Magazine | July 15, 2013, Issue

The Education of Justin Amash

How a libertarian gadfly took wing

As Justin Amash zips along a parade route in Cutlerville, Mich., on June 8, there’s a method to his movement. Rather than marching down the middle of 68th Street behind a big red-and-white sign that announces him as the area’s congressman, he jogs from side to side, making quick calculations about who would like to shake his hand and who would like him simply to get out of the way of the fire trucks, antique cars, and karate-class students that follow. Toward the end of the procession, a man in a portable chair calls him over and points to the sign: “Change that sign to ‘senator’!” Amash barely pauses. “We’ll see,” he says.

Over the next few months, the 33-year-old Republican from Grand Rapids must make an important decision: Should he run for the Senate seat of the retiring Democrat Carl Levin, trying to become next year’s favorite tea-party insurgent? Or should he continue to build a career in the House, where he has already become an outspoken member of the GOP’s libertarian wing? “We like him,” says Chris Chocola of the Club for Growth, which funds fiscal conservatives. “If elected, he’d be a good senator.”

Reason magazine touts Amash as “the next Ron Paul.” A few years ago, however, Amash wasn’t even familiar with the likes of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises — libertarian economists whose images now decorate his congressional office, alongside the more traditional pictures of the Founding Fathers. He had grown up in western Michigan, the son of Christian immigrants from Palestine and Syria. His father founded a successful tool-distribution business best known for its Tekton line of hammers, wrenches, and screwdrivers. But rather than reading Ayn Rand novels as a boy, Amash watched Star Trek. “I’ve seen every episode,” he says. “The new movie is good, and it even has a strong libertarian emphasis.” He slips into fanboy lingo, referring to the “Prime Directive,” which forbids the crew of the starship Enterprise to meddle in the affairs of alien civilizations. “It’s closely related to the principle of non-intervention.”

After law school at the University of Michigan, Amash began to receive daily e-mails from the Mackinac Center, a free-market think tank in Midland, Mich. “They were always pointing out how Democrats and Republicans in Lansing voted the same way on economics,” he says. “It seemed like everyone was for industrial policy — targeted tax breaks and subsidies rather than lowering tax rates and letting markets work.” Their behavior violated Amash’s sense of fair play, but his beliefs were more instinctive than intellectual. “I wanted to learn if any economic philosophers shared my views,” he says. “So I entered a few search terms into Google and found myself on Hayek’s Wikipedia page.” From there, Amash went on to read The Road to Serfdom and other titles in the classical-liberal canon.

Then he went from reading to running: In 2008, at the age of 28, Amash won a seat in Michigan’s legislature, where he witnessed what he previously had only heard about. “Looking at the newspaper stories, you would think the parties disagreed all the time,” he says. “But that’s not true. Even the Republicans were central planners, believing that any tax break is a good tax break.” Amash found himself voting against measures that received near-unanimous support. Scores of times, he was the lone dissenter on legislation. Reporters treated him as a category-busting curiosity. Amash, however, was an earnest official who explained each of his votes on Facebook. “I wasn’t aware of anybody else in government who did that,” he says. He continues this practice in Congress, writing a short paragraph on each bill or amendment, which he has done more than 1,800 times in the last two and a half years. “I try to post in real time,” he says, though in June he had fallen slightly behind schedule. “We vote way too often,” he complains.

When nine-term Republican congressman Vern Ehlers announced his retirement, Amash considered jumping into the GOP primary to succeed him in 2010. At the time, Ron Paul’s brother, David Paul, was serving as a pastor at a church in Grand Rapids. He helped the two men connect, and then-congressman Paul encouraged Amash to run. In a good year for grassroots activism, Amash beat a field of older, more established Republicans, winning the district once held by Gerald Ford.

In the House, Amash has earned a Paul-like reputation as a renegade who puts libertarian principle before Republican partisanship. This March, an analysis by National Journal found that Amash dissented from the GOP line more than any other Republican, voting against his party’s majority 31 percent of the time. He even became the only Republican to oppose a resolution affirming “In God We Trust” as the nation’s motto. “The faith that inspired many of the Founders of this country — the faith that I practice — is stronger than that,” wrote Amash, who belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch, on Facebook. “Trying to score political points with unnecessary resolutions should not be Congress’s priority.”

#page#Last December, after Amash repeatedly opposed Republican budgets, GOP congressional leaders booted him from the House Budget Committee. At a town-hall meeting in Middleville, Mich., on June 8, Amash turned his ouster into a laugh line: “I was kicked off the budget committee for wanting to balance the budget.” Even the blueprint drafted by Paul Ryan and adopted by the House last year didn’t go far enough for him. “We have a $17 trillion debt and we have to deal with it now,” he says. Unlike many conservatives, Amash favors cuts in defense appropriations: “We need to show the Democrats that we’re sincere about spending reductions.”

Amash is fully capable of criticizing President Obama: “This is one of the worst administrations in history — certainly the worst of my life, and I was alive for Jimmy Carter for a few months.” Yet he draws more attention for his Republican apostasy. In January, Amash refused to support John Boehner’s reelection as speaker of the House, casting his ballot for Republican congressman Raúl Labrador of Idaho. Sometimes it seems like he just can’t help knocking his colleagues: “I know a lot of good people in Congress — a dozen, maybe two dozen,” he says, without irony. He has even ruffled feathers in the Senate. In March, Republican senator John McCain of Arizona labeled Amash one of three GOP “wacko birds” for protesting Obama’s drone policy. The other two were Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, the son of Ron Paul.

Amash is quick to point out a few differences between himself and the elder Paul. Amash opposes earmarks, supports free-trade agreements, and says he’s more willing to use military force to prevent terrorism. “Ron Paul was an important educational figure, not a typical politician,” says Amash. “Today we’re seeing a new generation of libertarian-minded Republicans who are better able to communicate a message to the broader public.” Amash hopes that Rand Paul assumes the lead among them: “He should run for president. He’s exactly what we need.”

The controversy over the National Security Agency’s phone surveillance has put Amash’s libertarianism on full display. “They’re spying on all Americans, including members of Congress,” he says. “The Fourth Amendment is supposed to protect us from a generalized search of the population.” On June 18, he introduced a bill with Democratic congressman John Conyers — a fellow Michigander and one of the most left-wing members of the House — to limit the NSA’s program and also to force disclosures about secret court decisions. “I’m very concerned about the surveillance state, and I just don’t trust the government,” says Amash. “This isn’t a Democrat or Republican problem. It’s a problem of the executive branch, which keeps taking more power from the legislature and the people. Unfortunately, too many Republicans like executive power too much.”

Amash is pro-life, but he refuses to join most social conservatives in resisting gay marriage: “I don’t think the federal government should be involved in marriage at all.” He would vote to repeal the portion of the Defense of Marriage Act that defines marriage as a union of one man and one woman and let the states decide how to handle the issue. On federal matters such as Social Security survivor benefits and immigration visas for spouses of citizens, Amash again would defer to states. “Are people legally married in the jurisdictions where they live?” he asks. “That’s the only question.” He holds similar views on drugs: “The federal government should get out of the drug-criminalization business and let state laws rule the day.” 

Like many libertarians, Amash prefers a minimalist foreign policy. At the town hall in Middleville, a constituent asked him about Israel. “I support phasing out foreign aid for all countries,” he replied. On the civil war in Syria — the homeland of his mother and a country he visited as a boy — he urges caution. “Assad is a dictator, but if you take the side of the rebels, you ally with people allied to al-Qaeda.” He adds that he’s concerned about the fate of Syria’s Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population. 

On June 14, Republican congressman Mike Rogers of Michigan announced that he would not run for the Senate next year, disappointing Washington’s GOP establishment. Rogers is a prominent defender of NSA surveillance, and a race pitting him against Amash might have become a gripping contest between the attractions of freedom and those of security. The only Republican who has declared for the primary so far is Terri Lynn Land, Michigan’s former secretary of state. On the Democratic side, Congressman Gary Peters appears to enjoy a clear path to the general election. For more than three decades, Michigan has elected only Democratic senators, with the single exception of Spencer Abraham, a one-termer who lost in 2000. 

So will Amash run? “I don’t know yet,” he insists. His candidacy in 2014 could provide a peek into the politics of 2016, testing the ability of a libertarian to win over mainstream conservatives — a question that must weigh heavily on Rand Paul. For Amash, the prudent choice may be to make more like Ron than Rand, using his safe seat in the House to propagate his ideas. Then again, the most comfortable course rarely has been Amash’s way. Keep an eye on Facebook.

John J. Miller — John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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