Before I was a leftist, I was a libertarian. I voted for the Libertarian Party presidential nominee in my first three U.S. general elections—1988, 1992, and 1996—and in 2000, I voted for George W. Bush, one of only 18 people in my Chicago precinct to do so (let it never be said that I am afraid to throw away my franchise). The candidate George W. Bush whom I rather indifferently hoped to see win the election was, it seemed to me, an affable do-nothing doofus, an unassuming place-holder: the new century’s “Silent Cal” Coolidge (at best) or Warren G. Harding (at worst). I voted for the George W. Bush who claimed to advocate staying out of preventive wars and spending vast sums on nation-building. How hard could that be? I expected the rather dim and chronically underachieving Bush to expend the greater part of his energies just avoiding embarrassment—maintaining a low profile and keeping his dick in his pants, things the last guy had failed to do. Not a lot to ask, but this was really all I wanted from a President.
Of course this was before the Florida ballot imbroglio and Bush v. Gore; before 9/11 and the War on Terror and the USA PATRIOT Act; before Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib; and before the insane mortgage bond derivatives bubble almost broke the world economy. This laundry list of fateful world-historical events made me vow never again to vote for a Republican candidate for the highest office. But it was the last item that made me renounce the Libertarian Party and its fetish for free and unregulated markets, and reconsider Marx.
That is, until recently. I first heard of former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson’s Presidential campaign on Facebook, through a college friend who still waves the libertarian flag high. Though Johnson is running as a Republican, his platform issues—legalize marijuana and end the War on Drugs, streamline immigration, withdraw our forces from the Middle East and stop the corresponding offensive on civil liberties at home, provide strong tax incentives for businesses to stay in the U.S. and create new jobs—are all libertarian shibboleths (though Johnson prefers to call himself a “classical liberal,” which amounts to the same thing). Johnson is frequently compared to and seen as the heir apparent to Ron Paul, another libertarian who ran as a Republican candidate for President. In fact, Johnson is, if anything, more libertarian than Paul, whose anti-immigrant and pro-life views put him closer to old-school conservatism than libertarianism. In spite of his exclusion from a CNN debate among Republican candidates, Johnson possesses potential appeal with several disparate demographics, including Tea Partiers; Democrats, who made up some two-thirds of New Mexico’s electorate when he was governor of that state; younger voters, as evidenced by this favorable interview in Rolling Stone magazine; and business owners, enticed by Johnson’s advocacy of abolishing the corporate income tax.
So what’s my take on Johnson? Obviously, his stands on civil liberties, immigration, drug policy, and military issues are, if not perfectly aligned with the progressive line, as least the best that can be expected from a candidate who actually wants to win a primary election. His views on economic issues, however, cause me no small amount of trepidation. To understand why, we need to answer the question of why I disavowed libertarianism to begin with.
Two events that occurred between 2000 and 2002 deeply shook my faith in libertarian thought. First came the collapse of the dot-com bubble, the build-up to which I had witnessed in extreme close-up: from 1998 until 2000, I worked in the equity research department of an investment banking firm in Chicago which underwrote the initial public offerings of many tech and internet companies. The euphoria of those years was palpable; prudence and deliberation were put aside as share value (and thus the size of our commission and bonus checks) grew and the NASDAQ climbed. As the bubble burst and the bankruptcies began, the lesson I took away was: Contrary to libertarian economic theory, markets do not always behave rationally. When the Enron scandal broke the following year, it became abundantly clear to me that markets do not always operate honestly, transparently, and with society’s betterment in mind, either. As Enron employees lost their jobs and retirement savings, and shareholders watched stock prices plummet, I saw that the actions of a few greedy individuals could result in suffering for many thousands of unsuspecting “little people.”
Still, I clung doggedly to small-government, free-market doctrine for a number of years, despite my own desperate economic straits, which ironically resulted in my reliance on government assistance for several months. My final disillusionment came in 2007-2008, when I got a clerical job at a large law firm that represented numerous mortgage lending companies in civil complaints against defaulting homeowners—a “foreclosure mill.” Again, I saw firsthand—and even, to my shame, participated in—corporate greed, callousness, and duplicity, resulting once again in financial ruin for millions of ordinary people. Clearly, rich and powerful corporations, which I had believed to be noble, wealth- and job-creating entities that worked to counteract an inefficient and corrupt government bureaucracy, did not serve the best interests of society, or of anyone besides their officers and shareholders. They wreaked havoc on the global economy, the lives of their workers, and the environment. Government oversight, which I had thought of as a needless constraint on the Creative Force of the Marketplace, was indeed necessary to protect the public from plunder.
It is curious to me that the philosophical axiom underpinning much libertarian thought is the Panglossian notion, dating back to Adam Smith, that every actor in the Market behaves rationally and according to his own interests, but the Market as a whole serves the common good. (This idea is rapidly losing market share among modern economists, who integrate financial history with the findings of modern psychology, sociology, and even biology to develop more realistic models of economic behavior.) Since all economic players act selfishly but rationally, and the net result of their actions is the betterment of society as a whole, it is to everyone’s benefit to give every individual maximum freedom and minimal restraint, as long as his actions directly harm no one else. Regulation is unnecessary because, given rational producers and rational, self-interested consumers, market forces will reward the conscientious and discourage or punish the unethical. Hence the emphasis on personal liberty, and the distrust of government interference with markets (or government anything, for that matter).
So that’s my story, plus a vastly oversimplified thumbnail sketch of the theoretical basis of libertarianism. But getting back to Gary Johnson and the real world, in which political quid pro quo and compromise always trump political theory. Political candidates have lots of grand ideas and say lots of things to get elected, only some of them true or relevant. What candidate would I back in the 2012 election?
Given the readership of this website, I doubt I need to say anything about the rest of the Republican field—I would sooner vote for a dead cat. The real choice for me (excluding a third-party candidate) is between Gary Johnson and the Democratic incumbent, Barack Obama. And the only reason I’m even pressed to make a choice, given that the incumbent is supposedly “one of ours,” is Obama’s execrable performance in his first term. He simply has not delivered as promised, in terms of either advancing a progressive agenda (he has behaved as a de facto stealth Republican), or, really, of getting much accomplished at all.
So—Gary Johnson: selected pros and cons.
- Committed to civil liberties; favors an end to the War on Drugs and the surveillance and unlawful detention practices of the security state. This needs no elaboration, save to note that none of this police-state business has decreased even slightly under Obama, in spite of his campaign promises.
- Committed to ending foreign military interventions and “nation-building,” with a concomitant decrease in defense spending and foreign aid. Huzzah!
- Supports an easier, more streamlined immigration process and a decrease in ineffectual border fences and patrols. Every candidate makes noises about immigration reform. Johnson, with his experience as the governor of a border state, believes, correctly, that (a) ending the Drug War will ameliorate much of the criminal cross-border activity; and (b) a more amenable visa process for those foreign nationals who work and go to school here is to everyone’s benefit, and would encourage those who receive their higher education in the U.S. to stay here and contribute to our economy. Being treated in good faith by the government, rather than with suspicion, would make foreign workers and students want to reciprocate and play by the rules themselves. Nobody wants to be an outlaw. They want a better life.
- Supports domestic development of high-tech research and manufacturing. Encouraging foreign students to stay here and work is a part of this.
- Pro-business, to an almost monomaniacal degree. From Johnson’s campaign website: “Reject auto and banking bailouts, state bailouts, corporate welfare, cap-and-trade, card check, and the mountain of regulation that protects special interests rather than benefiting consumers or the economy.” It’s not the rejecting corporate welfare and bailouts part that concerns me, or even the rejection of cap-and-trade (which I think is a rather dubious proposition in any case); the parts about card check and the “mountain of regulation” that benefits “special interests,” however, sets off alarm bells. Labor is a “special interest,” unworthy of the protections a union affords? Hmm. And exactly what fiefdom on the “mountain of regulation” should we get rid of first? The EPA? The FDA? The USDA? The SEC? None of these institutions has ever worked perfectly—although that’s mostly because of the influence of big business—but they’re the main obstacles to a total rape of the environment, unsafe food and drugs, pillaging mortgage companies, et cetera. Or maybe consumers are unworthy of these protections? In an interview, Johnson claims that a clean environment and safe food are beneficial to everyone, and thus corporations should voluntarily work toward these ends—the magical power of the Marketplace. I say: As if. The last I checked, a decade of steady government deregulation and “voluntary self-enforcement” in the financial services industry was the catalyst that led to the mortgage meltdown, which—I’ll say it again—nearly broke the global economy. Similarly, an early twentieth-century meatpacking industry that produced tainted food and a manufacturing industry that polluted the water and air had to be reined in by increased government regulation. Corporate self-regulation has proven again and again to be a bad joke.
- Opposes clean energy. Or rather, supports business as usual, only with even more freedom for corporations to exploit the environment looking for fossil fuels, which amounts to the same thing. Apparently Johnson isn’t convinced that all his proposed promotion of high tech will lead to any serious developments in viable alternative energy sources.
- Favors privatization of many government-owned and/or operated enterprises. This always sounds like such a great idea at first look, but, as the cities of Chicago and Indianapolis have discovered by privatizing their municipal parking authorities (for example), what seems like a great way to generate a windfall for a city in the short-term often turns into a long-term fiduciary loss, not to mention a source of endless headaches for the consumers of the privatized services. And on the state level, the trendy selling off or leasing for quick cash of actual infrastructure—turnpikes, toll bridges, ports—usually to foreign investors, can’t be a good idea.
- Fetishistically obsessed with balancing the federal budget—immediately; favors radical restructuring of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. It’s not exactly visionary to observe that the federal deficit is disturbingly large, to the extent that it’s jeopardizing the financial security of the entire country for generations. Nor is it terribly astute to claim that our system of entitlements for the elderly is broken and needs to be rethought. But by radically restructuring Johnson means “reduce spending on by 43%—Johnson is always eerily precise with this 43%; it’s meant to reflect that 43 cents of every budget dollar goes to servicing the national debt—so that the budget will be balanced right after I take office.” The budgets he plans to drastically cut include a few that I applaud: the military, the homeland security apparatus, drug and border enforcement. But there’s also a lot that would be extremely painful to many who have already suffered plenty because of the limping economy, i.e., children, the elderly, the sick, the needy—those already deep in debt and sinking fast.
And they call progressives “radical.”
There are, of course, other issues, such as education, where I applaud Johnson’s goals but question his planned means of achieving them (the answer is always—wait for it—privatization).
My (obvious) question in the face of all this sudden reform is, “Why doesn’t anybody want to implement these painful austerity measures when times are good and people can afford a little belt-tightening?” To which the (equally obvious) answer is, “Because it doesn’t seem necessary then.” It hardly seems fair to kick the underclass when they’re down, after they’ve already endured five years of economic hardship.
I am relieved and immensely gratified to see that we have a candidate running on a major party ticket who takes ideas like these seriously, and who seems to have the backbone to fight for them (although I thought the same about Mr. Obama). It is clear that hard choices need to be made, and the current crop of politicos is not up to the challenge of making them. But it is also clear that, in spite of my strong and deeply-held commitment to civil liberties, to a saner approach to drug and immigration policy, and to an end to interventionism and “wars of choice,” I find it terribly difficult to support these at the expense of condemning the increasingly invisible American underclass to more pain and neglect.
We will learn much in the coming months as the fruits of austerity measures become known in Europe, particularly Greece, Ireland, and Portugal. As I write, Greece especially seems to be barely holding at a simmer, waiting for the slightest further provocation to explode into more and deeper civil unrest.
Much also depends on what kind of Congress we see coming in with the 2012 election. Will the Tea Party gain ground again? If the circumstances are such that Gary Johnson has any hope of winning the nomination and the general election, I think we have to assume that this will be the case. Do we really want to hand total control of the government to a Republican majority heavily weighted with budget-slashing Tea Party- and libertarian-influenced members? Would our social fabric hold under the strain of such rapid enactment of reforms? And, more importantly, what real evidence is there that austerity and budget cuts are a helpful response to a struggling economy? History suggests that such a reaction may be counterproductive as well as unpopular and cruel. Just because the medicine tastes bad doesn’t necessarily mean it works.
So who am I going to vote for? Mmm, I’m thinking this guy.