In a Washington Times interview yesterday, independent conservative presidential candidate Evan McMullin, who is having the best week of his campaign, took a potshot at his competitor from the Libertarian Party. “If Gary Johnson were a real libertarian,” he said, “I probably wouldn’t be doing this.” The paper cited Johnson’s positions on religious liberty and consumption taxes as reasons for McMullin’s skepticism.
Last week the #NeverTrumper former CIA agent, Goldman Sachs investment banker and House Foreign Affairs Committee policy advisor made similar comments to the Libertarian Party presidential runner-up, Austin Petersen, adding that he would have “probably” supported Petersen had the former Freedom Watch producer beat Johnson for the nomination:
(You can watch their whole interview here.)
McMullin’s he’s-not-libertarian-enough critique is certainly a refreshing change from his explicitly anti-libertarian (and laughably false) claim from a month ago that Johnson “spends his time advocating for legalized prostitution and for a drug culture here in America, rather than dealing with problems that are really big, like our economy and national security and government reform.” But it’s not like you have to scroll far down through the candidate’s Twitter feed to find policy ideas anathema to solid majorities of libertarians:
We’re at war, we need a place to send terrorists, & Gitmo’s as fine a place as any. https://t.co/uZCnhAhreY
— Evan McMullin (@Evan_McMullin) October 14, 2016
Yet his is a common enough complaint among Trump-averse conservatives that I will walk through its logic problems at more length after the jump. First, though, a response to McMullin that I solicited from Libertarian Party Chair Nicholas Sarwark:
The Libertarian National convention in Orlando brought nearly 1,000 delegates chosen by state Libertarian Parties around the country into one room. They were not bound to any particular candidate and heard all of the candidates debate before choosing a nominee. I trust the judgment of dedicated Libertarian Party members from around the nation somewhat more than that of an unremarkable Capitol Hill staffer with no purpose other than to split the Gary Johnson vote in the mountain West and assist in electing the Democrat for President. Perhaps his remarks would have more credibility if he was on the ballot in more than 11 states or had managed to find a fellow Capitol Hill staffer to be a running mate in time for his FEC filing or the printing of those ballots in the aforementioned 11 states.
The day I take advice on who’s a real libertarian from a former CIA operative who was an insider in Washington and at Goldman Sachs, being propped up by dead-end neoconservatives like Bill Kristol and shameless Republican political consultants like Rick Wilson, is the day I’ll resign as Chairman of the Libertarian Party.
I’m not resigning today.
Me-ow! Now, my main additional point:
If the L.P nominated a “real” libertarian, conservatives likely wouldn’t touch him or her with a 10-foot pole.
It’s no accident that conservatives such as McMullin and Glenn Beck and Mary Matalin and Erick Erickson hold up Austin Petersen when playing the “true libertarian” card. That’s because Petersen, an energetic media/politics entrepreneur with zero governing experience, comes off as more palatable to social conservatives, particularly on the concepts of religious liberty (as understood in a 2016 political context) and opposition to abortion.
But these and other positions don’t make Petersen a libertarian’s Libertarian, they make him a conservative’s Libertarian (NTTAWWT!). The Libertarian Party platform has always been pro-choice when it comes to abortion, reflecting the majority opinion among libertarians (and Americans). That doesn’t mean you can’t be a pro-life libertarian, or debate the issue on explicitly libertarian grounds, but rather that if we insist on playing the usually foolish quien-es-mas-libertarian game, this position doesn’t bolster the argument. Nor does Petersen’s gleeful repudiation of the L.P.’s long-treasured Non-Aggression Principle.
I genuniely appreciate the way Petersen during the primary season repeatedly hammered away at Johnson’s incoherent stance on forcing bakers to make wedding cakes, a position that has come back to repeatedly haunt the candidate post-nomination (see the great new Reason TV video from Utah for further corroboration of that). But while I wouldn’t pretend to claim what the “real” libertarian position is on all public accommodation laws, chances are non-trivial that if you polled L.P. members, or the broader American subset of self-identified libertarians, you’d get a measurable amount of principled opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act (for the record, I agree with Richard Epstein on the issue). Would Evan McMullin support a candidate who really went there, in the face of the inevitable public outcry? I doubt it.
More relevantly to the 2016 conversation, the dominant libertarian/Libertarian position of foreign-affairs anti-interventionism is probably even more of a non-starter for #NeverTrump conservatives than weed or even abortion. Before they discovered a late-in-life conversion to third-party political campaigns, many of the interventionists who are now clustered around McMullin were busy sending human waves against another untenable contender for president: Rand Paul. All of it based on issues stemming from national security. Keep in mind here that Rand Paul at the time was getting hammered by many anti-war libertarians for being too interventionist (that some of the same gang have now rallied around Donald Trump makes me laugh and laugh). So if future #NeverTrumpers were calling Rand a liberal pantywaist on foreign policy in 2015, do we really think they’d be ready to embrace the foreign policy of someone closer to, say, Ron Paul in 2016? Of course they wouldn’t. We know that because Ron Paul ran for president in 2008 and 2012, and we remember how they behaved back then.
So who is the real libertarian’s Libertarian? One person making that claim is distant L.P. presidential finisher Darryl W. Perry, who received 6.8 percent of the vote in the first round of Party balloting, and is now waging a write-in campaign so that people “will have the ability to cast a vote…for an actual libertarian.” Methinks that the Evan McMullins of the world wouldn’t soon cotton to a fella whose platform begins with the statement that “all coercive forms of taxation should be eliminated, and government programs should be funded voluntarily.”
There are indeed many libertarian objections to Gary Johnson. I’m no fan of consumption taxes (though unlike McMullin, I will note that Johnson’s proposal also comes strapped to the very libertarian-friendly notions of scrapping the IRS and cutting government spending by 23 percent in year one). His position on Citizens United makes the religious liberty stuff look well-thought-out (“Well, I don’t like the idea of corporations being citizens,” he told me last month). Some of his in-the-moment responses to stuff—like supporting a proposed burqa ban, which he did in a January 2016 interview with Nick Gillespie and then rescinded the next day—indicate weird instincts and judgment.
But it’s also true that Libertarian Party activists knew that he was an occasionally tongue-tied, pragmatic, libertarian squish going in to this year, and made the rational calculus that maybe having a practical minded governor would be an interesting contrast and potential force-multiplier in this particular presidential election. They had recruited the guy for years before he came in, and there isn’t exactly a deep bench when it comes to Libertarians with executive experience. Did the gamble pay off? We’ll be debating that for years to come. In any event, the end product is a candidate who indeed is not the idealized libertarian of our competing dreams, but he’s one hell of a lot more libertarian than anyone on the ballot in this presidential election. Including Evan McMullin.