On Friday, Brian Doherty of the Libertarian flagship publication Reason scolded me, and by extension anyone else who has been turned off by some of the Johnson-Weld ticket’s public statements, that we were placing more importance on “the attitude stuff related to culture war issues about discrimination and guns” than on the really crucial issues of “spending or budgets or the growth of government.”
Then on Monday, Gary Johnson came out in favor of—drumroll, please—a carbon tax to fight global warming.
I do think that climate change is occurring, that it is man-caused. One of the proposals that I think is a very libertarian proposal, and I’m just open to this, is taxing carbon emission that may have the result of being self-regulating.
Johnson bills this as a “free market” solution. Good to know he’s got our back on small government.
To complete the circle, back at Reason, Ronald Bailey says this is no big deal, because “Johnson’s thinking that a carbon tax might be a useful way to handle the open access problem of climate change is in line with that of some groups who are part of the larger free market intellectual movement.”
So for those who haven’t been following it, let me sum up my exchange to date with Gary Johnson’s defenders at Reason, paraphrasing all the main arguments.
Me: Gary Johnson and Bill Weld are turning us off by failing to defend religious liberty and gun rights.
Nick Gillespie: You’re just upset because libertarians aren’t warmongers and Bible-thumping culture warriors.
Me: Libertarians are defining themselves by their opposition to conservatives rather than their stance on liberty.
Brian Doherty: You care more about the culture war than about small government.
Gary Johnson: A carbon tax is a libertarian solution!
Ronald Bailey: Sounds reasonable.
Seriously, what the heck is going on here?
Partly, this is your brain on partisanship. If I were debating the various luminaries at Reason on religious liberty or gun control or a carbon tax, I doubt there would be much debate or that its tone would be so rancorous. But I’m debating them about Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party standard-bearer and the last great hope for the relevance of their third-party project.
In the interview where Johnson backs a carbon tax, you may notice a little sneering condescension about the crack-up of the Republican Party. And it might be cracking up—I’m already on record calling for a new center-right coalition party in case our old one is irreparably damaged by Donald Trump. But Libertarians are deluding themselves into thinking that they would be the automatic beneficiaries of such a crackup. The Republican Party still has hundreds of national-level elected officials whose political careers are independent of Trump, and many hundreds more on the state level. Trump has had no impact on these offices, except to drag down Republican candidates in the general election. Which is to say that the party has a very strong political base from which to rebuild after he loses. Meanwhile, the Libertarian Party has…pretty much nobody. No congressmen, no senators, no governors, a grand total of two state legislators, and a smattering of local officials nobody has heard of. So make no mistake. It’s the Libertarians who are desperate, because let’s face it, if they can’t break through this year, against the worst two major-party candidates since the party’s inception, they never will.
There’s nothing wrong with desperation. Necessity is the mother of political invention. But what I find telling is the way the Libertarians have chosen to break through this year—not by standing up for the principles they long proclaimed were so important, but by pandering to the left.
I’m afraid the real reason for the behavior of the Johnson-Weld ticket is the one offered by DC libertarian Bruce Majors, who explains, “The Johnson campaign is aiming for disaffected Hillary and Bernie supporters, and even more for Democrat-leaning Independents.”
They don’t view the election primarily as an opportunity to posture, to educate, or to virtue signal. They view it as a way to get either 5 percent of the vote and federal funding in 2020 or better yet 15 percent in the polls and debate inclusion in 2016, as steps to crack the two party system.
Johnson himself seems to confirm this. In the same interview where he supports a carbon tax, he describes his ticket’s electoral strategy: “It’s a big six-lane highway down the middle that Bill Weld and myself are occupying.”
Well, fine, but from now on the Libertarians can just shut up about being the “party of principle” and about being so much better than those compromising Republicans—statements I have heard endlessly, ad nauseum for my entire adult life. That is now officially over.
Majors argues that “Johnson is following the votes. Polls show he pulls more from Hillary than from Trump.” But that’s a chicken-and-egg question, isn’t it? Is Gary Johnson pandering to the left because he peels off more Democratic voters, or does he peel off more Democratic voters because he panders to the left?
In fact, I don’t buy that this is just a matter of mercenary political calculations. It makes sense to me that this is their rationalization, but I suspect its driven by an underlying ideological affinity. My whole exchange with the folks at Reason, particularly the last response from Brian Doherty, reveals a particular theme: libertarians can’t bring themselves to take any political position that might be seen as sympathizing with the right in the culture war. Note, for example, how he redefines gun control as “a ‘progs v. right-winger’ culture war consideration”—something that will be news, no doubt, to Second Amendment advocates—and that this is his way of downgrading the issue to the realm of insignificance.
As an atheist, I have described myself as a reluctant culture warrior who doesn’t fit into the usual categories and whose main interest is in opposing the current political aggressors in the culture war, who in today’s context are the people trying to force you to bake somebody’s cake. I’m a little too old to claim naiveté as an excuse, yet somehow I had thought this would be considered compatible with a principled libertarian position.
But the reaction of Gary Johnson’s Libertarian apologists in an indication that, as much as they look down on the culture war and see themselves as floating above it, what that really means is that they have taken a position in the culture war, and they’re on the side of the left. They would rather force you to bake the cake and make sure everyone knows that “the kind of anti-discrimination law we’ve had for many decades is not something he’s interested in rolling back,” in Doherty’s description. It’s a misleading characterization—persecuting Christians for their views on homosexuality is not something the government has been doing “for many decades”—and also a curiously evasive one. On what other issues are libertarians supposed to accept the notion that they shouldn’t challenge a government intrusion just because it is widely accepted? And what would be left of libertarianism if they did? But it’s revealing nonetheless, because it indicates that the priority of Libertarian partisans is to avoid challenging the left on any issue that can be associated with the culture war.
So no, they’re not pursuing the Democratic vote out of mere pragmatic calculation. They’re doing it because they have defined themselves by their opposition to conservatives, and specifically as being on the opposite side of the culture war.
I said it at the beginning of this exchange. Ayn Rand was right when she dismissed Libertarians as “hippies of the right.” And everything they have said in response has confirmed that.