Sarvis: ‘I’m Actually Very Libertarian’

by Charles C. W. Cooke

I just spoke to Robert Sarvis, the Libertarian candidate for governor of Virginia. On Twitter earlier, Sarvis objected to my characterization of him as a man who is running less as a libertarian than as an economic moderate and a social liberal. (Piece here.) I am “actually very libertarian,” Sarvis protested. “But the GOP is spreading misinformation about my positions.” Not wanting to contribute to this, I asked him to call me and to tell me why I’m wrong.

I explained to Sarvis at the outset that what has worried me primarily is the gap between the libertarianism that his campaign espouses in its literature and the pronouncements that he has made on television and in interviews. The latter, it strikes me, is likely to be more indicative of how he would govern. Why, I asked, did he fail to tell Chuck Todd that he favors abolishing the income tax when he was asked a clear question about whether tax rates should be cut in the state? Why did he suggest that he would be open to the expansion of Medicaid? Why did he give a non-answer about spending? As I wrote today:

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.

In other words, I asked Sarvis whether he was shying away in public from the positions on his website as not to alienate people.

He denied this. On taxes, Sarvis told me that he favors ”moving away from income taxes” and broadening the sales tax to “cover services as well as goods,” which would “allow a reduction in the rate.” But, he added, he is worried about giving the impression that he wouldn’t cut spending to offset any cuts. “Republicans don’t have any theory behind their economic policy,” he griped. “It’s always the same promises.” This struck me as a pretty solid answer, even for the “30-second soundbite culture” that he says he abhors. So, I asked, why didn’t he say this on TV instead? “I gave the best answer in the moment,” he shrugged.

Sarvis explained to me also that, “as long as Medicaid remains wasteful, there is no way” he would consider expanding it. Again, I asked why he didn’t just say this to Chuck Todd. “I was starting a lead-in and I got cut off before I could say that further federalization moves in the wrong direction,” he explained. ”I wanted to make the case for state policy freedom. I didn’t realize I’d have less than thirty seconds to talk about one-sixth of the economy.”

Still, while he does not consider himself to be playing down his true political views, Sarvis did concede that there are necessarily delicate ways of talking about issues. “You don’t influence people if you say, ‘my way or the highway,’” he explained. “I’m trying to be intelligent and responsible, and sometimes you have to go for better rather than ideal.” During our conversation, Sarvis was defensive of his libertarian credentials. ”I am the only candidate in the race who is talking about occupational licensing, especially with regard to healthcare,” he said. “I’m the only candidate talking about cronyism and regulations,” and ”focusing on the rule of law.” He argued, too, that his “rejection” of Austrian economics, about which he knows more than “90 percent of people,” has been “blown out of proportion,” and called the reaction to his appearing to endorse an invasive vehicle-mile tax ”preposterous.”

Sarvis had harsh words for Ken Cuccinelli, too, and pushed back against my suggestion that Cuccinelli was as libertarian as he was. “He’s inconsistent on federalism issues,” Sarvis said. “He picks his battles. He’s in favor of federal renovation of state schools. He’s in favor of the federal partial-birth abortion ban, which was justified under the Commerce Clause. It’s a joke.” The candidate also told me that the idea that Cuccinelli was an “upstanding guy” was questionable. “He talks about free markets,” he said, “but he should want free political markets, too.” I asked what he meant. Sarvis explained that Cuccinelli used the rules to keep him out of the recent election debate. 

All told, I was left with the impression that Sarvis isn’t so much running away from his libertarianism as that he isn’t quite sure how to express it in a modern media and political environment — and, to be brually honest, that he’s not particularly good at doing so. . .