Monday, May 30, 2016

The Johnson/Weld Ticket: Four Principles of Classical Liberalism in the Libertarian Moment

"We have been given the gift of Trump and Clinton." 

That was the comment of Larry Sharpe, who was a candidate for the Libertarian Party vice-presidential nomination.  That's why this convention of the Libertarian Party in Orlando, Florida, has been different from all previous LP conventions, because of the sense that both of the presidential candidates for the two major parties will be so deeply disliked that many voters will be looking for a third alternative, that the Libertarian Party will be the only third party on the ballot in all 50 states, that some polls have already shown Gary Johnson winning 10-11% of the voters in a matchup with Trump and Clinton, and thus this presidential election will become the Libertarian Moment. 

As I have indicated in a previous post, I foresee the possibility that Trump and Clinton could each win 30% of the popular votes, allowing Johnson to win the popular plurality with 40% of the votes.  Something like this happened in the election of Abraham Lincoln as the first Republican president.

Yesterday, Johnson won the presidential nomination, and William Weld won the vice-presidential nomination.  Johnson and Weld are both former Republican two-term governors, which makes this the most politically prominent ticket ever nominated by the Libertarian Party, and thus another reason to think this is the Libertarian Moment. 

The one potential weakness is that neither Johnson nor Weld display the sort of engaging speaking skills that will be necessary to go up against Trump's bombastic, fascist demagoguery.  When Weld was given five minutes for an acceptance speech, he took only two minutes for a perfunctory and emotionally flat statement.  Occasionally, however, Johnson has shown some of the sparkling energy in his speaking that he will need for the televised presidential debates.

If you look at the televised coverage of the LP convention (on C-Span), you will see that there was deep division at the convention.  On the first ballots, Johnson and Weld both won 49% of the votes, which forced a second round of balloting.

The issues debated at the convention were displayed in the debate on Saturday night between the five leading candidates for the presidential nomination: Gary Johnson, Austin Peterson, John McAfee, Darryl Perry, and Marc Feldman.  In contrast to the Democratic Party and Republican Party debates, there were no personal insults; and the debate was totally about principles. 

There was general agreement on four principles of classical liberalism.  But there was some disagreement on the intellectual interpretation and practical application of those principles.

The first principle is the non-aggression principle.  Unlike the two other major parties, the Libertarian Party requires its members to pledge their agreement to a principle.  To join the LP, one must pledge: "To validate my membership, I certify that I oppose the initiation of force to achieve political or social goals."  Refraining from the initiation of force or coercion leaves one free to use force or coercion defensively against others who have initiated force or coercion against oneself.  The other three principles can be understood as correlates of this fundamental principle.

The second principle is the no-harm principle.  This is the principle famously declared by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty: that individuals have the liberty to live as they please, in cooperation with others, and that the only justification for limiting this liberty is to prevent harm to others.  This principle applies only to adults, however, because children must be under the authority of their parents or parental surrogates until the children become mature adults capable of rationally choosing how to live their lives.

The third principle is the separation of church and state.  Classical liberalism arose in early modern Europe and North America in the debate over the political establishment of church authority, in which liberals argued for religious liberty and toleration, so that it was improper for the state to enforce coercively religious beliefs and practices.  This required a separation of state and society, the public and the private.  In society, individuals were to be free to form religious groups with voluntary members, who could be expelled if they violated the terms of their membership, but they could not be violently coerced.  Once this principle of separating church and state was established, it could be extended to a general separation of private society and public state.  So one could argue, for example, as libertarians do, for the separation of education and state, the separation of marriage and state, and so on.

The fourth principle is spontaneous order.  The idea here--implicit in the other three principles--is that human beings are naturally social animals who generate social order as individuals seek the satisfaction of their individual desires without any need for central planning.  This is the idea of free markets extended to explain all social order--economic order, moral order, intellectual order--as a largely spontaneous order.

This principle of spontaneous  order supports the promotion of free trade--not only in the movement of goods and services but also in the movement of ideas and people.  Consequently, the libertarians at the LP convention were apparently unanimous in their support for open borders that allow people to flow freely from one nation to another.  This puts the libertarians in clear opposition to Trump's nativist opposition to immigration.

In the debate Saturday night, one could see the disagreements over the interpretation and application of these principles.  At one extreme, Darryl Perry is an anarchist, who identifies himself as "the libertarian wing of the Libertarian Party."  He wants to abolish all government, so that all social order is totally spontaneous, with no deliberate design by government at all.  At the other extreme, Johnson is a limited-government classical liberal, who believes that government does have some limited role to play in securing the legal framework within which spontaneous order can emerge.

Of the five debaters, Johnson was the one who was booed four or five times.  Austin Peterson was booed once.  The others were never booed.

Johnson was first booed for saying that the Social Security Program needs to be reformed, but not abolished.  The others want to totally abolish it.  As Perry said, if we ask "who's going to care for grandma?" in her old age, the answer is that her relatives will care for her, and if her relatives can't do this, there will be charities and mutual aid societies to provide such care.

Far from the common charge that libertarians see human beings as so greedy and selfishly competitive that they don't care for others, the libertarian speakers at the LP convention repeatedly affirmed the natural sociality of human beings, who can solve their social problems without intervention by government, because they love one another and want to help those in need.  On the first day of the convention, there was a hit-and-run car accident outside of the convention hotel.  Two libertarians--including Dr. Marc Feldman, one of the presidential candidates--went to the aid of the victim lying in the street.  Later, photographs of this were flashed in the convention screen as an illustration of how libertarians spontaneously help people in trouble.

Although Johnson agrees with this, he does not think that spontaneous order is so spontaneous that it can work without any government at all.  This explains his disagreement with the other four speakers on the issue of government licensing.  The others think that all governmental licensing should be abolished.  Johnson agrees that most governmental licensing should be eliminated.  But he does see a need for licensing in a few areas--like marriage and driver's licensing.  Previously, Johnson has argued that marriage should be a purely private activity with no governmental licensing.  But now he believes that since there are hundreds, if not thousands, of laws that identify "marriage" as a legal category, it would be so hard to change all of those laws that we need governmental licensing to define what counts as marriage.

And while the other speakers saw no need for the governmental licensing of automobile drivers, because they saw it as the natural duty of parents to supervise the training of their children for driving cars, Johnson thought that to prevent harm to others, it was proper for state governments set minimum competency standards for driving cars.

Three of the most interesting points of disagreement in the debate concerned the protection of children, the practice of abortion, and antidiscrimination law.  Classical liberals such as John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill have all recognized that children must be under parental care and thus cannot rightly have the liberty of mature adults.  But then there's uncertainty as to whether there is any need for legal intervention to protect children.  Johnson and most libertarians think that the "war on drugs" is wrong, and that drug-use should be a matter of personal choice.  But some libertarians think that there should be some legal prohibitions on children using harmful drugs.  When Peterson took this position, he was booed.

When the abortion issue was brought up, Perry indicated that this was a divisive issue for libertarians.  Peterson took a pro-life position.  If life begins at conception, then abortion is murder, and thus a harm that can be legally prohibited.  But the other four were pro-choice, in arguing that a fetus should be treated as part of the mother's body and not as a separate person, at least up to the point of viability.

Another difficult issue for the five debaters was raised when the debate moderator asked: "Senator Barry Goldwater refused to vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited racial discrimination in public accommodations, because this violated his libertarian belief that this violated the individual's freedom of association.  Would you have voted for that law?"  When Johnson said that he would have voted for that law, he provoked the loudest boos of the whole debate.  The four others said they would not have voted for that law.  Their reasoning, as Perry explained it, was that discrimination by government should be legally prohibited, but not discrimination by private individuals.  Perry argued that "Jim Crow segregation" was mandated by laws, and those laws enforcing segregation should have been overturned.  In fact, he claimed, many businesspeople who owned restaurants and hotels were happy to see people in the Civil Rights Movement protesting the laws of segregation.

Leo Strauss (in "Why We Remain Jews") pointed to this issue when he talked about how a liberal society tries to solve the "Jewish question" just as it tries to solve the "Negro question."  "A liberal society stands or falls by the distinction between the political (or the state) and society, or by the distinction between the public and the private.  In the liberal society, there is necessarily a private sphere with which the state's legislation must not interfere. . . . Every citizen is free to adhere to any religion he sees fit.  Now given this--the necessary existence of such a private sphere--the liberal society necessarily makes possible, permits, and even fosters what is called by many people 'discrimination'" (Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity, 314).  Some people think that "discrimination" in any form--such as discrimination against Jews and African-Americans--should be legally prohibited.  But if that were done, as it was in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that would mean, Strauss observed, "the abolition of the private sphere, the denial of the difference between the state and society, in a word, the destruction of liberal society; and therefore, it is not a sensible objective or policy" (315).  Apparently, then, Strauss would have been on the side of the four libertarian candidates here who would not have signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

If these are the kinds of questions that Johnson and Weld will introduce into the presidential campaign, and if they raise such questions in the televised presidential debates in the fall, then the Libertarian Moment can become an intellectually exciting event in American political history.

Things could become even more interesting if Clinton loses the California primary, or wins by a tiny margin, and the Democratic superdelegates begin to swing toward Sanders and the Sandernistas.  How about a debate between a Socialist, a Fascist, and a Libertarian?  It's going to be a wild ride.

Previously, I have written about Trump's "Chimpanzee Fascism."  Robert Kagan has made the case for identifying Trump as a fascist.

1 comment:

CJColucci said...

Previously, Johnson has argued that marriage should be a purely private activity with no governmental licensing. But now he believes that since there are hundreds, if not thousands, of laws that identify "marriage" as a legal category, it would be so hard to change all of those laws that we need governmental licensing to define what counts as marriage.

A man who was a state governor for two terms just recently figured that out?