Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Hayekian Evolutionary Libertarianism of Justin Amash and His Presidential Candidacy

As I anticipated in some posts last year (here and here), Justin Amash has announced that he is running for the American presidency by seeking the nomination of the Libertarian Party.  Last year, he became the first Republican member of Congress to call for the impeachment of Donald Trump; and then he left the Republican Party to become an Independent.  Now, he has become the first member of the Libertarian Party to be serving in the Congress.  Having denounced the two-party system in the United States as corrupt, he now offers his race for the presidency as an alternative to that system.  He has explained his reasoning for doing this in an interview with Reason magazine's Matt Welch.

Amash's decision raises lots of questions.  Is there anything distinctive about his libertarian political thought?  Can he defend his libertarianism as rooted in some American political traditions?  Can he answer those members of the Libertarian Party who doubt that he speaks for the principles of their party?  If he is nominated by the Party, does he have any realistic chance of winning?  Or is it more likely that he will only take away enough votes from Joe Biden to allow Trump to win?

Amash regularly quotes Friedrich Hayek or paraphrases his ideas in a way that suggests that he has actually read Hayek with some care.  Most often Amash appeals to one of Hayek's central ideas--the evolutionary emergence of social order through the spontaneous interaction of a number of people who each possess only bits of local knowledge.  In this way, markets and market-like orders allow for the use of dispersed knowledge that can never be held in the minds of central planners, who falsely pretend to have the knowledge necessary for planning everything by design.

In "The Pretence of Knowledge," Hayek's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Hayek said: "To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm."  Hayek and the other Austrian economists rejected the concept of economic equilibrium, because they saw the economy as an everchanging evolutionary process that is naturally prone to shocks and disruptions that require the spontaneously adaptive adjustments of free markets, which are impeded by governmental interventions.  (I have defended Hayek's evolutionary liberalism herehere, and here.)

Amash expresses the same idea in his interview with Welch.  In explaining what he means by the need for "humility with respect to how much one individual knows about things," he says: "What you really have right now are two presidential candidates who think they know everything and want to run everything.  And you see the mess that's happening right now just with the coronavirus relief, where you get this one person thinking they know everything, instead of using the type of knowledge that exists out among the public, which is the knowledge of time and circumstances, things that only people on the ground know, that no one in Washington can know, or no one in the state Capitol can know."

The reference to someone "in the state Capitol" is probably pointing to Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, because Amash has criticized her (on his Facebook page, April 11) for her severely restrictive executive orders shutting down the state in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  "Sensible instructions to practice social distancing, wear masks, and stay at home already do most of the work to reduce the virus's spread," he observed.  "By pushing too far, the governor undermines her own authority and increases the likelihood people will not follow reasonable guidelines.  At the very least, government officials need to trust people with matters that are extremely low risk. . . . The governor needs to allow communities and businesses to establish safety procedures based on actual conditions.  Not every place has the same risks, and it's not good governance, good health science, or good economics to pretend they are."

Amash implies here that instead of a mandatory governmental lockdown of social and economic life, the governor should follow the example of South Dakota or Sweden, where public health officials have strongly recommended that people voluntarily restrict their social movement to minimize the spread of the virus, but without any coercively imposed lockdown.  This allows individuals to exercise personal responsibility and to spontaneously generate a reasonable response to the pandemic based on what they know about the local circumstances of their life.  Governors like Whitmer are foolish if they "think they know everything and want to run everything."

Amash roots his evolutionary libertarianism in the principles of the American founding--particularly as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  In doing this, he follows the example of the Libertarian Party Platform of 2018, which echoes the language of those two founding documents.

From the Declaration, Amash draws the fundamental principle that "the purpose of government is to secure our rights," as he tells Welch.  Amash sees the Constitution as securing the rights of the people by designing a government that is divided and limited in its powers--as he says to Welch, "that means allowing legislators to legislate, and keeping the executive branch in check, and having a court that does its job interpreting and deciding cases."

He laments the great departure from this constitutional design that comes from the failure of the Congress to act as the chief deliberative body, a failure that he attributes to the current system of partisan lawmaking in which most of the laws are written by the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader of the Senate consulting with the White House.  Most members of the Congress have no chance to deliberate about the laws because they are forced to vote as they are instructed by their party leaders.  Many times, they are not even given enough time to read what they're voting on.  Amash is famous for being one the few members of Congress who refuses to vote on legislation if he has not be given time to actually read it.

As one of Amash's constituents in the 3rd Congressional District in Michigan, I can testify to the fact that when he speaks to his constituents, he repeatedly tries to impress on them how they should be concerned about the constitutional process of congressional deliberation and how excessive partisanship has impeded this deliberative process.  But I can also report that in his public meetings, his audiences often seem uninterested in this.  The constitutional process of deliberating about laws is just not exciting for most voters.  (Matt Welch has made the same observation.)  If Amash tries to speak this way in his presidential campaign, we will have to see if he can overcome this problem.

There are now over 21 candidates running for the presidential nomination of the Libertarian Party.  A half dozen or more of these have been in a series of debates sponsored by the Libertarian state party organizations.  Based on some straw polls, Jacob Hornberger appears to have the most support among party members, although the delegates to the national convention are not pledged to any candidates, and the nominee will be whoever wins the majority of the delegates at the convention.

Some of the candidates and other members of the party have criticized Amash's decision to enter the race for two reasons.  First, some say that his entry comes too late--less than a month before the national convention--and that he chose to delay so that he would not have to participate in any debates.  The debates are intense--with participants being vigorously questioned about their positions, which allows party members to judge the rhetorical skills of the candidates and to decide whether they are rightly defending libertarian principles.  By not participating in the debates, Amash escapes this scrutiny.

In his interview with Welch, Amash admits that he should have announced his presidential campaign earlier, perhaps even in July of last year when he left the Republican Party.  But he says that he needed a long time to make up his mind.  He thought that he could be reelected to his sixth term in Congress, and he was not sure he wanted to give that up.

The second criticism is the charge that Amash is not a real libertarian who has shown commitment to the principles of the Libertarian Party.  Hornberger has a series of blog posts/podcasts pointing to Amash's deviations from true libertarianism, which claim to show that Amash is not a pure libertarian but rather a libertarian conservative who blends some libertarian themes with conservative positions.  Hornberger argues that Amash will speak the libertarian mantra of "liberty, limited government, and fiscal responsibility," but then he often violates these principles.

The clearest recent example of this is Amash's support for at least part of the COVID-19 stimulus packages.  For the first stimulus legislation, Amash voted "present"--that is, he refused to vote either for or against it.  He justified this by saying that the party leadership did not distribute copies of the bill early enough for everyone to read it before the vote.  He also said that he opposed those parts of the bill that provided bailouts for business, because he regarded this as "crony capitalism" or "corporate welfare"--taxpayer money going to those businesses with the most political clout.  And yet he favored the stimulus money going out as checks to individual citizens.  Actually, he thought all the money--over $2 trillion dollars--should have been spent as checks for individuals who needed this to help them through the economic crisis.

How is this libertarian?  Don't libertarians--Amash included--regularly condemn the endless increases in the national debt as an immoral burden--theft really--on the future generation of taxpayers that will have to pay off that debt?  During the first three years of Trump's administration, the national debt has skyrocketed to $24 trillion.  Now, the coronavirus stimulus packages are predicted to add another $6 trillion.  So soon the national debt will be over $30 trillion.  Who's going to pay that debt?  It will be paid by future taxpayers or by inflationary printing of money, or there will be national debt crisis, and in any of these cases, ordinary citizens will be impoverished by this.

I have not seen that Amash has answered this criticism.  But the way he speaks about the need for the federal government to send stimulus checks to everyone suggests that he sees this as a pragmatic compromise of his libertarian principles.  When people are facing another Great Depression caused by economic lockdowns mandated by government, they will demand that the government give them some relief.  Does this mean that Amash believes in a libertarian welfare state?

After all, Amash might point to Hayek's defense of a classical liberal welfare state in Part 3 ("Freedom in the Welfare State") of Hayek's Constitution of Liberty, which argues that a liberal social order might have to provide the security of a minimum income for all citizens.  I have written about the Nordic Social Democracies as models of the capitalist welfare-state.  Is this what Amash has in mind?  And if so, can he defend it as compatible with the principles of the Libertarian Party?  We'll see.

In his interview with Welch, Amash says that one reason for his delay in announcing his presidential run is that he wanted time for researching things and thinking through the political situation to see if he would have a chance to win the race, because he doesn't want to run if he's only going to be a "spoiler."

"I believe there are enough votes out there to win this race," he says.  Because if there are some Republicans and Democrats who are dissatisfied with their parties, and if there are many independents looking for an alternative to Trump and Biden, these are the voters whom Amash might win.  The Republican electoral losses since the 2016 election--including many losing candidates enthusiastically endorsed by Trump--suggests that Trump's core of solid supporters is a minority of the voters.  And if there's a high turn-out of anti-Trump voters, Trump will surely lose.

Amash also has a chance to pull over to his side one of the crucial groups for Trump--the pro-life evangelical Christians.  Amash is a serious Christian (Eastern Orthodox).  And he is a pro-life libertarian who believes that those not yet born have a right to life.  He does not, however, argue for making abortion illegal, although he does argue that there should be no federal funding for abortion.  Libertarians are divided over abortion because some believe those not yet born are "persons" with the right to life, while others do not accept this.  The Libertarian Party Platform declares: "Recognizing that abortion is a sensitive issue and that people can hold good-faith views on all sides, we believe that government should be kept out of the matter, leaving the question to each person for their conscientious consideration."

But why isn't Biden the best candidate to defeat Trump?  And what does Amash say to those who are warning that his candidacy will split the anti-Trump vote and thus allow Trump to win?

Amash says that Biden "frankly doesn't seem to be up to it."  I assume that Amash is here alluding to Biden's increasingly frequent lapses into incoherence in his speaking, which suggests some cognitive decline with aging.  This could become ever more disturbing for voters.  And the larger point here is that the contrast between Trump and Biden as the two oldest men to ever run for the presidency and Amash as an energetic 40-year-old must increase Amash's attractiveness.

Another potential problem for Biden is that one of his former staffers--Tara Read--has accused him of sexual assault when she worked for him 30 years ago.  Amash has said: "I think anyone is disqualified if they've engaged in some kind of assault, especially a sexual assault."  He has also said, however, that while the charges of sexual assault against both Trump and Biden are serious, he would not make this an issue in his campaign.

But all of these factors are less important in deciding Amash's chances for a win than the debate over the COVID-19 lockdown and its consequences.  We can foresee that by the end of this summer it will be clear that the lockdown has caused a global Second Great Depression.  Since both Trump and Biden have supported the lockdown as the only possible response to the pandemic, they will be held responsible for the Depression.

This will create an opportunity for Amash to point to this social and economic catastrophe as deliberately created by the leaders of both political parties, and he will have to set himself apart as the one politician who saw that the harm from the lockdown--the loss of life, liberty, and property--would far exceed any likely health benefits.  He will have to argue that the United States and other countries have dealt with deadly pandemics previously--like those of 1918, 1957, 1968, and 2009--without shutting down their social and economic life, and there was no good reason to order such a shutdown for this pandemic.  He might point to Sweden as pursuing the more reasonable strategy for achieving herd immunity through largely voluntary adjustments in social life in the face of a pandemic, and this would be the libertarian approach to a pandemic.

If Amash can make that argument, he might have a chance to win.

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