Arnold Kling  

Gary Johnson and Jeff Miron

The True Sources of Risk... Unintended Consequences, Chapt...

Like snow, they are all over the DC area this week, for example at a Reason event that I missed.

Jeff Miron is, like me, a graduate of Swarthmore College in the 1970's, an economics Ph.D from MIT in the early 1980's, and an advocate for libertarian ideas. Gary Johnson is the former governor of New Mexico who is considering a run for President. You will sometimes see him referred to by libertarian bloggers as "the next Ron Paul," although that is probably not the brand identity that he would prefer.

[Update: Johnson released an economic plan, Not down to specifics, but states right at the top "Scale back entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, which threaten to bankrupt the nation's future" and later "Legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana; emphasize harm reduction for other drugs...Expand free trade and legal immigration. "]

Speaking of Reason, Nick Gillespie's take on Sarah Palin is worth a read.

a vehicle for a backward-looking GOP bent on blending generic social conservatism, small-government encomiums, big government spending, unconvincing outsider outrage, and status quo foreign adventurism. With a Saint Reagan statue firmly glued to the dashboard, of course.

Gillespie reminds us that as appalled as we may be with the current Administration, the Republicans have many blemishes. Gary Johnson looks much better. He is a libertarian on social issues and is genuinely focused on cutting government spending and regulation.

As he describes how he governed New Mexico, Johnson is quick to mention his hundreds of vetoes. He does not come across as a coalition builder. Instead, he seems to be one who tries to rally people around his ideas. Johnson wears his ideology on his sleeve--not up his sleeve, which is what I think that Obama did with his vague, gauzy campaign rhetoric. (I think the true source of anger among independents is not over the state of the economy. It is over the fact that as a candidate Obama did not warn people of the statist onslaught that he was going to unleash as President.)

I see very little chance that Johnson could capture the Presidency, or that he could accomplish much if somehow he were elected. However, his potential to help the libertarian cause is very high. He could raise the profile of libertarian thinking, so that more people start to listen for something other than the mainstream progressive and conservative slogans.

Keep in mind the Masonomic view that politics is not about policy. It is about the relative status of various groups. Johnson does not represent a coalition of groups. The Democrats represent a coalition of minorities and people who identify themselves as the educated elite (note that Obama gets to qualify on both counts). Republicans represent a coalition of non-urban whites and people who identify themselves as sticking up for traditional American values. Libertarians represent...what...a cult of oddballs and misfits?

The challenge for libertarians is that many of our ideas have not crossed the threshold of legitimacy. Legalizing marijuana or seriously cutting back on future entitlements are treated as fringe, kooky ideas. Our challenge is to move our ideas out from the fringe and into the mainstream. I can imagine a Presidential campaign serving as a vehicle for doing that. But the focus needs to be on persuading people who do not think of themselves as libertarians, not so much on exciting the libertarian faithful.

I wish Gary Johnson good luck, particularly if he continues to attract people like Jeff Miron.

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COMMENTS (13 to date)
Loof writes:

Libertarians appalled (syn: shocked, horrified, sickened, disgusted) by the current Democratic administration, though finding the Republicans with many blemishes (syn: stains, spots, blotches, discoloration), would find Johnson absolutely better, though not pure, for sure.

Bill writes:

As someone who lived in NM for the 8 years of the Johnson administration, and has met and talked (and even rode a ski lift!) with Gary, all I can say is bring it on!

Yeah, there were the constant complaints over his vetos (many from public school teachers), but he held the line and basically told the legislature "you'll have to do better," until they balanced the budget.

And you know what? No one's life was much different. We all still got up and went to work every day, and still did all the cool things New Mexicans do.

Only that everything seemed just a bit brighter under the light of honesty and integrity. Especially compared to the film of scum that now coats our state government and all its scandals. It took eight years to bring responsible government to our state. It's taken seven to squander it all.

Taimyoboi writes:

If the aim is to reach individuals with libertarian sympathies, the question is which types of individuals? There’s been some interesting demographic discussion between Cato and National Review about whether to target economically libertarian voters with socially conservative inclinations or without socially conservative inclinations. Partly because I’m biased, partly because I think NR has the better argument, and partly because I think that US cultural has been historically socially conservative (culture, which Kling has identified in other contexts as being more important to a country’s success than formal institutions) I think that the best outlet for libertarians is with social conservatives.

With that as an operating assumption, advocates like Miron and Gillespie are less than ideal candidates to make the appeal. I don’t know much about Gary Johnson.

Miron is a sharp individual but judged solely by his writings on his blog he seems to have little patience with anyone that doesn’t meet a very narrowly defined set of libertarian criteria.

Gillespie strikes me as worse. He presents himself with the same kind of elitist air that at times I gather Kling sets himself in contrast to (although it’s tough to pin you down) and oftentimes appears motivated mostly by an animus for socially conservative voters.

Take his piece on Palin. Not terribly persuasive when it comes to dissecting Palin’s blemishes. In the entire article, Gillespie’s evidence amounts to keeping some funds for the bridge to nowhere and state spending growing by 16% from 2007 to 2009. Keeping funds from the federal gov’t is hardly damning evidence. It’s not as if Palin cast a vote in the Senate. I imagine that she could have mailed the check back to the federal gov’t, but is that a realistic scenario?

With regards to growth in state spending, Gillespie makes no effort to get behind the numbers, appearing to operate on a guilty-as-charged basis. Alaska has a unique arrangement with the companies that invest in and extrapolate its natural resources (e.g., oil). A significant portion of that money comes back to the state residents. Perhaps there is a libertarian case that this arrangement is wrong, but mere growth in state spending isn’t it. Did it grow less than, more than, or commensurate with the underlying growth in those resources? How about with respect to other states (by no means the worst offender in this period)? Oil prices were at absurd highs during this period, which probably skews Gillespie’s statistic—but his account doesn’t address these issues.

The rest is guilt by association with country boobs and social conservatives. No attempt to grapple with any evidence in favor of Palin’s fiscal record. I’m no fan of Palin, but if I were a libertarian trying to decide where I’d have the most impact, my guess is it’s not with the crowds on which the current administration came into office.

MernaMoose writes:

Taimyoboi, good assessment and I pretty much have to agree. Gillespie impresses me as at least willing to hold his nose for Obama, but won't even contemplate tolerating Palin.

Not that I'm a Palin fan either, but I'd give her a try over Obama at this point in history.

I'd go so far as to say, if libertarian ideas are ever going to break over into the mainstream, it won't be Reason that's responsible for making it happen. In fact they may well be opposing the effort when it happens....

Because I agree, if it's ever going to happen, the social conservative Right hits me as a far, far more receptive target audience, than anything you can find on the other side of the aisle.

MernaMoose writes:


(I think the true source of anger among independents is not over the state of the economy. It is over the fact that as a candidate Obama did not warn people of the statist onslaught that he was going to unleash as President.)

Hmmm. Do you really think so? I thought Obama was pretty clear about where he intended to go, which is exactly where he's gone. No surprises from Obama the EuroSocialist that I've seen.

If the independents didn't see it coming, they either didn't listen or else they aren't that bright. But I don't believe that's the case.

My take: truth is that Obama never really did have the huge appeal he was made out to have, outside the "progressive" left wing base. But 1) the media loved him (precisely because he's a EuroSocialist) so they did all they could to make him look Big and Invincible, and 2) the independents voted for O-boy because, the alternative in McCain looked worse (and you can hardly call them dim-witted for that).

McCain ran neck-and-neck with Obama, up to the moment that he wanted to stop the campaign and ram the first (politically unpopular) bail-out through congress. From that time on McCain seemed to sound like an Obama echo. Suddenly McCain too would have a government program to bail out home owners that couldn't pay their bills. There were other things he started copying from Obama but I forget the details now.

Upon which McCain nose dived because, his policies weren't different from Obama and he's far less appealing personally as presidential material.

The end of McCain campaign, and Obama sweeps the field by default rather than by popular appeal. But the MSM does its very best to not let this be apparent. And it's sad because, McCain being who he is, would probably have recanted a good fraction of his Obama Echos by the time he'd gotten in office, had he won. (then again, this trait is in good part why McCain appealed less to indpendents than Obama).

Fast forward a year, and while the independents may not have been thrilled with Obama before (but had no real alternative in McCain), the Big Progressive Push has positively pissed them off. To the point that even the MSM can't deny the fact that Obama's got a ratings problem.

shecky writes:

I think that the best outlet for libertarians is with social conservatives.

Yes, because socially conservative issues are always winners in the end. That would be the worst association libertarianism could make. One, because social conservatives are not libertarians by any significant stretch. Two, because they have been, and will continue to be, on the trailing edge of culture. From segregation to religion in schools to gays in the military (and getting married), they only serve to pull the coattails of society in a directions it clearly is not wanting to go. Libertarianism could do well to not associate itself with backwards thinking.

Reason has been propping up the potential of Johnson for a few months now and deserve commendation for it. So far, he seems a promising voice who thankfully is also not batshit insane or hobbled by skeletons in the closet.

Not that I'm a Palin fan either, but I'd give her a try over Obama at this point in history.

Count me out of that one. For all the reasons that snooty old Gillespie pointed out. And for a desire to not go to war with Iran, or whatever mouth-watering neocon adventure du jour. Let's face it. The grown ups are in charge these days, even if they aren't too keen using libertarian crib notes. But then again, which side is?

MernaMoose writes:


Count me out of the very thought, let alone any attempt to work with the Left. They aren't even on the same planet when it comes to economics, and it is a modern urban legend that they're libertarian on civil (or any other) liberties. The utter intolerance of their PC policies is proof enough of that (read: NO different from explicit racial prejudice). Which leaves the Left superior in which ways? None that I see.

There is at least a significant fraction of the Right that's on board with libertarian economics. That's +1 for the Right, and +0 for the Left.

btw, the Left is just as ready to pull the trigger and start a war as the Right. Obama has also proven that the Left sure isn't going to end any wars either. He's doing exactly what Bush did in Iraq, while ramping up Afghanistan for who knows what purpose.

Claims that the Left is better on foreign policy -- or any other policy front -- have worn pretty thin by now. Obama = All Things Bad About Bush + Many Additional Bad Things.

If you think you're better off with the Left, all I can say is good luck.

Taimyoboi writes:

I'm not the only one that thinks Gillespie's damnation is based on issues un-related to fiscal discipline.

Just read the sub-title to Don Bordreaux's post:

Republicans have behaved badly in the past and will do so in the future. Such is the price of living in a society compromised by politics and interest groups.

Gillespie, Kling's and commenter-shecky's mistake is to think that the worst behaving Republicans from a limited gov't perspective are socially conservative ones. Indeed, your more socially conservative politicians are your more fiscally disciplined ones. And on social issues their positions are generally limited to preventing new liberties from being read into the Constitution, not to passing federal laws mandating socially conservative positions.

I think libertarian advocates shoot themselves in the foot by failing to consider this possibility.

bill shoe writes:

Like the other Bill, I am a (former) New Mexican. Gary Johnson is the real deal. He has the ability to calmly sell good libertarian ideas in a way that Ron Paul can't match. I don't know how this ability would translate into a national level political campaign where he would be a relatively fringe candidate.

I had a progressive friend in Albuquerque who was a photographer for a paper. He regularly took pictures at press conferences, political events, etc. He didn't agree with Johnson's ideology, but he said when Johnson talked in public it was by far the most real and unscreened public persona of any politician he had seen.

Colin K writes:

Massachusetts decriminalized marijuana possession under 1 ounce by plebiscite in 2008.

Vermont, Maine, and NH all have some of the most liberal gun laws in the country, and Howard Stern has said that Rhode Island has some of the best strip clubs in the country.

Pretty much all of New England (except Connecticut) has a fairly deep libertarian streak which could be made more effective use of.

Doc Merlin writes:

"Taimyoboi, good assessment and I pretty much have to agree. Gillespie impresses me as at least willing to hold his nose for Obama, but won't even contemplate tolerating Palin."

I don't understand this at all. Not one bit. He's pick a socialist tax and spender over someone at least somewhat fiscally conservative?

This I do not understand... have the reason folks been in DC too long?

Ponz writes:

"And on social issues their positions are generally limited to preventing new liberties from being read into the Constitution, not to passing federal laws mandating socially conservative positions."

Excellent point. I disagree with conservatives on most social issues but respect the fact that they generally appeal to federalist principles when making those arguments. The modern left- on the other hand- is avowedly statist on both the economic and social dimensions. Moreover, their tendency to label all opponents of gay marriage, abortion etc. as ipso facto misogynist/homophobic/racist is the very opposite of true social liberalism. Libertarians happen to share a few policy preferences with the modern left but I see no potential whatsoever for an ideological union between the two groups.

Dawn writes:

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