Libertarianism is getting a pretty radical rebranding in the U.S. right now. It has long been a view confined to political pariahs (either Ayn Rand devotees, eager to heap scorn on the lazy poor; or Republicans with selective memories, who invoke the ideology when it suits them (tax cuts for the rich) and ignore it when it doesn’t (mass incarceration and overseas imperialism)). The current Libertarian Party of the U.S. is rehabilitating its image with remarkable success. Under the leadership of Gary Johnson, libertarians present themselves as tolerant and pragmatic, more concerned with letting people live in peace than with demonizing the poor. They also tout their philosophical integrity, and their willingness to break with conservative orthodoxy on issues like drugs and foreign intervention.
The rebrand has worked: the party is polling at around 6%, which would amount to nearly 10 million votes if their support holds. More significantly, perhaps, whatever happens in this election, they look poised to be a force in American politics in the future. Importantly, they are very likely to get at least 5% of the vote, which grants them federal funding, and therefore organizational clout, for the 2020 election. There is a very real possibility of a political power vacuum come November 9th, given that the Republican Party looks just about ready to tear itself to pieces if it is defeated. The Libertarian Party looks well placed to fill that void, which means it is worthwhile for the general public to know in advance what it stands for. They market themselves as the common-sense party for people of all backgrounds who are sick of the current system – indeed, Gary Johnson claims to be in “73% agreement” with the progressive’s hero Bernie Sanders. This is an attractive intersection of views, if it holds up to scrutiny.
Libertarianism, traditionally, is founded upon three natural rights that are viewed as absolute: a right to life, a right to liberty, and a right to property. The state cannot violate these rights without an individual’s consent, no matter how high the stakes – which is what motivates their pursuit of a drastically limited government. On this view, an individual should never be forced by a third party to forgo their rights against their will. The rebrand of the traditional view pursued by the current Libertarian Party, in essence, has been to focus on life and liberty, while not saying too much about property. This is smart: rights to life and liberty are things everyone can get behind, while property rights get libertarians into trouble with regard to their public image. It’s a worthy stand to oppose government snooping, and restrictions on expression of sexuality, but complaining about how taxes on the super-rich amount to theft is harder to sell to the (non-rich) public. In this vein, Gary Johnson pushes to the fore his commitment to privacy, his support of gay marriage and marijuana legalization, and avoids as much as possible discussing the cuts to welfare that would be required if taxes were dramatically lowered.
However, this new approach is only a matter of emphasis. Commitments to property rights are hidden within, not removed from, the current Libertarian Party. When you look through their policy proposals more carefully, they clearly imply horrible consequences for the poor and vulnerable. The underlying idea is stated at the beginning of the party platform: “All efforts by government to redistribute wealth… are improper in a free society.” It is reiterated on Johnson’s campaign page, where he says “the government should not be engaging in social and economic engineering… in what should be a robust free market.” And this means eliminating everything from support for retirees to public education – that is, destroying the welfare state completely.
What on earth could justify this? The party platform initially states its opposition to “governments that seek to regulate the lives of individuals and seize the fruits of their labor without their consent.” Seizing the fruits of your labor sounds bad – like government officials storming into your garden and pulling the carrots out your vegetable patch. But this quietly morphs into a prohibition of any regulation of the free market – which includes taxation, employment regulation, and unionization rights. The suggestion that non-unionized workers in a free market with no employment regulation are able to negotiate for a level of compensation that is a fair representation of ‘the fruits of their labor’ is not remotely plausible. The wage a worker can secure is determined (according to the very economic theory libertarians claim to endorse) by the leverage they gain from external facts about supply and demand and has nothing to do with the value their labor generates.
While the party platform states a commitment to removing all government aid, including publically funded education, Johnson’s priority seems to lie in balancing the budget – he claims national debt is “the single greatest threat to national security”. This is somewhat disingenuous since what he really needs to do is run a giant surplus to pay it off as quickly as possible (a balanced budget would simply keep the allegedly apocalyptic levels of government debt constant). He puts this as a matter of responsibility not greed, but since he also rules out raising taxes, it still requires the rapid destruction of existing welfare programs, as explicitly condoned by the party platform.
For what tax funding is to remain, Johnson wants to replace income tax with a consumption tax. This would further burden the poor who have no choice but to spend the majority of their income on day-to-day living expenses. It’s unclear what justification there is for this from a libertarian perspective, since this tax policy is just as much ‘social and economic engineering’ as an income tax – just tipping the scales in favor of the wealthy.
It’s also highly doubtful that a consumption tax could succeed in generating the kind of surplus Johnson is after. The higher the tax level is set, the less people will spend, especially since speculation that the Libertarian Party could be out in four years would lead the wealthy to postpone all non-essential consumption indefinitely. This points to another common theme in the rebrand: the discussion of the effects of implementing libertarian policy quickly dissolves into a rose-tinted fantasy. Many of their proposals would have disastrous consequences, but they repeatedly claim that free-market forces would magically save the day.
Perhaps most shockingly, they endorse revoking parts of the civil rights acts so that businesses are allowed to refuse service whenever they please, i.e. on the basis of race, sexuality or whatever else people might want to discriminate against. The party platform notes that “individuals are free to respond with ostracism, boycotts and other free-market solutions”, as though this would be adequate – the history of segregation in the U.S. suggests otherwise.
Similarly, they pretend the free market would find the best way to fix the environment, stating that “In a healthy economy that allows the market to function unimpeded, consumers, innovators, and personal choices will do more to bring about environmental protection and restoration than will government regulations driven by special interests.” Unfortunately, combating climate change has to be driven by special interests, and the main interest has to be focused on reducing carbon emissions. There is nothing about the free market that is going to make selling oil non-profitable and avoid climate catastrophe – one thing that markets cannot achieve is coordinated action in which each agent acts against their own interest, and this is exactly what combating climate change requires. Also, the connection the quoted passage draws between environmental regulation and “special interests” seems to be referring to an ‘opposites world’ where oil companies are desperately lobbying to prevent an unregulated energy market.
The party platform also makes the remarkable suggestion that revoking social security would not cause serious harm, as pensioners would be supported by charity. It states that “The proper and most effective source of help for the poor is the voluntary efforts of private groups and individuals. We believe members of society will become even more charitable and civil society will be strengthened as government reduces its activity in this realm.” Now, if you have faith in human compassion, it’s reasonable to believe that in such circumstances people would take care of those close to them who are in need — but there would be many other members of society without friends or family aware of their plight, and the idea that an efficient charitable practice would appear to prevent them from falling into destitution is sheer fantasy.
It is further delusion that motivates Johnson’s self-professed affinity with Bernie. The Libertarian nominee’s campaign website repeatedly touts him as the ‘anti-special interest’ candidate. But his justification for that is the claim that special interests and regulation are basically equivalent: “Today, the reason so much corruption and power thrive in Washington, D.C., is that powerful corporate interests actually benefit from over-regulation.” Granted, some regulations are influenced by corporate lobbies, but many others quite clearly benefit working people, like minimum wage and union protections.
Again, this deception is highly convenient, since it allows for a quick fix to the undemocratic power imbalance in American politics, so there’s no need to look into income inequality. Indeed, they are so loath to face corporate power head on that they are not even willing to restrict the role of money in elections. The party not only supports Citizens United, the legal ruling that allows for unlimited anonymous political donations, but advocates repealing what campaign finance laws remain.
The third way the party’s image is deceiving is that, despite touting their integrity, there is still much of the same pandering to conservatives that was existent in previous proponents of libertarianism. Most notably, the apparently inviolable natural right to one’s life and liberty suddenly becomes negotiable when it comes to a woman’s right to her own body. In their words, “Gary Johnson has the utmost respect for the deeply-held convictions of those on both sides of the abortion issue. It is an intensely personal question, and one that government is ill-equipped to answer. On a personal level, Gary Johnson believes in the sanctity of the life of the unborn. As Governor, he supported efforts to ban late-term abortions.”
Though they ultimately want to uphold Roe vs. Wade, why the waffling? If you are a libertarian, you should support a right to abortion at any stage of the pregnancy with absolute certainty – even if you believe a fetus is a full person with the same rights as any regular adult. A pregnant woman is using her body to feed and incubate the baby — according to the libertarian she has no obligation to use her body to help anyone at all, never mind with this level of sacrifice. The case is unambiguous. Why is there suddenly talk of respecting ‘deeply-held convictions’, but not when it comes to preventing segregation – except that it’s what conservative voters care about?
Similarly, the absolute ban on redistribution of wealth is suddenly flexible when considering veterans. They suggest: “It is part of our moral contract with those who have served to not only maintain the GI Bill”, but to protect them against mental illness, disability and suicide. What happened to the right to property for those who don’t consent to redistributing their wealth to these people? It’s strange that the moral contract only applies to veterans, and not former teachers, nurses and others who have served their communities invaluably before falling on hard times. Again, the issue seems to be that veterans are the only group of vulnerable people conservatives feel they have an obligation to help.
Which leads to the next issue: there is no mention of America’s history in any of the party materials, despite the issue of historical injustice playing a central role in the philosophical foundations of libertarianism. It is generally part of the libertarian position that where people forcefully violate the rights of others, it is the role of the government to intervene and compensate the victim, which includes redressing historical injustice. A person’s right to their property only holds if they acquired it justly; it’s not wrong to return stolen goods. However, not once do the party materials mention pretty much the biggest violation of liberty that’s logically possible – slavery – and how it affects who owns what in the present day. Indeed, there’s no mention of race whatsoever, since this is something those on the right in America dislike talking about. Instead, their policy is no redistribution starting from now, and they assume the past isn’t that much of a problem.
Taken together, this shows that Gary Johnson and his revamped Libertarian party are the same banner holders of the selfish rich that they always were, just with smarter branding. They still support imposing unspeakable misery on the most vulnerable members of society, even though they no longer like to talk about it. This might not deter those fully convinced of the libertarian philosophy, who see such things as the painful demands of justice. However, for people concerned with the practical results of policy rather than with ideological purity, the Libertarian Party should be rejected. Of course this election has shown that the current two-party system is horribly broken, and we are in desperate need of new ideas from somewhere: but this isn’t the third party we’ve been waiting for.