Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Alternative to Trump and Clinton--Libertarian Gary Johnson

This could be the year for the Libertarian Party to seriously compete for the American Presidency with Gary Johnson as their candidate.

There are lots of reasons for this.  The first is that this must be one of the few times in American history where the likely nominees for the two major parties are both intensely disliked by close to half of the potential voters.  Both of the two major parties are so deeply divided that neither is likely to rally all or most of their party members in support of their nominee.  Moreover, more voters identify themselves as "Independents" than identify themselves as either Democrat or Republican.

The second reason why this could be the year for the Libertarian Party is that their likely nominee--Gary Johnson--has a chance to participate in the televised presidential debates this fall.  In March, the Monmouth University poll that asked people to choose between Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Gary Johnson resulted in 11% selecting Johnson.  This is amazing because Johnson has received so little publicity so far that most voters don't even know who he is.  With more publicity, his numbers are likely to go up.  The rule for televised presidential debates is that those selected to participate must have at least 15% polling numbers.  If Johnson already has 11%, then he's got a chance to reach 15% by the fall.

The third reason is that if Johnson has a chance to debate Trump and Clinton, he could frame the debate as a choice between two candidates--a left-wing authoritarian and a right-wing authoritarian--who want more Big Government control over our lives and one candidate who wants limited government that leaves people the liberty to live their lives as they choose.  If Trump and Clinton split the 60% of the voters who want more Big Government, Johnson could win the popular vote with the 40% of the voters who want limited government and individual liberty.

Something similar happened when the first Republican president was elected.  Abraham Lincoln won with about 40% of the popular vote, because most of the majority of the votes were divided between Stephen Douglas (the Northern Democratic Party) and John C. Breckenridge (the Southern Democratic Party).  And while Lincoln was not a pure libertarian, he did affirm the libertarian principle that "each individual is naturally entitled to do as he pleases with himself and the fruit of his labor, so far as it in no wise interferes with any other man's rights."

Another possibility for Johnson's victory is if he wins a few states in the Electoral College (such as New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah), and if Trump and Clinton evenly divide the other states, so that no one receives a majority of the electoral votes, and then the election would be decided by the House of Representatives, with the representatives of each state casting one vote.  If neither Clinton nor Trump could win the majority, there might be a deadlock.  And if Democrats would rather have Johnson than Trump, and Republicans would rather have Johnson than Clinton, then there's a chance that Johnson could win.

The fourth reason that this could be the year for libertarians is that in the fall the Libertarian Party will be the only third party on the ballot in all 50 states.  There has been talk about the need for a third party candidate as an alternative to Trump and Clinton, but in fact the Libertarian Party is already there as the only third party on the ballot nationally.

Johnson began working construction jobs as a college student at the University of New Mexico.  He then built his own construction company into one of the biggest construction companies in New Mexico.  When he sold the company in 1999, he had enough money so that he would never need to work for a living.

He served two terms as Republican Governor of New Mexico (from January 1, 1995 to January 1, 2003).  He could not run for a third term because of term limits.  During his two terms, he lowered taxes, he reduced the growth in state government, he reduced the number of state government workers, he balanced the state budget, and he left New Mexico with a billion dollar surplus.  He accomplished this even though Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 2 to 1, and the state legislature was controlled by the Democrats.  He became famous for over 750 vetoes of bills, with only a few of his vetoes overridden.  Notice that this means that Johnson has more political executive experience than either Trump or Clinton!

All of his policies were based on a libertarian message of limited government and individual liberty that was fiscally conservative and socially liberal.  His fiscal conservatism is shown in his proposal to balance the federal budget and begin paying off the national debt through across-the-board budget reductions of 43%, because 43% of the federal government spending comes from borrowed money. When Barack Obama leaves office, the national debt will be over $20 trillion dollars, which means that the United States could soon become the next Greece in facing a huge debt crisis.  Except for Johnson, none of the presidential candidates is speaking about this.

His social liberalism is shown in his argument that people should be free to live their lives as they please so long as they don't harm anyone else, because the only proper purpose of government is to protect us against those who would do us harm.  As Governor of New Mexico, Johnson became one of the first American politicians arguing for legalizing marijuana and recognizing the failure of the "war on drugs."  Rather than treat addiction to drugs as a crime that must be punished, which requires a massive investment of resources from law enforcement, the courts, and prisons, libertarians like Johnson argue for treating drug addiction as a health issue created by people making bad personal choices that require that they voluntarily enter treatment programs.

After leaving the governorship, Johnson has devoted himself to his great love for strenuous athletic activity--skiing, biking, running, and mountaineering.  He has climbed the highest mountains on all seven continents, including Mount Everest.  In his book Seven Principles of Good Government (published in 2012), he says that the purpose of life is to "live in the moment"--to find one's enjoyment every day in doing whatever it is that you love.  For Johnson, that "living in the moment" pleasure comes primarily from athletics and politics.  A libertarian Teddy Roosevelt!

In 2011, Johnson ran for President as a Republican.  But then, by the end of the year, he had switched to running for the nomination of the Libertarian Party, which he won.  In the presidential election of 2012, he won almost 1% of the popular vote.  Although that seems low, his 1.27 million votes was the highest vote count ever received by a Libertarian Party candidate.

Now, Johnson is running again for the Libertarian Party nomination, which will be decided at the end of May at the party convention in Orlando, Florida.  In April, John Stossel hosted the first nationally televised Libertarian Party Presidential Debate on the Fox Business channel.  This two-hour debate can be found on YouTube.  Stossel selected the top three candidates.  Johnson is the leading candidate.  The other two are John McAfee (the famous antivirus software entrepreneur) and Austin Petersen (the founder of The Libertarian Republic).  I think the quality of the debate is much higher than the Democratic or Republican debates.

In his book, Johnson repeatedly appeals to the "harm principle"--that the only justified limit on individual liberty by government is to protect us from those who would harm us (see pp. 9, 24, 29, 73-74, 92, 144-45, 150).  He repeats that principle in the debate.  But if you watch the debate, you will see that libertarians often disagree over interpreting "harm," and this is likely to come up at the Libertarian Party Convention.

There are three particular points of disagreement over what counts as harm.  First, on the abortion debate, Petersen is "prolife," because he thinks abortion obviously harms the aborted fetus by violating the fetus's right to life, while McAfee and Johnson are "prochoice," because they think the choice of abortion belongs to the freedom of the mother.

The second disagreement is over whether government should engage in environmental protection.  Petersen and McAfee would abolish the Environmental Protection Agency.  But Johnson supports the EPA with the argument that pollution harms us, and this is a harm from which government can properly protect us.

The third disagreement is the most interesting one.  It's over antidiscrimination laws, which Johnson supports, while Petersen and McAfee oppose.  Petersen and McAfee argue that while government cannot rightly engage in racial, religious, or sexual discrimination, private individuals may do so as an expression of their liberty, so long as this does not directly harm anyone.  But Johnson argues that discrimination really does harm people, and therefore government can intervene.  Johnson says he supports the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in "public accommodations." It's not clear that Petersen and McAfee would agree. The memorable exchange on this issue is when Petersen gets Johnson to say that a Jewish baker could be legally forced to bake a cake for a Nazi.  This "Nazi cake" exchange could give Johnson some trouble at the Libertarian Convention.

This points to one of the fundamental issues in classical liberalism--whether it can combine equality and liberty by distinguishing between state and society or public and private, so that the state must treat people equally under the law, while private individuals have the liberty to treat people unequally.

After reading Johnson's book and watching some of his debates, I have to wonder whether he has the intellectual and rhetorical skills necessary to successfully think through and speak about such deep issues in classical liberal thought.  He's an intelligent man, but he's not a very deep thinker.  In his book, he mentions only one book that has influenced his thinking--Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.  He says that he majored in political science at the University of New Mexico, but he says nothing about what he might have learned from his studies of politics and political ideas.  He does speak about being influenced by the people at the Cato Institute and at Reason magazine.  But then when he invokes the harm principle as fundamental for his classical liberal thinking, he doesn't mention John Stuart Mill's On Liberty or any other classic writings on that subject.  So he has never been a serious reader.  He speaks a lot about his efforts in his second term as governor to promote educational vouchers for New Mexico, but he says nothing about how this idea was worked out by Milton Friedman.  In the end, his voucher proposals were never adopted.

I also have to wonder about his rhetorical skills.  He has a relaxed speaking style, perhaps too relaxed.  He often rambles before coming to a conclusion.  He is not a charismatic speaker.  And he does not speak with the sharpness, incisiveness, and wit that might make a memorable impression on a popular audience for a televised debate.

One clear test of Johnson's skills will be whether he can persuade libertarian Republicans to support him.  Recently, I moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I live in the 3rd Congressional District, which is represented by Justin Amash, who is probably the most libertarian of the Republicans in the House, and a leader of the "Freedom Caucus" that has caused so much trouble for the House Republican leaders.  Amash has criticized Trump as potentially "very dangerous" for the country.  So it would be a bad sign for Johnson if he cannot persuade someone like Amash to support him rather than Trump.

The latest development is that Johnson has announced that William Weld, formerly Republican Governor of Massachusetts from 1991 to 1997, will run as Vice President with Johnson.  Weld will help with fundraising for the campaign. 


John Barr said...

Larry, you seem at one point to equate libertarianism and classical liberalism. Do you think they are the same? Also, hope you enjoy Grand Rapids!

Larry Arnhart said...

Gary Johnson often says that libertarianism and classical liberalism are the same. Those libertarians who are inclined towards anarchism (like Murray Rothbard, for example) are not classical liberals, because for anarchists even limited government is too much government.

Johnson is really a classical liberal because even though he wants limited government, that government does have an important role in providing public goods. In New Mexico, for example, Johnson promoted the building of 500 miles of new highways.

Bill R. said...

This is a fascinating post. At this point, I almost certainly would vote for Johnson. My concern is that I am not certain that the old guard neo-cons and the real conservatives in the GOP will make enough noise for Johnson in the months ahead for him to gain much attention. In addition, I see little indication that the major news outlets will give him indication. Let's hope that this is my traditional conservative-type pessimism coming out.

Kent Guida said...

I agree this is the LP's best opportunity yet to break out. Five percent would be huge. It's another facet of this most fascinating year. A Johnson victory may be no more improbable than a Trump nomination seemed a year ago.

Roger Sweeny said...

I take it this means you're no longer at Northern Illinois University. Google Maps tell me you'd have to commute about 250 miles and cross the Chicago metropolitan area.

There's an old c.v. up that says:

Two book projects--Darwinian Liberalism and Twenty Darwinian Desires—are currently underway. The material for these books is appearing first on my “Darwinian Conservatism” blog:

Are they still on?

Larry Arnhart said...

This spring semester was my last time to teach a course at NIU.

Much of my writing will appear first as blog posts and then as articles and books. I foresee a book on "biopolitical philosophy," in which I argue that the classic works of political philosophy can be judged by empirical science.

I will continue to lecture at public gatherings, and perhaps even teach a course if I'm invited by a school in Michigan.

Larry Arnhart said...


I agree. The likelihood of a Libertarian Party candidate being competitive for the Presidency is about the same as the likelihood that Donald Trump would be the Republican Party nominee.

Kent Guida said...

How could Johnson get to be a legitimate contender? The distance between where he is now and contender status is much greater than the distance between being in the October debates and being there on inauguration day.

Trump's rise had a few enabling conditions -- high name recognition, deep pockets, a compelling on-stage persona, and a flood of unpaid media valued at $2 billion.

Let's just consider media coverage. Without his incredible domination of free media, Trump would not have vaulted to the lead. Is there any prospect Johnson could get that kind of exposure between now and Labor Day? Every Libertarian Party candidate, even Ron Paul in 1988, has gotten the brush-off from the media.

What could happen this year that would change that? Trump's coverage in the beginning was intended to make Republicans look bad -- a clown show. Then it became, 'Wouldn't it be great if Clinton could run against Trump?' But the primary voters never got the joke, and it didn't quite work out the way CNN intended. Trump got the nomination, and he is steadily climbing in the polls against Clinton.

What would cause the media to give Johnson the same wall-to-wall coverage they gave Trump? Here's one scenario: Trump continues to surge, and Clinton continues to fade, and Trump has a solid lead in the polls after the conventions. The press could conclude their best way of electing Clinton would be to build up Johnson with free media in the hope of cutting into Trump's support.

Far-fetched, I know. But there is no way Johnson could become a contender without a deluge of free media. And there is no chance the media will convert to libertarianism. It will only build up Johnson out of self-interest -- take down Trump, create a new way to shore up Clinton's faltering campaign.

The media's calculation on covering Trump backfired big time over the last year. Can CNN make the same mistake twice?

The amazing irony is this opening for Johnson has only appeared because Trump, Clinton, Sanders and the primary electorate have all rejected any hint of libertarian sympathy. You can't make this stuff up.

Larry Arnhart said...

William Weld has just spoken about the similarity of Trump to Hitler. I am now convinced that the only chance of stopping Trump must be pressing this point that Trump's appeal really is the appeal of the fascist strongman. There is no content to his policy proposals, which are incoherent and ridiculous. Like Hitler and Mussolini, he is an egomaniac whose bombastic vulgarity appeals to a mass movement excited by his pose of alpha male leadership, or "chimpanzee politics" as I called it in an earlier post. Robert Kagan in the Washington Post has made the best case for seeing Trump as America's fascist leader:

Roger Sweeny said...

On the other hand, as Glenn Reynolds has suggested, if you want the media and respectable opinion to care about civil liberties and restraining government, elect a Republican president.

Anonymous said...

Isn't a major reason that Trump decided to run the fiasco at the White House Correspondents' Dinner? But I don't think Trump is such a threat. He never has been. For all his "leadership skills" he's a terrible communicator. And If we start with a negative bias we'll interpret everything in a negative way. That's why he tends to speak nonsense while everyone makes a big deal about it. We should really think about setting aside our fear of Trump.