most people choose to be friends with people in D.C. – it makes it easier when you are working here to be their friend, but then you go home, and people are mad at you for betraying what you campaigned on. So I got off the plane today [Monday], it’s like knowing that somebody is going to swing a two-by-four and hit you in the head as soon as you get to your office – it’s that kind of anticipation when my plane lands. And I have to survive four days, and then I can go back home where I won’t get beat up – and that’s been going on for five years.

What are some problems you’ve ran into, considering you are not always siding with your party? 

Well, there are a certain set of people in my party who would like to see me unelected, so behind the scenes they are working to raise money to get me out of here – and it’s my own party, not the other party … For example, Mark Meadows and I wrote a resolution that precipitated the departure of speaker John Boehner. But when you do those sort of things, you don’t go back – they call up your donors, and tell your donors “Don’t give him any more money again,” or else we will not consider any of your legislation in Washington. And so when your donor is confronted with giving one measly Congressman money to get reelected, or keeping favor in D.C., they choose to keep favor. So that’s the sort of thing you run into. Also, I would never be placed on the Ways and Means Committee, or the Energy and Commerce Committee, those are the two most powerful committees, and so … I’ve basically been barred from participating in that.

As it sounds, and as far as it is possible to tell from abroad, you always try to stay principled, while other politicians think that one should often compromise to actually get something done. What is your view on this sort of paradigm between principles and compromises?

I think it’s fine to compromise, you just can’t compromise in the wrong direction. I understand you can’t get everything you want, but you should get something, and most of my colleagues will sell out for nothing. They just want to be friends with the other people here, so it’s like in kindergarten. Kindergarten is like “Well, I won’t be your friend if you don’t do this,” and it’s the same thing up here. I go back home and people are like “Oh my Gosh, what did he sell out for, what did they give him?” And they gave him nothing – they threatened not be his friend if he didn’t vote for it. So when a lot of people compromise up here, they get absolutely nothing, and I would gladly compromise to get something. For instance, by working with Democrats I got that amendment in our farm bill in 2013-14, and now there are 12,000 acres of hemp being grown in Kentucky – so there’s an area where I compromise, but only because I achieved an extra measure of freedom. I believe in pragmatic ideology, which by the way I think our Founders were: they were pragmatic ideologues. So people will sometimes accuse me of not being a pure libertarian, because I take a position in the Constitution, but I remind them that our Founding Fathers were pragmatic ideologues. They had a country to start, so they had to make some concessions.

You call yourself a “constitutional conservative,” rather than a libertarian, and there is one interview where you said that your position on intellectual property for example is “anti-libertarian.”

Well, some people say that it’s anti-libertarian, but when you look at the Constitution, this is one of the few things we are supposed to do. One of the enumerated responsibilities of Congress is to protect the rights of inventors and authors for a limited period of time in order to promote progress and useful arts and sciences. It wasn’t an absolute thing, they had to compromise, and I think they came up with a pretty good compromise. Some libertarians, like Ayn Rand for instance, were very strong believers in intellectual property. Nonetheless, most intellectual libertarians make their money writing books, so I think they are somewhat hypocritical if they are not giving away their books while they oppose intellectual property.

Do you have any other differences on what would make one a “constitutional conservative,” but not a “libertarian,” or vice-versa?

I’ll give you a tough one: we had a very interesting landmark case here in the United States, it went all the way to Supreme Court: Kelo v New London. It was where a woman’s house was taken. The city of New London used eminent domain, specifically one of those little boards that the mayor appoints. This is where all the power is actually very local. They took her property, and the justification was, “Well, the new use of the property would generate more tax money for the city and therefore it was better for everybody, so it was legitimate use of eminent domain.” I completely reject that. But our Founding Fathers were not against eminent domain, it’s in the Bill of Rights, in the fifth amendment, that if your property is taken, you have to be compensated. That was a pretty novel concept, that the government actually, instead of just taking your property, is going to pay you for it when they do take it. So I was the county executive in a county, and we never used eminent domain. But when we had to build a new road a discussion arose. Physical access to property is another one of these sticky things like intellectual property: there are geographic arrangements where I’m from, we call them hollers, like valleys, and the hills are so steep, the only way to get to 95 percent of the property is to enter through the mouth of the holler. If somebody owns the property at the mouth of the holler, they could deprive all of the land owners access inside of the holler. That’s an example of where we had to build a road in a situation where there was only one place the road could go. The land owners, they always start out with, you know – here was one interesting one, somebody said, “My family has owned this farm for 150 years, and it’s just wrong of you to put a road through it.” Well, eighty years ago that’s where the road was, so the family actually had the road there. So I think there could be a place for eminent domain to protect people – that’s government’s role, to protect people from other people, and to institute justice. And it is possible to use property to deprive other people of use of their property. That’s one place again where I think it’s not black and white, and maybe, I’m a sell-out … But again, I find it here in the Constitution. It wasn’t even a question for them [the Founders], of course we are going to take your property, but we are going to be nice about it, we are going to pay you what it’s worth.

There are lots of problems in the world right now and with this US government – foreign policy, central banks, many regulations, high taxes, you name it. When you look into the future, what do you see as the biggest danger?

America has two big problems that come to my mind. When you enter my lobby, there is a debt clock, it shows the US debt every second, and I don’t know if it has passed 21 trillion dollars yet, but the last time I looked it was pretty close. That’s a real problem. What will happen is that eventually people will decide we are not a good investment, that our debt is not a good investment, and they will demand a higher interest rate for reauthorizing the debt. See, the worst thing that could happen is a stable situation where future generations are basically slaves to the debt. It would probably be better to default at some point. So my concern is actually that we enter a stable condition where half of the year, every American is working for whoever holds the debt. Another concern of mine are the perpetual and unauthorized wars that we are involved in – the easiest one to call out is Afghanistan, we’ve been there seventeen years, and we are not telling the soldiers what they are fighting for, or when they will be done and when they can come home. There is no definition of success they can achieve, and we are spending insane amounts of money there. This is a place where I’m maybe not wholly libertarian, but I think there is a role for government in infrastructure and transportation. So I’m on the Infrastructure Committee – and I know there is a solution for building the roads that doesn’t involve the government, at least I know that, and that would be wonderful. But the reason I bring this up is that the entire federal highway trust fund in the United States is 50 billion dollars. That’s how much we will spend in Afghanistan next year: 50 billion dollars. In fact, we are spending more in Afghanistan than other countries spend on their entire military, maybe even Germany’s. Isn’t that crazy? We are going to pour down a hole, enough spending that you could fund Germany’s entire military, and we are going to spend it all on Afghanistan. That’s disappointing to me. Congressmen call Afghanistan the “graveyard of empires.” My concern, as articulated by my friend Walter Jones, is that we are putting a tombstone in Afghanistan with “United States of America” on it.

Regarding the budget, there is always the question of finding a balance, because on the on the hand, of course tax cuts are important, but on the other hand, the debt will increase even more. So how do you try to balance that?

It’s a tough call. I came here to vote for less taxes and less spending. My colleagues only agree with me on less taxes. I’m ready to make all of the cuts necessary to meet the tax revenue that we have decided to have this year. The problem is that my colleagues aren’t, so that doesn’t mean I can’t vote for tax cuts, in my opinion, just because my colleagues won’t go for spending cuts, but it’s going to be horrible this year. This first deficit will be much worse than any of Obama’s last four deficits.

While you see these problems like the debt and foreign policy, would you say that in the end, you are nonetheless optimistic about the future? And if yes, what makes you optimistic?

This is an easy question, because I get asked this question a lot. In the United States, people often make this sort of dystopian statement, “Oh, the next generation won’t be as well off as our generation,” and they worry about that. And I tell people: “Of course the next generation is going to be better off than us.” That’s not even in question. But not thanks to the government. It’s going to be because engineers and capitalists invent things and invest in things. We don’t forget the iPhone 6 when we come up with the iPhone 7. The next version of eBay will be better than the current eBay, the next Amazon will be better than the current Amazon. We innovate, and thanks to the Written Word [pointing to the Constitution], and the fact that we write stuff down, we don’t forget the old stuff. And even the patent system drives this: after twenty years, whatever you invented is now public domain, and anybody can use it. That’s the great deal the Founders came up with, the limited period of time. So I think there is no doubt that human progress is going to keep increasing, and people will find ways to prevail in spite of the government.

Thomas Massie has been the Representative for Kentucky’s 4th congressional district since 2012, and is associated with the House Liberty Caucus.

The questions were asked by:

Heike Lehner is an International Business student from Vienna and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Economics.

Kai Weiss is a Research Fellow at the Austrian Economics Center and a board member of the Hayek Institute.


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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