Two libertarians vie for the name—and the GOP nomination.
In 2008, Texas Rep. Ron Paul was alone among GOP presidential hopefuls in his unstinting defense of free markets, sound money, civil liberties, and a noninterventionist foreign policy. This time he has company. Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who endorsed Paul four years ago, is running for president himself.
Paul and Johnson are arguably the country’s two most successful libertarian-leaning politicians. Paul has been elected to Congress 12 times—three of them as a non-incumbent—emphasizing liberty and less government. He boasts of never voting for legislation unless it is expressly authorized by the Constitution. Every year, he sponsors countless bills eliminating government programs, reducing spending, cutting taxes, and eradicating regulations. Paul has used his office as a platform for spreading libertarian ideas, entering the works of obscure free-market economists and anti-statist philosophers into the Congressional Record.
Johnson was twice elected governor of New Mexico. During that time, he vetoed over 750 bills, more than all the other governors combined, and ruthlessly slashed state spending. Johnson cut taxes 14 times and never approved a tax increase, yet when he left office New Mexico was one of just four states with a balanced budget. Almost alone among state-level officials, Johnson emerged as an outspoken critic of state and federal drug laws.
The careers of Ron Paul and Gary Johnson make a good case for libertarian participation in the Republican Party. Both men could have run on identical platforms as Libertarian Party candidates and would have received an infinitesimal number of votes. As Republicans, they won elections and were able to govern. Paul did secure the Libertarian presidential nomination in 1988, but he received more exposure and votes running a distant fourth in the 2008 Republican primaries.
In fact, it is a sign of progress for the libertarian wing of the GOP that there are now two prominent candidates offering an alternative to the Republican establishment’s prescriptions of war, deficit spending, and a liberty-constricting national-security state. But the simultaneous Paul and Johnson campaigns have generated quite a bit of animosity among libertarians, who divide between the two camps.
So far, the tension has mostly been confined to low-level sniping on Internet forums and blog comment threads. “Johnson is not as wacky as Paul, and comes across as more intelligent,” read a typical pro-Johnson comment at the American Spectator. “I hope Johnson steps aside and leaves the field to Paul alone,” began a representative pro-Paul rejoinder. “Johnson is very bad on immigration.” But as the primaries draw closer, the dueling camps’ charges and countercharges could get as ugly as the 1996 feud between the supporters of Pat Buchanan and Alan Keyes, candidates who were likewise competing for similar voters.
While many libertarians like the idea of both Johnson and Paul participating in primary debates, the candidates’ backers worry that two campaigns will dilute an already limited anti-statist vote in the Republican Party. Matt Collins, a Tennessee Ron Paul supporter who fears that Johnson might “split or at least siphon the liberty vote,” summarized the dilemma well. “Having multiple candidates forcing the entire field to discuss the Constitution and liberty will be good for everyone,” he wrote. “Having multiple liberty candidates to vote for will not.”
Some of the Paul vs. Johnson arguments concern electoral viability: Paul has higher name recognition and an already established national network of supporters; Johnson is younger and, as a former governor, has relevant executive experience. “Serious libertarian-leaning Republicans should be looking at Governor Johnson, not at Ron Paul, at this point,” Below the Beltway blogger Doug Mataconis told political columnist Matt Lewis. The poll numbers relate a different story, however: a May Gallup survey showed Paul within five points of Sarah Palin among Republicans nationwide and tied for second place behind Mitt Romney if Palin doesn’t run. Johnson polled no higher than 3 percent under any scenario.
Arguments about libertarian ideological purity loom even larger in the Paul-Johnson split, with supporters of each candidate staking claims to be more-libertarian-than-thou. Paul, writes George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin, “has very nonlibertarian positions on free trade, school choice, and especially immigration.” He describes Johnson as “clearly superior to Paul from a libertarian point of view.” As Somin observes, Johnson “supports school choice and free trade agreements, he’s as pro-immigration as any successful politician can be, and he believes the Bill of Rights constrains the states as well as the federal government.”
Needless to say, there are arguments that each of Paul’s alleged deficiencies is actually the correct libertarian position. In this telling, school vouchers are taxpayer subsidies that may end up socializing private schools; “free trade” pacts are really government-managed trade agreements rather than genuine free trade; contemporary mass immigration, as libertarian theorist Hans-Hermann Hoppe has argued, is more akin to forced integration than the free movement of people; the doctrine of incorporation is constitutional buncombe. Factor in Paul’s opposition to abortion and lukewarm stance on gay rights, and Somin’s list becomes the comprehensive case that one kind of libertarian makes for Johnson.
“Like Paul, [Johnson] is anti-war, anti-big government and pro-civil liberties,” writes the Reason Foundation’s Shikha Dalmia. “But unlike Paul, he is pro-choice (except for late-term abortions), pro-immigration, pro-trade and untainted by bizarre conspiracy theories that NAFTA is a prelude to the dissolution of North American borders.”
Paul supporters have their ideological problems with Johnson as well. The former governor is less antiwar than Paul, leaving the door open to unspecified humanitarian interventions in an interview with the Weekly Standard. Johnson is also less anti-Federal Reserve: he joins Paul in calling for an audit of the central bank but not in proposing its abolition. For many libertarians and constitutional conservatives drawn to Paul, war and the Fed are the preeminent political issues of our time. Johnson has advocated a Steve Forbes-style flat tax, while Paul has joked he would go along if the tax rate was zero. Johnson said in April that he wouldn’t close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
The potential for this mostly civil intra-libertarian debate to degenerate into something like the 1996 Buchanan-Keyes food fight is already clear. No libertarian brief for Johnson is complete without casual references to Paul’s “past association with racists” (Will Wilkinson), “racist newsletter baggage” (Dalmia), or “weird right-wing conspiracy theories” (Somin). Libertarian apologists for Paul frequently criticize “cosmotarians,” particularly those who receive support from oil billionaires Charles and David Koch, and rehearse grievances that date back to the 1988 Libertarian Party nomination fight.
Pat Buchanan plays a bit part in the Paul-Johnson struggle too. Many of Paul’s libertarian critics are incensed by his intellectual debt to the economist and anti-statist theoretician Murray Rothbard, particularly Paul and Rothbard’s 1990s association with Buchananites. Somin describes Rothbard’s “paleolibertarianism” as a “political strategy of appealing to white racial resentment against minorities.” Other libertarians plainly dislike the compatibility of this variant of libertarianism with cultural conservatism.
Ron Paul and Gary Johnson come to libertarianism from very different places. In his bestselling campaign book Liberty Defined, Paul also credits economists Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Leonard Read, and Hans Sennholz as intellectual influences. But his flavor of libertarianism remains unmistakably Rothbardian. Paul and Rothbard didn’t agree on everything. Paul believes in limited government while Rothbard was an anarchist. Paul is passionately pro-life while Rothbard wrote in The Ethics of Liberty that human beings have no right “to be coercive parasites within the body of an unwilling human host” and therefore “the fetus can have no such right either.”
Yet Paul has retained his old friend’s devotion to Austrian economics and a natural-rights-based libertarianism rooted in the nonaggression principle, the axiom that one must not commit aggression against another’s person or property. The two also shared bourgeois values and a populist approach to politics. In Radicals for Capitalism, a history of modern libertarianism, Brian Doherty writes that in 1988 “Rothbard was repulsed by LP members who hated Paul’s GOP past, straight-laced demeanor, and anti-abortion stance.” Their unsuccessful efforts to deny Paul the Libertarian nomination drove Rothbard from the party.
Paul’s emphasis on ending foreign wars and abolishing the Fed is also pure Rothbard. As an economist and a political theorist, Rothbard hated the central bank and its fiat money. He hated militarism even more. Rothbard once wrote, “my ideological and political activism has been focused on opposition to America’s wars” both because he “believed our waging them to be unjust” and because he agreed with essayist Randolph Bourne that “war is the health of the state.”
Johnson is a less systematic political thinker who seems to be driven by the observation that—with apologies to the Dick Armey-led Tea Party group—freedom works. He favors the consequentialist arguments preferred by policy wonks of the Chicago School of economics, such as the late Milton Friedman. He is less inclined to denounce government interventions as unjust. He’s more likely to argue that they are unaffordable or simply don’t work. Johnson has said, “decisions should be made based on cost-benefit analysis rather than strict ideology.” Even on drug legalization, one of his main issues, he normally employs practical rather than ethical arguments. His campaign website talks about “winning the war against drug abuse.”
Thus Johnson’s supporters tend to be those attracted to libertarianism because they think freedom advances human happiness rather than those primarily concerned about the depredations of the state. These libertarians admire the innovations the market makes possible more than they fear government. For them, sexual self-expression is as integral to individual freedom as matters of war and peace. Their libertarianism is the “dynamism” described by author Virginia Postrel and the hedonism decried by Lew Rockwell—a former Paul congressional aide and Rothbard disciple—in a 1990 Liberty essay lamenting the “Woodstockian flavor” of the libertarian movement.
While the differences between these two schools of libertarianism are important, they can be overstated. Most libertarians make both consequentialist and morally absolute arguments. For all his sweeping moral claims against American foreign policy, Paul is also quick to say interventionism doesn’t deliver the intended results and the country cannot afford to pay for it.
Reason editor Jesse Walker contended that the May 5 Republican debate demonstrated how the two perspectives can complement one another. “When Paul’s hardline libertarian moral defense of drug decriminalization was followed immediately by Johnson’s consequentialist approach, the benefits of the Paul/Johnson duo became clear,” Walker wrote. “Each guy got to make the arguments that the other one didn’t, and the audience got to hear a broader case for a controversial position than the format allowed either man to offer by himself.”
Even the social differences between the two libertarians running for the GOP nomination can be exaggerated. For example, Johnson may favor abortion rights. But as governor of New Mexico, he won the support of pro-life groups by signing a parental-notification bill and late-term abortion ban. That puts Johnson well to the right of California Governor Pete Wilson’s 1996 campaign position and Rudy Giuliani’s actual governing record, to compare him to two previous pro-choice Republican presidential aspirants.
Similarly, while Paul’s immigration views irritate many libertarians, professional immigration restrictionists are increasingly at odds with the congressman over his opposition to enforcement mechanisms like E-Verify and sanctions on employers who hire illegal immigrants. For all the complaints about Paul’s sympathy for paleoconservatism, the overwhelming majority of the libertarians in his circle have broken with the sentiments behind the more controversial passages in the Ron Paul Survival Report. There’s no evidence that Paul himself ever identified with them. And they have almost nothing to do with the movement supporting Paul today.
Those 1990s-era newsletters aren’t the only Rothbardian association that gets Paul into trouble. The congressman’s squeamishness about the raid that killed 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden—at least as it was conducted by the Obama administration—flows in part from Rothbard’s notions about the strict limits on the permissible use of force. These ideas aren’t widely shared by people inclined to vote in Republican primaries, to put it mildly. Paul’s tendency to give voice to such ideas will undoubtedly put a ceiling on his GOP support.
Nevertheless, Paul’s brand of libertarianism is taking him farther than Johnson. While Johnson languishes in the low single digits, Paul frequently breaks 10 percent. In a field where even the frontrunner has trouble reaching 20 percent, that’s an accomplishment. Many national polls have shown him competitive with presumed top-tier candidates, in some cases running ahead of such presidential hopefuls as Tim Pawlenty who pundits believe can win the nomination. To be sure, some of that is due to his having run before. According to one poll, 76 percent of Republicans nationally can identify Paul while only 11 percent have heard of Johnson. The ex-governor is building his name recognition, donor base, and state organizations from scratch.
Because it is at once more radical and more conservative, Paul’s libertarian philosophy is better suited for winning a following among the electorate that will actually decide the nomination. The radicalism of Paul’s message on monetary policy and war is what drives his passionate grassroots supporters to donate time and money to his campaign. Paul’s cultural conservatism, to say nothing of his conservative temperament, also gives him more potential for growth within the mainstream GOP.
Both his son Rand Paul’s successful 2010 campaign for Senate and Ron Paul’s own 1996 comeback congressional bid demonstrated that a coalition of economic and social conservatives can overcome the determined opposition of hawkish national-security conservatives. Johnson, by contrast, would have to draw from economic conservatives alone. For a candidate running in a Republican primary, the attitudes held by these conservative voters are far more important than those of libertarian bloggers and policy analysts.
That brings us to a final comparison, the 1996 contest between Buchanan and Keyes. As significant as that competition may have seemed to the Buchanan Brigades at the time, outside of Iowa Keyes probably cost Buchanan little support. Keyes drew many of his votes from Republicans who wanted to back a strongly pro-life candidate but who were uncomfortable either with Buchanan’s position on Israel or his perceived overall political incorrectness. As a staunchly pro-Israel black man who delivered some of the best pro-life stemwinders on the stump, Keyes was an appealing alternative to them. But it is unclear how many of those votes would have been available to Buchanan in the first place.
The issues that cause some libertarians to prefer Johnson to Paul would have kept many of them from voting for Paul in any circumstance. Yet the GOP has many more pro-life evangelicals than cosmopolitan libertarians, making Johnson in 2010 more untenable than Keyes was in 1996. The very traits and policy positions that make Johnson so appealing to some libertarians will allow Paul to go further in the primaries. Perhaps the Republican presidential field has room for two libertarians after all.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.
The American Conservative needs the support of readers. Please subscribe or make a contribution today.