Politics & Policy

‘Never Gary Johnson’: He’s Not Conservative and Not Even All That Libertarian

Johnson at CPAC 2016 (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
Write in a name if you must, but don’t be misled by the label ‘Libertarian.’

What to do? The awfulness of Donald Trump and the awfulness of Hillary Clinton can make conservative Republicans feel helpless. We shouldn’t. We still have the power to do tremendous good — or harm. Whoever wins, we have lost this presidential election, but we may still end up with most of the governorships and control of most state legislatures. If we lose Congress, we’ll likely get it back in the midterm. The triumphant return of conservatism at the presidential level has been postponed, but not permanently. Trump supporters might say we have nothing to lose, but we do — this is still the greatest country on earth. One way to help lose American conservatism would be to support Gary Johnson, the Libertarian party’s presumptive nominee for president.

There are many responses to that assertion. The most common is “What’s the worst he would do, leave us alone?” The assumption is that someone whose label is “Libertarian” has libertarian values and would promote them in office. In the case of Johnson, that notion is absurd. 

When Johnson took the tiller in New Mexico in 1995, the budget stood at $4.397 billion. When he left in 2003, it had grown to $7.721 billion, an increase of 7.29 percent a year. Of the eleven governors who filed to run for president this year (two Democrats, Johnson, and  eight Republicans), only one had a worse record on spending growth. In New Mexico, Bill Richardson, Johnson’s Democratic successor, clocked in a little better than he did, but Richardson’s successor, Susana Martinez, has shown what a fiscal conservative looks like: New Mexico currently spends less than it did when she took office. It’s not just at a state level that being more fiscally conservative than Johnson is a bipartisan achievement. Federal spending during the time Johnson was in office grew at an average annual rate of 4.49 percent. Late Clinton and early Bush weren’t as successful in their efforts to fight spending cuts as they might have been, but Johnson makes them look like Coolidge, and federal spending since then has grown at an average annual rate of 4.56 percent.

The assumption is that someone whose label is ‘Libertarian’ has libertarian values and would promote them in office. In the case of Johnson, that notion is absurd.

Johnson also claims to have balanced the budget every year, but what he means by this is that he complied with the New Mexico constitution, which as a practical matter prohibits operational spending deficits. New Mexico’s debt is required to be off the books, or at least off those books, in a separate “capital outlay” budget. This means that of course his operating budgets were balanced; New Mexico makes the alternative impossible. The capital outlays are considered “balanced” if it is believed that they can likely be paid for in the future, and rosy assumptions are permitted. It’s as if you or I claimed to be debt-free because our current account, which does not allow for overdrafts, had no overdrafts, despite our taking out ever more maxed-out credit cards and making minimum payments on each. In the sense that Johnson says he balanced the budgets, every president and Congress in history has passed balanced federal budgets 100 percent of the time. In fact, Johnson inherited a debt of $1.8 billion and left a debt of $4.6 billion, a rate of increase unmatched by the 22 governors in either party who have filed for presidential primaries in the past two decades, with the exception of Governor Tom Vilsack (D., Iowa) in 2007. During every year that Johnson, as he says, balanced the budget, he added to the debt. 

As with so many big-government types, government growth under his administration was greater not only quantitatively but qualitatively. That is, he expanded government into new and illegitimate areas. Most notably, he created a new form of the refundable tax credit, a film subsidy that has since spread like a cancer across America. Plenty of other governors imitated Johnson’s pattern of buying publicity, including photo opportunities with celebrities, by paying, cash down, for filmmakers to move out of some other state; traditional subsidies just weren’t generous enough to enable states to compete. 

Like Trump this cycle, Johnson in 2012 proposed cartoonish plans to cut spending. Trump promises to achieve savings of more than 100 percent on various costs; Johnson promised a less radical-sounding, but still implausible, 43 percent budget cut in the first year. Like Trump, he demonstrates no interest in even the vaguest outlines of fiscal policy. Johnson would turn much of the government over to the states and make them make the cuts. Fine. But he showed no interest, either, in detailing the cuts he promised to defense or to the federal court system. His Social Security cuts were on the order of a few percent at most in the first year. No one who seriously wants to cut spending thinks that a 43 percent cut — which would entail costs associated with, for example, closing bases — followed by stasis in subsequent years makes more sense than, say, a 35 percent cut in year one followed by a 15 percent cut in year two. 

In 2016, Johnson has forgotten all that. His promises on spending extend all the way to the promise to balance the budget. Again, he gives little detail. The section “Government Spending” on his campaign website includes the false and hypocritical claim that debt repeatedly doubled under Obama and Bush. (It only nearly did so; the multipliers are 1.86 for Bush, 1.81 for Obama so far, and 2.53 for Johnson as governor.) Here, the closest thing to a spending policy is Johnson’s stated commitment to look at the budget closely, veto any budget with a deficit, and pass a balanced budget. The focus of Johnson’s fiscal policy can be found under “Taxes,” a different section of his website. There he makes his case for a a consumption tax. The closest parallel can probably be found in Mike Huckabee’s 2008 campaign, which was heavy on the FairTax and also also light on spending cuts.

On public financing of political campaigns, the one issue on which Johnson has gone into significant detail, he said in 2012 that he would increase spending. The biggest Libertarian-party message of 2012 was “Vote Libertarian one time.” If the party got 5 percent of the vote in 2012, it would have qualified for public funding for its private political speech in 2016 and would have been the only political party to receive this uniquely anti-libertarian subsidy. (The two major parties raise too much money to qualify for funding for the presidential campaign.) This cycle, Johnson has not addressed the public-funding issue, but he does address the problem of the major parties’ having access to inordinate private funds, aligning himself with Sanders on the larger issue of campaign finance.

Those of you with keen memories will note, incidentally, the discrepancy between his pro-choice rhetoric in this video and his moderate pro-life rhetoric when in a Republican debate four years ago. His campaign site takes the middle road: It notes the late-term-abortion ban (although not the counseling requirement) that he supported as governor and that he told Republicans about, but those positions are described in the past tense, without any indication of his current position. Whatever you believe the principled libertarian position on abortion is, it probably doesn’t involve telling conservatives that you would increase restrictions and then suggesting to progressives that the practice should be unrestricted. 

On civil liberties as with fiscal issues, Johnson’s record is less libertarian than that of his successors as governor of New Mexico, and even of most other governors and presidents. Bill Richardson, his immediate successor, introduced concealed carry. Susana Martinez succeeded Richardson and got rid of civil-asset forfeiture. Johnson’s successors enacted sound libertarian reforms, including measures against eminent-domain abuse and Johnson’s government involvement in markets. This cycle, Johnson has declared against freedom of association for bakers and florists. Other than supporting drug legalization, in which he has a substantial personal financial interest, there appears to be very little in his record or agenda that National Review readers would find appealing. 

Some argue that one has a moral duty to vote for a candidate on the ballot rather than write in a name. Johnson will be on the ballot in all fifty states, but his participation in the general election will be no more sincere than his effort four years ago to secure the Republican nomination. Rather, he has repeatedly used the electoral process to enhance his personal standing and now seeks to use it to build a patronage machine. He claims that the machine pursues libertarian ends, but it does not restrict itself to them and has never achieved them.

Not only does Johnson’s faction seek the anti-libertarian objective of public campaign funding, but it tilts elections to Democrats. The potential negative impact of the Libertarian party can be clearly seen in the election for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota in 2008. Al Franken beat Norm Coleman by 215 votes, with the Libertarian party netting 13,916 votes for a candidate focused on economic issues, particularly drilling. A little more than a year later, Obamacare passed with 60 votes, Franken providing the 60th. With public funds and a professional ground game diverting votes, who knows what Congress might pass?

As Libertarian-party activists like to say, don’t vote for the lesser evil. If you want a libertarian, please consider writing in Janice Rogers Brown or Penn Jillette. If you want someone who isn’t a barbarian, please consider Mitch Daniels. By all means, give up on this year’s presidential race if you must, but please don’t throw away 2020.


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