According to Wikipedia, Libertarianism “refers to the group of political philosophies which emphasize freedom, liberty and voluntary association. There is no general consensus among scholars on the precise definition.” Of course it would be a somewhat paradoxical task for any self-appointed “libertarian scholars” to take it upon themselves to formally define a philosophy which is based on self-determination in the first place. But I’m no scholar and I think the word paradox is pretty nifty, so I’m gonna give it a shot anyway.
“Who are you to tell me what being libertarian is!?”, might cry Larry Libertarian upon hearing that this Lions of Liberty website was putting up a post on the subject. And I feel for you Larry, I do. After all, the term “libertarian” is essentially nothing more than just that: a term. Terms often have different meanings and connotations to different people. Many types of people with opposing views on various subjects may all refer to themselves as having “libertarian” values or leanings. As a result, a multitude of political issues are often hotly contested even amongst self-proclaimed libertarians, with abortion and immigration being a few.
For myself, to truly be a libertarian is to hold an essential belief in the philosophy of liberty. This philosophy is one that values the decisions of the individual above all others and categorically rejects the initiation of violence against other individuals as a means of compulsion. Essentially the idea is “you can have your views and I can have mine, but when it comes down to it you cannot use violence or the threat of violence to force your views upon me”. You can have a bumper full of Ron Paul stickers and a bookshelf full of Murray Rothbard classics, but if you don’t reject the initiation of force, you’re no believer in liberty and no libertarian. If you’ve actually read any of that Rothbard on the bookshelf it’s very likely you’ll have come to understand the non-aggression principle and the value of individual liberty.
It’s no secret around this website that when it comes to politics I’ve made my bed with the intellectual Revolution of Ron Paul and I fully intend to lie in it. But before Ron Paul dragged me kicking and screaming into the Republican Party, I would often find myself come election time checking the “L” for the Libertarian Party candidates straight down the line. It may have been a feeble attempt at venting political frustrations, but I at least thought that I was voting for something closer to what I believed in than what either the Republicans or Democrats had to offer me. I’ve since come to view electoral politics as much less of a means to an end than it is a reflection of where we already are. I don’t believe we will ever “vote ourselves free” by electing liberty candidates. Rather we will hopefully see liberty candidates achieve success after the people have come to believe in liberty over statism.
Even if we could “vote ourselves free” however, would voting for the Libertarian Party candidates necessarily be the prudent thing to do? Similar to how supposedly “small government” Republicans often tend to vote for big government legislation, there is no guarantee that a candidate that happens to have the “Libertarian” political label will actually be a “libertarian”. Heck, as recently as 2008 the Libertarian Party nominated drug-warrior Bob Barr as its’ Presidential Candidate.
With this in mind, I decided to take a longer look at the 2012 Libertarian Candidate for President, Gary Johnson, by listening to a recent interview he gave to one of our favorite Austrian economists and bloggers, Bob Wenzel of EconomicPolicyJournal.com. Going into this interview, the only things I know about Gary Johnson are that he endorsed Ron Paul in 2008, was known as Gary “Veto” Johnson while serving as Governor of New Mexico, was blacked out of the GOP Primary Debates even worse than Ron Paul was, and he has climbed Mt. Everest. Not a bad resume! But is he a libertarian? If you’ve got an extra half hour, listen along with me and find out! If not, feel free to skip directly to my post-interview rant.
I tried not to cringe too much when I heard Mr. Johnson refer to Milton Friedman and Cato as his libertarian influences. Of course Milton Friedman was no libertarian, but we’ll let Murray Rothbard handle that one. Not everyone is going to find libertarianism in the same way, and if the writings of faux libertarians help to start others on the path towards understanding liberty, than so be it. As the interview went on, however, I didn’t become much more confident in Gary Johnson’s libertarianism.
After stumbling around a question about what causes booms and busts, we get to the heart of Gary Johnson’s beliefs when Bob Wenzel asks him the question “What is Libertarianism to you?”. Johnson responds by saying that “most Americans are fiscally responsible, and socially tolerant…and with a broad brush, that’s what libertarians are about.” He then goes on to discuss the role of government in what can best be called a utilitarian way. He favors the legalization of marijuana, but begins to speak of drug policy in a more vague way when pressed on harder drugs. He states some opposition to the Federal Reserve System, but then refers to Keynesian concepts such as “price stability” when discussing monetary policy. When given another opportunity to name any works of libertarian authors that had inspired him such as those of Murray Rothbard, Ludwig Von Mises, or Henry Hazlitt, Johnson admitted that he had not read any of the works of the famed libertarian scholars.
None of the answers that Gary Johnson gave during this interview indicated that he was anything but a good guy. His policies would be dramatic improvements over the monolithic policies being offered by the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney camps. He is opposed to our current interventions overseas, is for a more fiscally restrained federal government, and favors the legalization of Marijuana. These things might make him an excellent Presidential candidate and a very attractive option for Independent voters who see through the emotional distractions of the Obama-Romney Affair. But they do not make him libertarian.
Not once did Gary Johnson use the term “individual”, nor did he address the non-aggression principle when discussing what being libertarian means. Instead it seems that to Gary Johnson being libertarian (or in this case, maybe just Libertarian) simply means combining some of the better aspects of current Republican (fiscal restraint) and Democratic (social tolerance) dogma. Maybe that is exactly what the Libertarian Party strives to do: appeal to the Independent voter by providing a more reasonable and more palatable alternative to the Republican and Democratic platforms. If that is the case, Gary Johnson may very well make an excellent candidate. But if the purpose of the Libertarian Party is to advance the philosophy of liberty, then Gary Johnson’s got some reading to do. I’d suggest he start here.