Gary Johnson’s Libertarian Candidacy

In my post comparing Romney and Obama from a libertarian perspective, I promised to take up Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson in a future post. This is it.

From a policy perspective, Johnson is extremely appealing to libertarians. Last year, I wrote that “Johnson is about as good on the issues as any remotely mainstream politician is likely to be at this point in time.” In the same post, I also argued that Johnson is a better libertarian standard-bearer than the more well-known Ron Paul, because he is both more libertarian on key issues, and doesn’t carry Paul’s unfortunate baggage such as the racist newsletters and flirtation with ridiculous conspiracy theories. All of that is still true.

I don’t agree with Johnson on everything. I think he was wrong to embrace the “Fair Tax” plan for a national sales tax, which I criticized here, back when Mike Huckabee advocated it in the 2008 campaign. I’m also more hawkish than Johnson on foreign policy. That said, it is very clear that Johnson is vastly superior to Romney and Obama from any plausibly libertarian point of view. As a fairly successful former governnor of New Mexico, he’s also a competent politician and has considerable executive experience. If Johnson had won the GOP nomination (or the Democratic one for that matter), I would have been very happy to support him against the available alternatives. It would not have been a hard decision.

The problem with Johnson’s candidacy is not his views, but the fact that he has no chance of winning, and that third-party politics is a poor strategy for advancing the libertarian cause. As I explained back in 2008, the Libertarian Party’s forty-year history of failure is rooted in the structural realities of American politics which make it almost impossible for a third party to have a major impact on national politics, unless it is strong enough to displace one of the two major parties.

So far, Johnson’s campaign doesn’t seem to be doing any better than previous Libertarian Party candidates, such as 2008 nominee Bob Barr, who (like Johnson) was a well-known former Republican politician. I think Johnson will probably do a little better than Barr, but probably not by much.

Supporting a losing third-party campaign might be worth it if it advances the cause of libertarianism by making libertarian ideas more popular or at least better-known. But, for reasons I have explained in the past (see here and here), the LP has been a failure in that department as well, and it does not look as if Johnson will have much more success than his predecessors.

The libertarian resources committed to the LP can be more effectively spent on efforts to increase libertarian influence within the two major parties, or on efforts to influence the climate of ideas by methods other than supporting campaigns. Historically, that’s how libertarians achieved nearly all their major successes. What I said on this in 2008 still seems valid:

[T]he truth is that third party politics simply is not an effective way of promoting libertarianism in the “first past the post” American political system. That system makes it almost impossible for a third party to win any important elected offices. And such a party also can’t be an effective tool for public education because the media isn’t likely to devote much attention to a campaign with no chance of success.

Libertarians have had some genuine successes over the last 35 years [since the LP was established in the early 1970s]. These include abolition of the draft (heavily influenced by Milton Friedman’s ideas), deregulation of large portions of the economy (of which libertarians were the leading intellectual advocates), major reductions in tax rates (facilitated by libertarian economists, libertarian activists, and the legislative efforts of libertarian-leaning Republicans), the increasing popularity of school choice programs, increases in judicial protection for property rights, gun rights, and economic liberties (thanks in large part to advocacy by libertarian legal activists), and heightened respect for privacy and freedom of speech (promoted by libertarians in cooperation with other groups). Libertarian academics and intellectuals have also done much to make libertarian ideas more respectable and less marginal than they were in the 1960s and early 70s.

What all these successes have in common is that they were achieved either by working within the two major parties or by efforts outside the context of party politics altogether. The Libertarian Party didn’t play a significant role in any of them.

If the United States had a proportional representation system, I would be all in favor of having a separate libertarian party. It would get 10 or 15 percent of the vote, and be a significant potential player in coalition governments. But we go to war with the political system we have, not the one the LP might want to have.

I like Gary Johnson and wish him well. But I fear he has chosen the wrong strategy for promoting libertarianism.

Finally, I certainly understand that some libertarians might want to support Johnson simply to express their views, regardless of whether or not it actually helps advance our cause. But I am skeptical that such “expressive voting” is the way to go. Libertarians who want to express their views can find much better ways to do so than casting a ballot behind closed doors that no one will see and few will know about. If you want to express support for libertarianism, far better to do it through blogging, public debate, research, or just discussing politics with your friends and acquiantances, working to win them over to your point of view. If we choose to vote, however, I think we should vote for the least bad of the candidates that have a realistic chance of winning. The chance that your vote will be decisive is extremely low, but still just barely high enough justify taking the responsibility seriously.

In the long run, libertarians should work to transform elite and public opinion to the point where someone with Johnson’s views – or even better ones – might be a successful major party presidential nominee. Voting for the lesser evil today doesn’t preclude us from working for a better tomorrow.