by Patrick McAuliffe Jr.
There’s been a word floating around in this election cycle that is an increasingly better option than the two major parties. Its representatives range anywhere from Penn Jillette to Ron Swanson to Bryan Cranston (maybe, hard to tell). It probably lines up with what many people already believe; that is to let people live their lives how they want without government interference. You may have come across the slogan “I want gay married couples to be able to protect their marijuana plants with guns.” This isn’t the only stereotype of libertarianism people have come up with. My favorite is this article’s title: “I love weed, fuck the poor.” It’s hilarious because sometimes that is the extent to which people’s libertarian leanings go, but for many others, it is grossly inaccurate.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what libertarianism is because so many ideas exist of how far the government should go, even amongst libertarians themselves. Libertarians can agree however, that a smaller government is a better government, and in a different way than Democrats or Republicans. You may have heard Gary Johnson, this year’s Libertarian Party presidential candidate, say the catchphrase, “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” or his running mate Bill Weld’s favorite line, “We’ll get the government out of your pocketbook and out of your bedroom.” Those are both good intros to libertarianism, but like product marketing or memes, they isolate a lot of holistic issues within libertarianism. For example, my libertarian leanings are extremely laissez-faire. I agree wholeheartedly with Thomas Jefferson when he said, “A government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have.” For me, government exists solely to protect the rights of the governed, and anything beyond that is overstepping its function (proactive regulation, subsidies, etc.).
Libertarianism takes the best parts of both Democrats and Republicans and puts it into one neat package. From the Democratic side, libertarians believe in more open borders (with the rule of law still in place, of course), reducing or ending the War on Drugs, ending corporate welfare, and legalizing same-sex marriage. Libertarians also agree with Republicans on the generally unrestricted right to bear arms, deregulating the free market, simplifying the tax code (maybe abolishing the IRS completely, but that won’t be for a while), and no “free” college of any sort. However, lots of policies set libertarians apart from both parties. Libertarians want to take less of an interventionist role in global politics and let countries handle their own affairs, whether that means refraining from bombing the shit out of them in the name of democracy or forming entangling alliances with unelected bureaucrats that ignore national sovereignty (looking at EU, Europe).
Another unique aspect of libertarianism is its approach to the “welfare state.” The welfare debate is a tricky one. Many advocate for doing away with all forms of welfare completely and letting private charity take over (so much more rewarding when giving to the less fortunate is voluntary, isn’t it?). However, such a drastic change would be impractical, especially in a time when so many “socialist” countries seem to be doing so “well”. I personally believe a good stepping stone would be a “guaranteed national income.” Before you fly off the handle for whatever reason – I’m a hypocrite, that’s worse than the current system, whatever – hear me out. Many people like libertarianism except for its apparent “fuck the poor” attitude. Couple that with an expectation among many that government has a duty to take care of its citizens (I might use the word “coddle,” but that’s me), and switching over to private charity without changing people’s attitudes about ethics and politics is simply unsustainable. A guaranteed national income allows for the perfect middle ground and middle step between government “coddling” and people taking personal responsibility for their choices. Instead of designated funds every month for specific goods that allow for a lifetime abuse of the welfare system, people can now use their guaranteed income for whatever they deem appropriate. They can save it, they can spend it on food, they can gamble it away, they can spend it on drugs, whether they’ve been decriminalized or not. If people decide they don’t need it, they can send it back to the government for a deduction off their taxes. The kicker here is that the individual gets to decide how to use the money to improve their life, and any positive result they glean from it can be credited to their smart financial management. Conversely, if they manage to screw it up and blow it all, those consequences are on them.
Basically, what you need to know is that libertarianism is a multifaceted ideology that, like what it advocates, allows for many personal interpretations about to what extent it should be implemented. Now, how does its current representative, Gary Johnson, measure up to this standard of small government and personal liberty?
Governor Johnson was the Republican governor of a 2-1 Democratic New Mexico from 1994 to 2002. According to his campaign website, he “cut taxes 14 times while never raising them. He balanced the state’s budget, and left New Mexico with a billion-dollar surplus.” He also vetoed more than 700 bills to expand the state government’s reach into people’s lives. He has been an entrepreneur for his own construction company and the CEO of a marijuana company. He has climbed the highest mountain on every continent (even climbing Everest with a broken leg). Sounds good, tell me more!
Governor Johnson received some backlash during the Libertarian debate hosted by John Stossel and Fox Business. When the question of a business’ autonomous decision to deny service to someone based on their sexuality (the “gay wedding cake” debate), Johnson spoke in favor of forcing the business to provide service to that customer. That immediately raises some red flags in many libertarians’ minds (I do think businesses can refuse service to whomever they disagree with, but that’s for another time), but Johnson’s website attempts to explain his methodology: “…although Gary considers himself to be libertarian-minded, he has always believed that good public policy should be based on a practical cost/benefit analysis, rather than strict ideology.” He believes that allowing individual businesses to discriminate against their customers leads to general societal problems over time, and when it comes to offended businesses or happy consumers, Johnson seems to go with the latter.
Another area where Johnson seems to diverge from libertarian principles is his stance on what the government should do about climate change. In a CNBC interview, Johnson thinks that a tax on carbon emission is a “very libertarian proposal,” although he wants to make clear that he’s “just open to this.” His reasoning is to strip away the mess of environmental regulations of today, replace it with a simple carbon tax, and let the free market handle the rest. Again, he is trying to consider the “cost/benefit analysis” of this regulation, doing away with subsidies of green energy or restrictions of oil pipeline construction and finding a very general way to encourage innovations in cleaner sources of energy. When I first heard of Johnson’s “carbon tax,” I was vehemently against it. I still have my reservations – energy companies have access to scientific methods and data unprecedented in human history and, if they were smart and forward-thinking, should naturally and rationally come to develop both a cleaner and economically viable source of energy. However, I understand Governor Johnson’s reasoning behind this tax. My main argument against the carbon tax, besides the one above, is one regarding resources. If there is a finite amount of fossil fuels, and the energy industry will rationally want to continue to make money once those resources run out, no institutional regulation will prevent that day from coming. If the industry does not have foresight and causes both its business and its consumers to run out of energy, those consequences are on them. “But it could have been prevented if only the government had stepped in…” – is it the government’s job to step in? The energy companies made their choice, to drill the Earth dry, and they must take responsibility. However, if they are forward-thinking and do develop alternative sources of energy, the carbon tax becomes completely unnecessary.
I am almost certain I’ll be voting for Governors Johnson and Weld in the next two weeks. More “hardcore” libertarians may denounce my decision, calling it a matter of “party over principle.” I guess my response is he’s the best we’ve got. Johnson may not be a consistent libertarian and a well-spoken politician – just let Bill Weld answer the question, for Christ’s sake – but he is a step in the right direction for reducing the scope of government in the lives of its citizens. Indeed, the polls are showing that there is a fair amount of Americans that are “closeted libertarians.” Of course, it wasn’t enough to get Johnson into the debates. However, enough people have heard his message of small government that he may disrupt the current political system just enough to get the House to pick the President, and in 2020, to have the Libertarian Party make much bigger of a splash in the public eye.
Stereotypes of libertarians abound on the Internet and in conversation with one’s partisan friends. People may consider a smaller government to mean exactly what my title says. They’re still thinking in terms of mandates; libertarians don’t want compulsive marijuana consumption, nor do they forbid charitable giving. In a free society, the choice is yours to love weed or hate it, to fuck the poor or embrace them. The government exists only to protect your right to choose. One rule, though: “don’t tread on anyone,” because their rights to choose are just like yours.