My response to Scott Cosenza’s guest post, The Libertarian Case Against Gary Johnson
It really can’t be disputed that Gary Johnson is the best presidential candidate the Libertarian Party has ever had. That is, if you’re considering the criteria that truly matter for a candidate—interest from voters, the media, and—most tellingly—the Republican and Democrat campaigns.
So it’s no surprise, then, that Johnson’s being vilified, ridiculed, and dismissed by many libertarians. Most of us libertarians are, by nature, contrarians. Which means we’re really good at diagnosing what’s wrong and proposing clear, ideal alternatives, but we’re not so good at working with each other to get from here to there.
Putting principle over party is what makes the Libertarian Party different from Republicans and Democrats. We’re not out to gain power so that we can use it to enrich ourselves or to force some parts of society to conform to our will. We are—as the meme says—“diligently plotting to take over the world and leave you alone.”
But if we aim to dismantle power using the political process—we need to plot intelligently as well.
To be fair, the purest, most logical approach for a libertarian to take to the political process is, of course, to abstain from it. To focus on disobeying, exposing, evading, and undermining state authority is morally unassailable, and, in the long run, the path most likely to result in lasting, real change.
But if you don’t want to abstain from electoral politics, the aim should be to elect candidates that will enact as much of the Libertarian agenda as possible, while trying to block or reverse much of what the state is doing now.
Ron Paul in 1988 and Harry Browne 1996 and 2000 were far better evangelists for liberty than Gary Johnson, and their influence over the libertarian movement of today is vast. But in those elections, they were ineffectual candidates. No one outside libertarian circles listened to them, or even knew they were running. They had no effect on the debate surrounding the election. Their vote totals didn’t break the ½ percent mark, even though the elections of 1988 and 1996 were easy elections in which voters might feel comfortable “wasting” their vote.
So what has made Gary Johnson—in spite of his maddening flaws—a much better Libertarian candidate? Well, it’s better to be lucky than good, and Gary’s lucky, that’s for sure. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the R and D nominees are everything Libertarians could hope for—candidates of reprehensible personal character who are mistrusted and hated not just by a majority of American voters, but for ideological reasons by essential constituencies within their own parties.
But Gary Johnson is also good. He has what is sorely, achingly, and embarrassingly lacking in most Libertarian candidates in any year and for any office—a resume that a moderately well-informed voter might consider as acceptable. Imagine if Johnson had declined to run for the LP nomination, or if he had been defeated by one of the other Libertarian candidates, none of whom could be considered a serious, credible candidate. (The best of those candidates—the late Marc Allan Feldman—was an esteemed medical doctor and a friend of mine, whose candidacy was not aimed at winning the nomination, but in inspiring activists, which he did spectacularly.) None of those candidates would have had the wherewithal to rise to the level of a punchline in this election year.
Johnson’s resume includes two terms as governor of a strongly Democrat-leaning state during which he vetoed 750 bills, cut taxes 14 times, and pushed for marijuana legalization and other measures drawing down the War on Drugs—in the 1990s.
As presidential candidate, Johnson is pledging to:
- End mass surveillance and pardon Edward Snowden
- Require Congressional approval for military interventions and occupations
- Only use military force in response to an attack on the United States
- Pursue a foreign policy of free trade and diplomacy
- Eliminate the income, corporate, capital gains, and payroll taxes (to be replaced by the FairTax)
- Repeal the 16th Amendment
- Veto any budget that contains deficit spending
- Cut any and all parts of the federal budget—including the Pentagon and entitlements—by at least 20 percent
- Enact criminal justice reform that includes ending “three strikes” and mandatory minimums in sentencing
- End the War on Drugs, starting with legalization of marijuana and treating drug abuse as a health problem, not a criminal one
Not pure Rothbard, but pretty strong stuff in today’s political climate.
With his resume and that message, Gary Johnson has gotten unprecedented media exposure. Donald Trump and Tim Kaine have mentioned him by name. The Clinton campaign and left-wing propagandists are spending valuable time and money warning young voters not to vote for him. He has drawn a considerable number of hit pieces from the usual suspects, in most of which he comes across as exactly the type of candidate we libertarians say we want.
Exhibit B: Gary Johnson Gets ANGRY Over Foreign Policy And Exclusion From Debates (You Will Too)!
But Harris, you say, what about the gaffes? He didn’t know what Aleppo is! (He did.) He couldn’t name a single world leader! (Again, not true.) He’s making us Libertarians look bad!
Tell that to the polls. As we’ve gotten closer to the election, Johnson’s numbers have been holding firm and even improving. For the first time, the Libertarian presidential candidate is attracting and holding voters—especially among key demographics like the military, millennials, and independents.
This is what success looks like—and we Libertarians need to capitalize on it. As the Republican party disintegrates and the Democrats double-down on socialism and war, more American voters are going to come to us looking for a practical alternative. The LP can replace the Republican party—but only if we’re willing to welcome everyone who falls anywhere in the Libertarian quadrant on the World’s Smallest Political Quiz, not just those of us who have a perfect score. We’d be crazy not to welcome the chance to work with others who are willing to fight for so many substantive changes that would bring more liberty to everyone.
Libertarians offer the only coherent, credible, and principled opposition to Republicans and Democrats. We’ve gotten good at making the moral case against the status quo, but now that millions of Americans are listening to us, we must meet them with a practical plan for action—and candidates capable of enacting that plan.
Most normal people don’t care about Mises, Hayek, Rand and Rothbard. They don’t know what a minarchist is, or a voluntaryist, or an agorist. But they will vote for a party that enacts policies that deliver practical results while increasing personal liberty.
We’re no longer just a remnant. We need to relate to the world as it is in order to convince people to try liberty. We need to welcome, support, and develop people who will be good Libertarian candidates—not run them off with ideological pedantry.
Gary Johnson’s work as a Libertarian has been imperfect but admirable, and all libertarians who think that elections are worth contesting should seek not to magnify his flaws but to emulate—and improve on—his successes.