In polite society at least, questioning the fundamental claims that people make about themselves is rather frowned upon. If a person says that he is a Catholic, then one is expected to believe that he is a Catholic, even if there is no evidence for this whatsoever. If a person says he is a conservative when he clearly agrees with not a single conservative position, we are likewise expected to smile and nod grimly. “No, you’re not!” is not a socially acceptable response to erroneous self-description, alas.
There is some virtue in this convention, I suppose, even if it is just that it helps to keep the peace. But there is an awful lot more virtue in the integrity of our political language and terminology. This is to say that if we lose the capacity to demand that words and actions remain linked, then we will lose our ability to discuss current affairs with any meaning. And that, I’m afraid, will be disastrous.
It is with this in mind that I have taken a certain exception to Robert Sarvis, the supposed “Libertarian” candidate for governor of Virginia. “Libertarian” is, admittedly, a fairly broad term, and one that is claimed by a considerable number of people across the ideological spectrum — sometimes reasonably and sometimes farcically. Nevertheless, whatever the various internecine disagreements that surface inexorably among its adherents, it does have a core meaning, and one that I would argue is generally understood. A majority of people know approximately what the definition of “libertarian” is, I would venture, and know also which position in any given race they might expect the “libertarian” candidate to stake out.
I can only imagine, therefore, that the better-informed voters in Virginia have been somewhat perplexed by Robert Sarvis, for in recent weeks he appears to have been doing his level best to give the impression that his party label is incidental. In a recent Reason interview, Sarvis explained that he was “not into the whole Austrian type, strongly libertarian economics,” preferring “more mainstream economics” instead. The candidate expanded on this during an oddly defensive interview with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, in which he seemed put off not so much by “strongly libertarian economics” as by libertarian economics per se. As governor, Sarvis told Todd, he would be hesitant to cut taxes, unsure as to how he might “reduce spending,” and open to indulging the largest piece of federal social policy since 1965 by expanding Virginia’s Medicaid program. I am generally a critic of the tendency of small-government types to try to purge their ranks of those deemed sufficiently impure, but I must confess that this interview left even me wondering whether Sarvis is in need of a dictionary.
Worse yet was Sarvis’s rambling interview with the Virginia Prosperity Project, in which the candidate expressed his enthusiasm for increasing gas levies, and for establishing a “vehicle-miles-driven tax.” It strikes me that it is almost impossible to square such a measure with any remotely coherent “libertarian” position on that most sacred of rights: privacy. Virginia’s mooted VMT plan requires the installation of government GPS systems in private cars — an astonishingly invasive proposal. Even if this isn’t what Sarvis has in mind, the fact remains that there is simply no way of determining how far an individual has driven without the government’s checking. On Twitter, an amusing fellow with a username not fit for print in this column responded to this idea by contending: “I’m no extremist, but if you put a black box in my vehicle and tax me per mile I will burn down everything you’ve ever loved.” What sort of “libertarian” doesn’t feel this way?
Looking through his platform, one is left with the impression that what Sarvis really means to say is that he is a social liberal. He is in favor of gay marriage, is (radically) pro-choice, and supports the legalization of marijuana. In this regard, he stands in stark contrast to the Republican candidate, Ken Cuccinelli, who is campaigning for a state marriage amendment, is staunchly pro-life, and, although critical of the War on Drugs and of the current sentencing rules, seems to be broadly against the legalization of pot.
The question, then, for anyone interested in taxonomy, is, Do Sarvis’s social positions make him a “libertarian” in any meaningful way? In my view they do not. Whatever America’s media class would have you believe, social liberalism does not equal libertarianism — and it never has. Social liberalism equals social liberalism. Indeed, even if you accept that “pro-choice” and “libertarian” are consistent bedfellows, which I absolutely do not, the social positions held by Sarvis are really just standard progressive fare, held also by millions of Americans who wouldn’t dream of cutting taxes, expanding gun rights, or rejecting a Medicaid expansion. (Note that Sarvis wants the state to recognize gay marriages and not to get out of marriage completely. His is the progressive preference.)
If we are to accept that support for legal pot and gay marriage do not inherently make one a libertarian, then we should insist that they do not inherently make Sarvis one either. Suffice it to say: That a politician is not a Democrat but is nonetheless critical of the social policies of a Republican hardly makes him Murray Rothbard.
The challenge here seems to be how we are to weight the importance of a candidate’s political positions. It is generally agreed upon that Ken Cuccinelli is a “conservative.” Is this fair? The Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney has convincingly suggested that it is not. “If he wins on Nov. 5,” Carney writes, “Virginia’s Ken Cuccinelli would arguably be the most libertarian governor in the United States.” I think that Carney has a point. Cuccinelli has an A rating from the National Rifle Association; he has promised to cut the state’s income-tax rate by a stunning “15 percent for individuals and 33 percent for corporations”; he was against expanding the death penalty when the state GOP wished to make it part of their platform; he fought hard against the smoking ban; he has been a strong and active foe of Obamacare from the start; and he staunchly opposes the Medicaid expansion that further expands the power of the federal government. For these positions, he has been endorsed by both Ron and Rand Paul. (For neither of whom, it should be noted, is a pro-life position regarded as sufficient to negate their claim to the title “libertarian.”)
A Quinnipiac poll from yesterday shows that Sarvis is actually “taking” slightly more of the vote from Democrat Terry McAuliffe (47 percent) than from Cuccinelli (45 percent). This shouldn’t be surprising. Effectively, Sarvis is running as a slightly more economically responsible moderate than is Terry McAuliffe, not as a consistently pro-liberty voice. Adding “libertarian” to one’s self-description is clearly a useful thing to do. It allows one to run within an established party structure against the status quo, to distinguish oneself from the social conservatism that we are told by experts is the Right’s primary problem, and also to appropriate a word that is increasingly popular with younger voters. Nevertheless, words have meanings — and simply calling yourself something you clearly are not isn’t enough to make it true.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer for National Review.