Mises Wire

What Anthony Bourdain Taught Me About Life and Liberty

Some days he would be in a French bistro sampling the world’s cutting-edge cuisine. On others, he would be seated on a plastic chair in a poverty-stricken district of Saigon, while he discussed the region’s past, present, and future over a bowl of the working man’s pho. When I look back on my formative years, wherever in the world he was, Anthony Bourdain was on my television screen.

I saw in Anthony Bourdain everything I wanted to be. He was able to spend his days travelling the world, experiencing and explaining its people and their cultures. He was confident, affable, always honest, and completely free of affectation. He was an empiricist in the best sense of the word, a man whose world view was not shaped by the sterile and detached theories of the academic, but by his own real-world experiences. He was, above all else, a man who had lived through immense darkness and had climbed to the greatest peaks of life.

These qualities, which he so brilliantly conveyed to us throughout his great body of work, made him the first apostle to teach me about liberty, peace, and a life well lived. In my life, before there was Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, the Stoic philosophers, or even Ron Paul and Tim Ferriss, there was Anthony Bourdain. I knew the validity of what they wrote because Anthony Bourdain had shown it to me for myself.

Anthony Bourdain: Explorer and Educator

The world we live in is physically vast, certainly, but that material landscape is only a stage for the social reality which dwarfs it in its diversity, change, and meaning. At any time, we only occupy and experience a small part of this world, and the rest of it must remain outside of our knowledge. Our only means of understanding the foreign world is to leave our little bubbles to experience it for ourselves, but, for the majority of people, family, jobs, and the general scarcity of means keeps such an option out of reach. That is a problem, because humanity often has a lust to discover the unknown, leaving a primal need unmet.

In response to that unmet demand, men and women throughout history, among them men like Ibn Khaldun and Marco Polo, have found a market for their writings describing their journeys and expeditions to the outside world, informing the populace of what they saw and how they saw it. Working in that same tradition, Anthony Bourdain dedicated the last twenty years of his life to shining lights on those unseen places of the world and experiencing what they really had to offer. Travel writers and television personalities are numerous today, but Bourdain towers above all his contemporaries. His name will, in time, be elevated to where it belongs, next to the greats of his genre and as one of history’s most vivid, piercing, and honest chroniclers of life and culture.

Why Bourdain Was Great when Others Failed

As Ludwig von Mises wrote , the task of the historian is not simply to describe a sequence of physical events. Far more crucially, the historian must also ascribe social meaning to these events and, to the best of his or her ability, find their causes in the motives, circumstances, and knowledge of the people involved. Bourdain excelled at this task while so many others who took it on failed.

While others were encumbered by fallacious collectivist ideology, blind prejudice, political special interest, or, to use Bourdain’s own language, the “Queen Bitch” known as television ratings, Anthony was dedicated to accurately portraying the people and cultures he experienced. He openly abhorred the fake, exposing the trickeries of television producers both on his show and in his books. Couple that dedication to the truth with Bourdain’s unstoppable wit and piercing social insights developed over his long, fully lived life and one has a combination for strikingly effective product with important, hopefully long-lasting social consequence. Bourdain had a skill which can’t be taught in a classroom or read in a book, but which can only be taught by reading life itself. He could cut through false narrative, propaganda, mysticism, and overzealous romanticism to lay bare the essential truths of people and their actions.

The importance of the travel genre in shaping human values, and by extension their lives, has scarcely been recognized. To the extent that their audiences think they are reliable, those who write and commentate on foreign cultures are those who mold their readers’ opinions about those cultures. Because they believe the writer is providing them with an accurate description of the world, the readers will modify their behavior to accommodate these opinions, regardless of their objective accuracy. If the writings depict a place of chaos and danger, the results will be a greater resistance to interaction between the two communities and potential hostility. Conversely, if the writing is filled with visions of nirvana, you’ll see a greater probability of interaction between the communities and decreased hostility. In either case, the readers will be making a consequential mistake if the writings are erroneous.

Anthony Bourdain: Individualist and Friend of Peace

The professional merit of Bourdain’s work only serves to magnify the meaning and importance of its contents. Bourdain never had a narrative to push. He intended to discover, both for his audience and for himself, the true contents of the world. For me, what he found was the most powerful message for peace and liberty.

One of the features and greatest lessons of Bourdain’s works is the constant destruction of collectivist notions of culture. Far too many, whether out of pure prejudice, ignorance, or mere convenience, describe large swaths of people and their behavior in collective terms. In its most heinous form, many succumb to the pernicious fallacy of ascribing the atrocities of the state to the people that are merely ruled by it. By showing us the everyday lives of regular people around the world, Bourdain discovered what Ludwig von Mises once wrote, “Only the individual thinks. Only the individual reasons. Only the individual acts.”

Of course, Bourdain occasionally found the villains that generate such collectivist myths, but these people were the exception, not the rule, wherever he went. People around the world are simply trying to do the best they can with what they have to care for themselves and their families, and almost all of them have found that peaceful social cooperation is the only path to mass prosperity. Working together under a rationally organized division of labor creates the productivity that makes an otherwise nasty and brutish life bearable, even comfortable for some. Bourdain’s work documented empirically, not with cold statistics but vibrant real-world experience, that rational self-interest drives people around the globe, from the jungles of Asia to the streets of Manhattan, to wake every morning, be kind to their neighbors, help their fellow man, and make the world a happier, wealthier, and more beautiful place.

Anthony Bourdain: Enemy of Tyranny

Bourdain also showed us what happens when people are deprived of their liberty to associate and trade how and with whom they chose. From the killing fields of Cambodia, the death camps of Siberia and the Holocaust, and the slums of tyrannical states everywhere, Bourdain revealed the tangible, terrifying, and heart-wrenching reality to what for so many were simply unfeeling numbers in their history book or words in an economist’s treatise. Throughout his career, Bourdain was an outspoken critic and enemy to the warmongers and tyrants who concoct these horrors.

Having personally experienced both war, he was filming an episode in Beirut when Israel began bombing the city in 2006, and its aftermath, Bourdain understood like few Americans can that the real victims of war are not the real monsters who wage them, but the peaceful and living people whose lives are mangled, destroyed or ended by them. Perhaps nobody can describe as vividly his hate for the injustices and crimes of war and its wagers better than the man himself. In his book The Cook’s Tour, a book which everyone should read, Bourdain recollects his emotion after seeing the lasting devastation of America’s secret war I Cambodia:

“Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands. You will never be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking. Witness what Henry did in Cambodia- the fruits of his genius for statesmanship- and you will never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at the Hague next to Milošević. While Harry continues to nibble nori rolls and remake at A-list parties, Cambodia, the neutral nation he secretly and illegally bombed, invaded, undermined, and then threw to the dogs, is still trying to raise itself up on its one remaining leg.”

Continuing Bourdain’s Legacy of Bringing People Together

A giant of his genre and his time, Bourdain will be remembered for his wit, intellect, and his piercing commentary of world’s culture. Nobody can come close to the quality with which he documented the human experience of the past twenty years, and I believe whole-heartedly that historians and enthusiasts alike will be studying his work for decades to come. However, his legacy is far greater than future academic interest. His great contribution is one of bringing the world closer together, of tearing down unjust hate and prejudice in an effort to create peace, mutual understanding, and prosperity. Bourdain showed us how other people lived, in the process, he discovered for himself and his millions of fans, how they should.

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