This year’s presidential campaign has been pretty high-profile, so, of course, you know which candidates are still in the running, right?
DONALD TRUMP: I am your voice!
Yeah, you know that guy.
HILLARY CLINTON: Don’t believe anyone who says, “I alone can fix it.”
Sure, you know her too. But can you name this guy?
GARY JOHNSON: I’m going to be the next President of the United States.
That is Gary Johnson and yes, he’s still running. Johnson is the Libertarian Party’s nominee for President, and he does have a lot going for him. He was a two-term, Republican governor of New Mexico, a state that typically votes Democratic. His vice-presidential running mate, William Weld, can make the same claim, but from Massachusetts. Johnson, prior to politics, was a successful businessman, founding one of New Mexico’s biggest construction companies. He’s an accomplished athlete. He’s got a lot of impressive attributes in an election year whose two main candidates haven’t always been so impressive. Gary Johnson has just one big problem:
JOHNSON: Right now, 65 percent of Americans don’t even know that I exist.
Today on Freakonomics Radio, a conversation with Gary Johnson and maybe we’ll get his non-existent numbers down to 64 percent. We also try to figure out why libertarians haven’t gained more traction.
JERRY TAYLOR: Either there’s something wrong with the salesmen of libertarian ideas, or there is something wrong with the product they’re selling, and I suspect that it’s a chunk of both.
We visit New Hampshire, site of a theoretical libertarian takeover.
JASON SORENS: We are firing the starting gun on a mass migration of freedom lovers to New Hampshire.
And Gary Johnson tells us what would happen in the very, very, very unlikely event that he is elected President.
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When we spoke with Gary Johnson a few weeks ago, it was before an appearance on MSNBC that threw his campaign into chaos.
MIKE BARNICLE (from MSNBC): What would you do, if you were elected, about Aleppo?
JOHNSON: What is Aleppo?
Aleppo is the city in Syria that’s the epicenter of that country’s civil war and refugee crisis. Johnson, in his defense, says he misunderstood the question; he heard “Aleppo” as an acronym of some sort, not the city. But the mess-up got people talking about Johnson’s grasp of foreign affairs. At the time of our interview, Johnson was really liking his chances of becoming President.
JOHNSON: I’ll give myself a 33 percent chance of getting elected.
OK, we cheated a little bit right there. We took something a political candidate said out of context – imagine that. Here’s the whole thing that Johnson said:
JOHNSON: Well, I think that getting into the presidential debates, I would put the odds at just over 50 percent. They’re better than not. And if we’re in the presidential debates, I’ll give myself a 33 percent chance of getting elected.
But Johnson has so far failed to get into the presidential debates. He hasn’t met the threshold, set by the Commission on Presidential Debates, of reaching 15 percent across five national polls. So, let’s be realistic. Johnson’s chances of becoming President are pretty much nil. The same goes for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, which isn’t at all surprising.
American political history is littered with failed third- and third-and-a-half party campaigns. The Libertarian Party, founded in 1971, claims to be the third-largest political party in the U.S., but that’s not saying much. In 2012, Johnson also ran for President, and got more votes than any Libertarian Party candidate in history: 1.2 million. But, in percentage terms? It’s about one percent. The paradox, at least as Gary Johnson sees it, is that most Americans are libertarian. But, as he likes to say, they just don’t know it yet.
JOHNSON: I think that most Americans are about smaller government — meaning keep government out of my pocketbook, keep government out of the bedroom. So I think most Americans are fiscally conservative. I think most Americans, when it comes to social issues, really don’t care what others are as long as you don’t force it on me. And then, really, an integral part of being a libertarian is really taking a stand against intervening militarily to try to bring about regime changes that in my lifetime, I can’t think of one single regime change that has resulted in things being better and not worse.
DUBNER: What would you say is the single most abusive or heavy-handed thing the U.S. government does regularly? Would it be military action? Would it be the way it taxes? Would it be the way it runs its Education, Transportation Departments? What’s the one you would pick?
JOHNSON: Well, government is force. I think that people don’t really understand fundamentally what government is, is that when it comes to taxes, I mean, that’s, you know, they will force you to pay taxes. When it comes to our military, that is force. It should be used judiciously. The war on drugs — I’m going to say that the war on drugs has resulted in perhaps the worst, the worst human grievances government can, can conduct on it’s citizenry of any example in my lifetime.
DUBNER: Grievances meaning imprisonment? Meaning what?
JOHNSON: I mean getting arrested, oftentimes incarcerated, but along with arrest. Oftentimes no incarceration but felony convictions. The fact that tens of millions of Americans are convicted felons in this country, that but for our drug laws, would otherwise be tax-paying, law abiding citizens.
DUBNER: Now, you’re in favor of smart immigration, presumably administered by the federal government. But there are a number of institutions and agencies you’d like to do away with. The Department of Education, for instance, the IRS, perhaps the Federal Reserve, HUD, and so on. So let me just ask you: in the case of education, you’d like to give power over to the schools, to the state and local institutions. But why, if the federal government is good enough to set immigration policy, why not education policy?
JOHNSON: Well, education policy, I don’t think people realize that it’s, it’s not giving money to the states. The federal government takes money from the states and they give back less money than if the states just kept it in the first place. I mean, it’s a negative. It’s crazy — you know, you basically give up six cents on every educational dollar you spend because of its bureaucratic wash and dry from the federal government. I advocate eliminating income tax and corporate tax. And I’m not, you know, I’m not going to get elected king or dictator here. There are constitutional limits to being president. And I hope to be a good steward of the office. But that said, I get to either sign or veto what comes up out of Congress. If I could wave a magic wand, I would abolish income tax and corporate tax and replace all of it with one federal consumption tax, which I think would create tens of millions of jobs. I think it would issue pink slips to 80 percent of Washington lobbyists. I do advocate abolishing the Department of Education, the Department of Commerce and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Those are the three that, you know, just are at the top.
DUBNER: Your running mate as VP is like you, a former Republican governor. What does it say about the GOP that its nominee is someone the party itself seems to despise, while two former Republican governors are running on the Libertarian ticket?
JOHNSON: Well, I think the GOP has lost its ways with its social-conservative stand, that they’re not being inclusive when it comes to their social-conservative agenda. And because they’re not inclusive, I do believe that they’re turning off half of Republicans. I do believe that more than half of Republicans are Republicans because of smaller government, of less government interference in our lives, less spending by the government, but half the Republican party right now — this social conservative dogma that I do believe turns most people off.
As much as the Republican Party may turn off some potentially like-minded voters, the same could be said about the Libertarian Party. It has its share of misfits, ideologues and, well, oddballs. At this year’s convention one candidate for party chairman, James Weeks, used his allotted time on stage to perform a striptease. To be fair, the audience didn’t approve. Nor did it approve, however, when during a debate Gary Johnson said it’s a good idea to require a driver’s license for people who want to operate a motor vehicle. On some political dimensions, Gary Johnson isn’t outside the mainstream at all. On others, he surely is.
DUBNER: As governor of New Mexico, you liked to cut taxes, you liked to balance the budget, you liked to veto lots and lots of legislation that you thought would be burdensome. What makes you think that that kind of behavior would make you a suitable candidate for the presidency because that’s not the behavior that we typically associate, at least in recent history, with the presidency.
JOHNSON: Well, it really applies to both me and Bill Weld. What you’re leaving out of that equation is, is that both of us got elected as Republicans in heavily Democrat states. And you would think that my having vetoed that much legislation, that I would have gotten ridden out on a rail, when in fact I got re-elected by a bigger margin the second time than the first time and the same applied to Bill Weld. So I really do think that if Trump or if Clinton get elected, I think things are going to be more polarized than ever. I don’t think anything will get done, as opposed to, arguably, two former Republican governors as Libertarians get elected that are going to hire Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, bipartisan administration, and kind of be able to stand back and challenge both sides to come to the middle to address the issues that do face the country. I’m making the argument that that third scenario might just work.
DUBNER: And I guess this is what you mean when you say that most Americans are Libertarians but they just don’t know it yet. Would you consider that to some degree a failure of, I don’t know what to call it, branding, by the Libertarian Party or the Libertarian movement?
JOHNSON: No, I think really that it is a function of the two-party system and just how exclusive it is and just — I mean right now, 65 percent of Americans don’t even know that I exist, and if they did, I think most of them would actually self-identify as Libertarians. So not an issue of branding as much as attention and clearly the Libertarian Party right now is growing leaps and bounds because of the attention, and of course, that has to do with arguably the two most polarizing figures of all time and space in American politics.
DUBNER: Talk for just a moment about what happens to Social Security benefits when the beneficiary dies and what you might do about that.
JOHNSON: Well if you, so first of all, I am not — I’m advocating that we reform Social Security so — and I’m not advocating cutting Social Security. But there does need to be some reform to Social Security. One would be to raise the retirement age, another that you could have a very fair means testing, means testing should you get back more money than what you paid into Social Security, given a certain level of income. If you were to privatize Social Security, and I’m back to king and dictator and president, so I just get to sign legislation that might be able to change this, but I would sign legislation that allowed for a self-direction of Social Security funds. If you were to do that, you would actually be able to retain those funds and be able to pass them onto your heirs, something that currently does not exist with Social Security. Social Security — if you die at a young age, the government gets whatever it is that you paid into that and really, it is just one of those untold — middle class, lower class — this is one of the biggest assets that a person has when they retire, and if they die at a young age, they can’t pass that asset on to their heirs. I’d love to see some actuarial study or some legislation that might remedy that also — allowing families to get ahead after you die.
DUBNER: Yeah, wouldn’t you rather just have that money privatized from the outset?
JOHNSON: Well, I don’t think that Congress — I mean, being reality-based, if that legislation were to get to my desk, yes, I think that that would be a big improvement, but I don’t think that that legislation is going to ever get to my desk.
DUBNER: OK, as a reality-based human who sounds pretty sane to me, from what I can tell, what is the one piece of legislation, that if you’re not dependent on anyone else, so if you were to be the president-as-king or the king-as-president, that you could with the stroke of a pen actually enact one piece of magical legislation, what would that one be?
JOHNSON: It would be a balanced budget. I think we are headed to a fiscal cliff unless we address the entitlements, Medicaid and Medicare, as I mentioned earlier, Social Security, imminently fixable but reform to go along with that. And of course, you can’t balance the federal budget if you’re not going to reduce military spending and the Pentagon itself says that 20 percent of U.S. bases could be eliminated and yet, there’s not the political will to go along with that. So balancing the federal budget I think has very long-term positive impact on the economy, jobs, wealth in this country going forward.
Do you find yourself attracted, in whole or in part, to Gary Johnson’s positions? If so, you are not alone – not quite, at least. At this moment, the political forecasting website fivethirtyeight.com projects the Libertarian ticket getting just under nine percent of the popular vote, which would be the best third-party or independent showing since Ross Perot got 19 percent in 1992. And a nine percent showing would be nine times better than Johnson’s last campaign, four years ago. But that would translate into one-half of one percent of the electoral vote. So: barring a cataclysm or a miracle, Gary Johnson isn’t going to be President of the U.S.
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The Libertarians, as sensible as some of their positions may seem, have not exactly won over the American people. Their absolute numbers are relatively small: roughly 400,000 registered voters nationally. But they’re also spread too thin to have any real impact in big elections. So what if they picked one state and persuaded thousands of like-minded people to move there? Even if they couldn’t pull off a libertarian utopia, at least there’d be one state that’s friendlier toward their ideas, and where they might gain some political leverage. That is exactly what one group of libertarian-minded activists is trying to do. The state they’ve chosen? New Hampshire. State motto: live free or die. We sent our senior producer, Christopher Werth, to visit.
CHRISTOPHER WERTH: Just as you would find with any political party, libertarians are a mixed bunch. You’ve got your Libertarian Party, Gary Johnson-type libertarians, who oppose foreign military interventions and want to abolish the Federal Reserve. And then you’ve got those who aren’t members of the party, or who don’t even like being called libertarians, but do share a common cause in the advance of liberty. This is the anarcho-capitalist wing of the libertarian-ish movement, the folks who dream of a world with no government whatsoever.
RAUL PRADO: So it’s basically a society where no one can have a rule or authority over someone else.
WERTH: That’s Raul Prado, a 26-year old biology student from Los Angeles. He was learning to shoot a semi-automatic rifle at a firing range in a forest in northern New Hampshire.
PRADO: I think it’s just a good tool to learn to respect. If you’re inefficient with a tool, you’re not going to know how to use it if it comes to that.
WERTH: Gun rights are a big deal to a lot of libertarian types, many of whom believe personal protection is a responsibility that should not be left to the police alone. Prado had come all the way to New Hampshire for what’s known as PorcFest, or the Porcupine Freedom Festival. It’s an annual, week-long gathering of roughly 2,000 people at a camping ground in the mountains. PorcFest is organized by the Free State Project, which is trying to persuade libertarians — or libertarian-minded people — to move to New Hampshire. It’s an enticing thought for Prado, who believes his own home state of California has gone way too far in curtailing his individual liberties.
PRADO: It’s a nanny state. For example, in L.A. they have outlawed plastic bags. And I believe that… I think if an individual wants to reuse plastic bags they should. I don’t think some people in suits that I’ve never met should be able to decide what I think is the best to store my goods.
WERTH: And so what’s your plan now?
PRADO: My plan is to graduate and get my degree within two years and move over here and do some sort of teaching. And if not, open like a restaurant or something.
WERTH: Prado is a first-generation Mexican-American. And he says one thing he’s noticed about New Hampshire is the lack of Hispanics and good Mexican restaurants.
PRADO: So I feel like I know how to make a pretty good dish or two, and I think it would be a great place to expose people to…
WERTH: So you see your niche.
PRADO: Pretty much yeah, because there is not a lot of minorities here. And I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing, but I see it as an opportunity.
WERTH: That’s the kind of entrepreneurial thinking Free Staters want to hear, particularly this Free Stater.
WERTH: Sorens founded the Free State Project 15 years ago when he was a grad student at Yale. At the time, he was conducting research on secessionist movements, and he was feeling very disillusioned with the prospects of libertarianism in national politics. This was during the George W. Bush administration. And in the depth of his despair, Sorens proposed a solution. In his original statement of intent, published in 2001, he envisioned, “free-minded people of all stripes … establish residence in a small state and take over the state government.”
JASON SORENS: Maybe libertarians could try to have a libertarian state, and we could use that position to try to press for more autonomy for the state and economic policies, criminal-justice policies, things like that. And create a freer society.
WERTH: Sorens believed a libertarian state could even threaten secession to force Washington to meet its demands. And he figured that if the Free State Project could get 20,000 people to sign a pledge to move to this hypothetical, libertarian state, then everyone could move there en masse.
SORENS: You know, it’s a tall order to get 20,000 people to move to a particular state, a small state, for an idea. And I thought, “Well, probably it won’t happen, but it’s worth a try because nothing else is working.”
WERTH: In 2001, Sorens wrote in the online publication The Libertarian Enterprise, “Twenty thousand hardcore libertarian activists, can go a long way in a small state.” So he collaborated with other libertarians. They collected signatures and began casting about for a state suitable for this libertarian experiment. Even Gary Johnson got involved.
JOHNSON: When the Free State Project was in its formation, they came to New Mexico and I made them a pitch as governor.
WERTH: But Free Staters ultimately chose New Hampshire: a) because it is small – just 1.3 million people spread out over a mere 9,000 or so square miles – and b) because the state already leans in a direction that’s favorable to libertarian ideas. For example, while New Hampshirites do pay property taxes, the state has no income or sales tax.
SORENS: New Hampshire is distinct in that it combines fairly low taxes and a fairly modest level of economic regulation with a good bit of social toleration and personal freedom. There’s no seatbelt law for adults. So it just has a lot of different characteristics that make it a more libertarian state than a lot of other states, maybe more than any other state.
WERTH: The Free State Project also lists the fact that New Hampshire has few restrictions on firearms; in addition to the no-seatbelt law, adult motorcyclists also aren’t required to wear a helmet; and New Hampshire’s state constitution doesn’t have any specific prohibition on secession from the rest of the United States. These are all characteristics that libertarians like. And earlier this year — a decade-and-a-half after the Free State Project was conceived — the organization finally announced its twenty-thousandth signer. Here’s Sorens at the Free State Project’s press conference back in February:
SORENS: This is a great day in the history of human freedom. It sounds grandiose, but I really believe it’s true. We are firing the starting gun on a mass migration of freedom lovers to New Hampshire.
WERTH: The plan now, Sorens says, is to get those 20,000 “Free Staters” to actually move to New Hampshire and do it within the next five years.
SORENS: It will be a tough lift, but we’ve got a lot more resources now that have been coming in — financial resources now that we’ve triggered the move. And we’re going to keep getting people signed up because we know that not all of those 20,000 are going to move, so we’re going try to sign up 40,000 people so that we can expect 20,000 of those to move. And I think we can do it.
WERTH: Sorens says a handful of wealthy individuals have recently joined the Free State cause. He wouldn’t name them, but PorcFest is sponsored by the Charles Koch Institute and Americans for Prosperity — it’s a political advocacy group funded by the Koch brothers, long-time supporters of libertarian and conservative causes. And not all Free Staters have waited for the twenty-thousandth signer to make the move. Sorens says, nearly 2,000 people have already moved to New Hampshire over the past decade or so.
He and his family moved in 2013, once he’d landed a job at Dartmouth, located in Hanover, New Hampshire. And he says the group has managed to establish a tight-knit community here. When a member moves to the state, for example, a handful of Free Staters usually show up to help unload their belongings.
SORENS: The concentration of libertarians in New Hampshire is much higher than you’ll find anywhere else. You know, on any given night for just a random sort of get-together or meeting or whatever, you’ll get 40 or 50 Free Staters showing up. And, you know, you couldn’t get that in New York City for a major annual event probably. So yeah, we’re having a big impact here, and there’s just a lot going on and that energizes people.
MARK WARDEN: A great thing about New Hampshire is that all types are welcome here.
WERTH: Mark Warden is a realtor with Porcupine Real Estate, who specializes in Free State clientele. Warden himself moved from Nevada in 2007. And he says he’s hiring more real-estate agents to prepare for what he believes will be a major influx of Free Staters.
WARDEN: We’re seeing 10, 20, 30 a month move to New Hampshire, and they think it’s great if there’s a libertarian realtor they can count on and they can trust. So if they come to me and say, “Mark I want to be on 30 acres; I want to be able to shoot on my own property, for example. Or raise my own food. I want to have chicken and have a big garden so I can be self-reliant. Or maybe even live off the grid.” I don’t look at them like they’re crazy. They know that I speak the same language and can help them find that kind of property that’s going to meet their needs.
WERTH: Are you the libertarian realtor in New Hampshire?
WARDEN: Yes, probably the libertarian relator in the United States and certainly for New Hampshire.
WERTH: So how many people would you estimate you’ve helped get into homes and helped move to New Hampshire from other places?
MARK WARDEN: Just in the last four years, it’s been over 125 homes, transactions, and if you double that for the number of people, several hundred.
WERTH: Among those people: a husband-and-wife from Louisiana named Forrest and Callie – they didn’t want to give their last names. They took the Free State pledge 15 years ago and are finally ready to move to New Hampshire. When I met them, they’d just made an offer on a property outside Manchester.
FORREST: It’s a cabin with a very open floor plan, and it’s on 10 acres in the middle of the woods.
WERTH: So what is it about moving to New Hampshire and the Free State Project and libertarianism, what is it about here that appeals to you?
CALLIE: It’s kinda just knowing that you’re around people that kind of ideologically agree with you and align with you.
FORREST: The people here, they understand that we own our own bodies, and so everything stems from that. Do you have ownership of your own body or not? Are you slave to the government? They own your production, or not? So, yeah, I think people here already believe that and we want to move here and help them keep New Hampshire awesome.
WERTH: One big change in the Free State Project since it got underway 15 years ago: Jason Sorens and other members no longer talk about taking over New Hampshire’s state government. Nor do they advocate secession, at least not openly. Sorens has grown more pragmatic, or maybe just more realistic.
SORENS: I really don’t think we’re going to end up with anything that looks like a pure libertarian utopia or anything like that. I just don’t think that exists on earth or ever could happen. That’s just not the way societies work. But I do think we can make progress on lots of different margins where we have good answers that would help people achieve their ends.
WERTH: Takeover or not, New Hampshire is something of an ideal state for getting elected to office. Its House of Representatives is made up of 400 members, which makes it among the country’s largest legislative bodies — again, in a state with just 1.3 million people. This means the barriers to entry in New Hampshire state politics are pretty low.
SORENS: The state house districts are very, very small. There’s a state rep for every about 3,500 people. And so it’s very easy to get elected if you put in the leg work. And state reps make $100 a year in New Hampshire and state senators make $200 a year. So there’s no professional political class, really. And right now, my understanding is that there are about 18 Free State Project movers who are in the State House. And in addition to that, there is a wider kind of libertarian caucus, sort of natives who are friendly to libertarian ideas, of about 80 legislators. So that’s about 20 percent of the State House that is roughly speaking libertarian most of the time.
WERTH: One of those Free Staters running for office this year is Carla Gericke, who moved from New York in 2008.
CARLA GERICKE: I am running for New Hampshire Senate in District 20. It happened sort of by accident but I’m pretty excited about it.
WERTH: Gericke is up against a Democratic incumbent who’s been in the Senate for 18 years. If elected, Gericke would try to limit police powers. She’d put an end to the purchase of armored police vehicles; she’d get rid of DUI checkpoints, which she believes are unconstitutional.
GERICKE: For me, the bottom line is: America is leaning towards a totalitarian, authoritarian police state and I don’t want that to happen, or at least not in New Hampshire.
WERTH: And again — Gericke assures us — this is not about taking over the state.
GERICKE: I don’t want to take over. I want to keep New Hampshire awesome.
WERTH: But not everyone believes the Free State Project has abandoned its plans for government domination and secession.
CAITLIN ROLLO: It’s a little tap dance that they play.
WERTH: Caitlin Rollo is a former state representative, a Democrat.
ROLLO: And you know if you had a few folks move in to your town and then start running for office. You’re like, “Oh whoa, that’s great!” There’s enthusiasm, there is excitement. And then when you find out, well they want New Hampshire to secede from the Union, that’s a little extreme and kind of makes people feel a little bit uncomfortable.
WERTH: That said, Rollo does not think Free Staters will actually get 20,000 people to move.
ROLLO: They’ve been collecting signatures now since — specifically with New Hampshire as the intended state — since 2003. They just met that goal. And so you’re talking about a time period of 13 years where people have been signing on to this petition, saying that, “Yes, you know if we get all these signatures, that I will move to New Hampshire to be part of our Libertopia that we’ll create. We’ll have limited government.” But that’s a long period of time.
WERTH: The Free State Project does acknowledge it’s been a long time. In fact, the contact information for a lot of the people who signed up years ago is no longer valid. But they’re spending more than $300,000 this year to contact who they can, remind them of their oath, and let them know it’s time to move.
DUBNER: That is Christopher Werth reporting from the free-ish state of New Hampshire. It gives you the sense that the libertarian movement, for all its enthusiasm, doesn’t exert much leverage in the political arena. True, Gary Johnson may get a much larger share of the vote for President this time around, but for a party that’s been around 45 years, it hasn’t exactly captured the public’s imagination.
JERRY TAYLOR: What does this tell you? It tells you than in the war of ideas you’re losing. You’re not winning.
TAYLOR: I am the president of the Niskanen Center, which is a think tank here in Washington, D.C.
DUBNER: Is it a libertarian think tank per se or not quite?
TAYLOR: It is indeed.
DUBNER: And how would you define Niskanen’s mission.
TAYLOR: Well, we are engaged directly in the policy-making process. Our audience is the policy elite here in Washington, D.C. And our job is to craft libertarian-oriented policy reforms and to promote them on Capitol Hill with the idea of actually trying to translate wishes into reality.
Taylor does not align himself with the Free-State Project or what he calls the more idiosyncratic subgroups in the Libertarian Party.
TAYLOR: It’s more of an offshoot of its more fundamentalist wing, I suspect.
And what does he think of the Libertarian political party?
TAYLOR: Well, I’m probably not the best person to ask because I’ve never been a member of the Libertarian Party.
DUBNER: Oh is that right. Why is that?
TAYLOR: The American political system is essentially rigged to produce a two-party system, and it’s virtually impossible to imagine a world in which a third party could sustain itself over a long period of time and become a relevant political actor. So if you’re trying to advance your ideas in American politics, you either have to advance them in the Democratic Party or you have to advance them in the Republican Party.
So that’s how Taylor spends his days.
TAYLOR: Libertarians have spent a tremendous amount of time and energy since 1970 promoting their ideas, and yet, there’s no indication that libertarian sentiment in this country is any larger today than it was then. There is no real clear evidence that libertarian ideas are penetrating an academia amongst intellectuals to any greater extent than they ever have been in the past. The reality is that in politics, libertarianism has faced a market test and lost repeatedly. And I think this is an important bit of an information for libertarians who believe in markets and the functionality of markets — to face up to the fact that libertarian ideas have failed two very important market tests: a political market test and an intellectual market test. So either there is something wrong with the salesman of libertarian ideas, or there is something wrong with the product they’re selling, and I suspect that it’s a chunk of both.
Consider, for example, the potential risks associated with climate change.
TAYLOR: We think that libertarians have gone down the wrong road on this issue. How you feel about the role of government or individual liberty has nothing to do with how you should feel about atmospheric physics. The reality is that the climate is changing, that change is being driven by industrial emissions and that imposes risk. And this is a straight up risk management exercise and the best means of addressing this risk, in our opinion. is to price carbon and harness market actors and price signals to sort out when, where, how to reduce emissions rather than have regulators and EPA do that job. I think that’s a really free-market position, but it’s the one that’s a little heterodox in my community.
This is a position to which Taylor himself is a convert. He used to work at the Cato Institute, a more established Libertarian think tank.
TAYLOR: Over the course of that 20-odd-year-span at the Cato Institute, I moved from a climate skeptic and an opponent of climate action to someone who embraced the same. I’d lost faith in the scientific narratives that we were offering to resist climate action, and I also lost faith in the economic arguments against action. If you look at public-opinion surveys of the libertarian voter, to the extent to which they exist, you find for instance that they support action to address climate change at higher rates than virtually any other ideological subtribe in the United States. But their opinions aren’t represented very well by the institutional voices of libertarianism.
DUBNER: I’ve got to say for someone who runs a libertarian think tank, you don’t sound like you’re very fond of libertarians.
TAYLOR: Well, I think that unfortunately a lot of libertarians are rather dogmatic about their ideas and rather absolutist and that they’re not really necessarily in the persuasion business as much as they might need to be. And they’re more in the “this I shall believe” and “Christ on a cross” kind of business. And if you want to move people into your camp, you have to persuade them. Which means that you have to accept the values and the underlying sentiments of the people you’re trying to persuade, you have to understand their arguments and you have to make a compelling case. And unfortunately if anybody saw say the Libertarian Convention recently on C-SPAN…
DUBNER: I did watch some of that. That was…
TAYLOR: That’s not a persuasion place. That’s something else, but it’s not about sweet romancing people into your camp.
DUBNER: As reality TV goes, it was pretty rambunctious, though, I have to say.
TAYLOR: Yeah, well I mean it could be a pretty entertaining place.
DUBNER: Let me read you a fairly short list of topics and give me the standard — or what you see as the standard — libertarian position on the following issues. So first of all: the size and role of the federal government?
TAYLOR: Probably cut by 90 percent.
DUBNER: What survives?
TAYLOR: The standard libertarian position is that we need a military that is capable of defending the continental shorelines of the United States from foreign intrusion, which will imply a far less military presence than we have. We would be disengaged from global alliances and bases in Europe and whatnot, since we’re only interested in the security of our own nation, no other nation. And welfare disappears, and public expenditures for the most part disappear on, you name it. All the government does is has a court system. It has a police force. And it has a few rules of the road here and there, but otherwise government goes back to the levels it was before the progressive era, which was very, very small.
DUBNER: So Department of Education gone, Department of Transportation gone.
TAYLOR: Labor regulations, gone. Minimum wage is gone. OSHA regulations gone. Anti-trust operations disappear. The economy becomes a real laissez-faire operation.
DUBNER: Internal Revenue Service?
TAYLOR: Gone. Well, somebody has to pay at least the minimum bills, but I feel most libertarians will oppose income taxes to do so.
DUBNER: What kind of taxation? Give me again the standard position on taxation generally, then.
TAYLOR: Well I think it’s a bit confused. For a lot of libertarians, they will puff out their chest and say, “taxation is theft.” Well, if taxation is theft then there is no legitimate way of funding even these minimum responsibilities of the government except, say, bake sales or something like that.
As a political pragmatist, Jerry Taylor finds himself wishing that established politicians sympathetic to libertarian ideas would borrow some of that pragmatism. Like Rand Paul, the libertarian-leaning Republican senator who early in this year’s campaign was seen as a viable presidential contender. Paul has opposed parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that require private businesses to serve any and all customers — requiring a Southern lunch counter, for instance, to serve African-Americans.
RAND PAUL (on MSNBC in 2010): There’s 10 different titles to the Civil Rights Act. And nine out of 10 deal with public institutions, and I’m absolutely in favor of. One deals with private institutions, and had I been around I would have tried to modify that.
TAYLOR: What would compel someone to say that? He said, “Well, I believe in freedom of association. I was against Jim Crow laws, but I am also against telling people who they have to do business with.” Well, you’ve just alienated pretty much 95 percent of America with that statement. What libertarians believe is that rights to life, liberty and property — the fundamental objectives of the Federal government and it was put here solely to ensure those rights. So most libertarians will oppose welfare; they would oppose wealth transfers of most kinds; they would oppose interventions in the economy to make the market more efficient, because none of these things have to do with protecting life, liberty and property. So, Libertarians as they’re generally understood today, basically hold the position that in an ideal world we would rewind the clock probably right before the progressive era. Not in all cases. There have been some advances since then that libertarians would applaud. But libertarians have a fairly radical view of the sort of changes that are necessary to secure individual liberty and the original design of the Constitution. So for instance, Friedrich Hayek, who was one of the champions of libertarianism in the United States, Friedrich Hayek supported welfare programs, he supported wealth transfers. So did Milton Friedman, one of the most influential libertarians of our time. They also supported public parks, and they supported public arts. It turns out that libertarianism, at one point, and still from a number of different voices, simply represents liberalism as we understand it with a healthy respect for the individual that is sometimes lacking in other liberals.
DUBNER: I guess if you give that version of libertarianism, then you’re having to rely on the older definition of liberalism, as well though almost, aren’t you?
TAYLOR: Well, yes and no. For instance, a couple people I have a pretty high regard for, Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch over at Reason magazine — which is probably the most prominent libertarian journal in the United States — they’ve argued that we have more individual liberties and freedom today than in any other time in human history. And this is a tremendous indicator of the libertarian moment they talk about. Now, it’s interesting, to a large extent they’re correct. On the other hand, isn’t it interesting that all of this individual liberty that they celebrate was delivered by a rather aggressive federal government and a very mixed economy? And yet, it turns out that government is not necessarily an enemy of liberty. Oftentimes, it’s a necessary facilitator of liberty. So for instance, we have government restricting our right and freedom of association. They tell White restaurateurs they can’t keep blacks off a lunch counter. A lot of libertarians consider that a terrible violation of individual liberty. But are we freer as a whole because of that? Absolutely we are. And it turns out that a lot of libertarian instinct, which is to think that to the very extent the government expands liberty retreats, is not necessarily correct.
So Jerry Taylor, for his part, will keep trying to sort out the most useful libertarian ideas and, rather than support “idiosyncratic subgroups” or lost political causes, he’ll try to feed those ideas into the two main political parties.
TAYLOR: For the most part the Libertarian Party is trying to undertake the impossible, which is to be a viable third contender. And I see it as a quixotic game. It’s also very difficult because the Libertarian Party, for anybody who’s paid a whole lot of attention to it, has a very, very conflicted set of opinions about what its mission really is. Most political parties, they’re put on this earth for one thing: to win elections. That’s what a political party does, right? It’s trying to win an election. But in the Libertarian Party, putting forward arguments and candidates who are capable of winning elections oftentimes creates an uproar because there are people who violate some really deep fundamental principles of the libertarian order. And so, Gary Johnson, for instance—
DUBNER: What do you mean by that? In order to be electable you can’t be truly libertarian?
TAYLOR: Well, sure. If you want to run a campaign based on abolishing the Civil Rights Act and abolishing all welfare and, for some libertarians, eliminating rules about sexual age of consent and issues like that, you’re just putting your head in the political wood chipper. So if Gary Johnson and Bill Weld want to try to take advantage of the opportunity we presently have in the American politics and offer something that could actually get votes, which might be not a conversation about these matters, but a conversation about taxes and spending and things like that, well, you get a taste of what happens. The libertarian faithful rebel and say you’re selling out the party.
That’s what happened, you will recall, when Gary Johnson suggested to the Libertarian Party faithful that it’s OK for the government to require a driver’s license. I was curious how Johnson feels about his place in the libertarian firmament.
DUBNER: Now let me ask you this. There are a lot of different kinds of Libertarians, as you well know. Some of them are, we shall say, a little outrageous. The party convention this year, where you were nominated, was a bit of a freak show. Are you ever embarrassed to be part of the Libertarian Party?
JOHNSON: No I’m not. And I don’t want to, I don’t want to say that the Libertarian Party has a corner on the freak market. If you’ve been to the Republican convention, if you’ve been to the Democrat Convention — and I did get the nomination along with Bill Weld, so I am the official spokesperson, I guess for the Libertarian Party, and I’d like to think that nothing that’s coming out of my mouth is, could be denoted as freakish.
DUBNER: We do know that the third-party candidate can pull votes from the other candidates. Can you imagine a scenario where you might worry that your votes were pulling from the candidate that you would prefer and where you would drop out, or is not a possibility?
JOHNSON: Not a possibility. I lose no sleep over ruining this two-party oligopoly.
DUBNER: All right, I thank you very much. I wish you all the best.
JOHNSON: Well, same here.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Christopher Werth. The rest of our staff includes Arwa Gunja, Jay Cowit, Merritt Jacob, Greg Rosalsky, Caitlin Pierce, Alison Hockenberry, Emma Morgenstern and Harry Huggins. If you want more Freakonomics Radio, you can also find us on Twitter and Facebook and don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or wherever else you get your free, weekly podcasts.
- Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s 2016 presidential nominee and former Governor of New Mexico.
- Jason Sorens, lecturer at Dartmouth College and vice-president of the Free State Project.
- Mark Warden, of Porcupine Real Estate, the libertarian Realtor in New Hampshire.
- Carla Gericke, a “Free Stater” who is running for New Hampshire State Senate
- Jerry Taylor, president of the Niskanen Center