On Gary Johnson's interview with Robert Wenzel

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Lew Rockwell posted a video of a radio interview (!) with Gary Johnson by Bob Wenzel, curiously titled How Libertarian is Gary Johnson?. Wenzel's didactic approach to interviewing (i.e., his constant need to interrupt and correct Johnson) is irritating, but I was even more upset by Laurence Vance's criticisms to Johnson's answers in the interview:

In the Gary Johnson interview with Robert Wenzel, when asked about what a libertarian was, Johnson said that, speaking with a broad brush, most Americans are fiscally responsible and socially tolerant and that, with a broad brush, that is what libertarians are about.

What planet is he on? If most Americans are fiscally responsible and socially tolerant and that is what libertarians are about then why are there not 535 Ron Pauls in Congress? Johnson makes it sound like a libertarian is just a liberal who wants to balance the budget.

I also note that he says in the interview that he wants to abolish the drug war. But when Wenzel asked about drugs harder than marijuana, Johnson did not give a straight answer. I previously blogged here that Johnson said he was not in favor of legalizing harder drugs.

In a separate post, Vance says:

In response to the question: "Who are your favorite, say, top two or three libertarian authors?" Johnson finally mentioned Ayn Rand, but then acknowledged that she was not a libertarian fan and that objectivists are not necessarily libertarians. Then he mentioned, not an author, but the Cato Handbook. When asked about his favorite Murray Rothbard book, Johnson admitted that he had never read Rothbard and that he was mistaken earlier in the interview when he said that he had. On Ludwig von Mises, Johnson said he read only excerpts. On Henry Hazlitt, he said he had not read him either.

However, in both posts Johnson's comments are out of context and provide an extraordinarily unfair recap of what Johnson actually said. I'll take them one at a time.

Defining Libertarianism. At the 10:55 mark, Wenzel asks Johnson, "If someone came up to you, someone that wasn't a libertarian and asked you, 'What was a libertarian is, what would you tell them?" (emphasis added). Johnson's answer is basically what Vance reports: "I would tell them that, speaking with a broad brush, that most Americans are fiscally responsible and socially tolerant, and that with a broad brush, that's what libertarians are about." Vance's claim that if this were true there would be more politicians like Ron Paul, is nothing but a straw man.

As for Johnson's actual statement about what American's support, he is clearly correct. Johnson explains that being "fiscally responsible" means, at minimum, balancing the federal budget. Last August, Reason reported on a CNN/ORC poll that showed 2/3 of Americans support a balanced budget, and that such support is long-term. Wenzel moves on to foreign policy and doesn't ask Johnson to clarify what he means by social tolerance, but later in the interview, Johnson discusses commuting sentences for non-violent crimes involving marijuana possession, and he mentions that 50% of Americans now support the legalization of marijuana (probably referring to the results of this Gallup poll). On another big social issue, half of Americans support gay marriage.

I also want to point out that Wenzel shows his disingenuousness as an interviewer when Johnson replies to the initial question of what it means to be a libertarian. First, he claims that Johnson said "fiscally tolerant," which audibly untrue in the recording. More substantively, as Johnson is answering the question, Wenzel objects that "hardcore libertarians" would have trouble understanding what he means by "fiscally responsible." However, the question Wenzel posed had nothing to do with hardcore libertarians, and in fact Wenzel explicitly asks what Johnson would say to "someone that wasn't a libertarian." This is a sophomoric bait-and-switch that does nothing but confuse the issue and forces Johnson to sound like he doesn't know what he's talking about.

Drug laws. Vance also objects to Johnson's comments about the drug war. As mentioned above, Johnson says he would commute the sentences of those convicted of non-violent crimes of marijuana possession. At 16:22, Wenzel asks, "Would that also apply to cocaine?" and Vance is correct that Johnson never answers the question directly. However, Johnson does say that he believes "we are on the verge of legalizing marijuana in this country, and when we do that...the country takes giant steps forward toward rational drug policy...." After a clarifying question from Wenzel (17:45), Johnson says, "that's where this all needs to evolve, is that it would not be government policy where it came to drugs, that it would be decisions, whether they're good or bad, by you and I as individuals, as long as we're not going to put someone else in harm's way."

Vance asserts that Johnson elsewhere has claimed he is not in favor of legalizing harder drugs. His support? A link to an old blog post of his own, which contains a reference to a now-defunct New American URL, giving us no context for the assertion. Not to be dismayed, I checked out the Drug Policy Reform page of Johnson's campaign website.

Abuse of hard drugs is a health problem that should be dealt with by health experts, not a problem that should be clogging up our courts, jails, and prisons with addicts. Instead of continuing to arrest and incarcerate drug users, we should seriously consider the examples of countries such as Portugal and the Netherlands, and we should ultimately choose to adopt policies which aim to reduce death, disease, violence, and crime associated with dangerous drugs.

With some reading between the lines, it seems that Johnson is in favor of "decriminalizing" harder drugs rather than making them completely legal. This may not be the libertarian purist's panacea, but it's certainly a lot saner than what we have now. It's hard to understand Vance's objection to a better drug policy than the current one, especially when there is an exactly 0% chance of complete legalization for hard drugs.

Libertarian authors. Of the three claims Vance makes against Johnson, this is the most preposterous. When asked about his favorite libertarian authors, Johnson dithers a bit because earlier in the interview Wenzel objected to Johnson's attribution of Milton Friedman as a libertarian. However, despite what "hardcore libertarians" (an indistinct phrase Wenzel keeps using as if it means something more than simply "libertarian") might thing, Friedman was indeed a self-described libertarian, and is is still considered a libertarian today. Yes, Friedman advocated for some types of government intervention, but not all libertarians are anarchists, so that's not really a big deal. Given that Wenzel is clearly wrong in "correcting" Johnson, Friedman is a legitimate answer to this question.

At this point in the interview (around 22:45) is where Johnson says, "Ayn Rand is someone I've always felt [to be] libertarian. Now, of late I've heard that Ayn Rand is not a libertarian fan, or that object[iv]ists are not necessarily libertarians." Johnson stumbles because he's clearly afraid that Wenzel is going to launch into another "teachable moment." However, despite Rand's polemical stance against libertarianism, it's clear that Rand's writings and the ideas of Objectivism have influenced the libertarian movement generally. William Thomas of The Atlas Society, a group dedicated to promoting Objectivism and named after Rand's famous novel Atlas Shrugged, writes (emphasis added):

Libertarianism is the political position that all human relationships should be voluntary, i.e. not subject to the initiation of force by another person. Inasmuch as this is also part of the Objectivist politics, Objectivism is a libertarian philosophy. Not all libertarian thinking is compatible with Objectivism, and some libertarians promote philosophical ideas that would destroy liberty if put into practice, such as skepticism, ethical subjectivism, and anarchism. But the libertarian movement in general is a positive force for political change, one to which Objectivists have valuable moral and epistemological knowledge to contribute and one from which Objectivists can learn about the politics, economics, and history of freedom.

Thus, Rand is also an acceptable answer to this question.

Vance complains that Johnson's mention of the Cato Handbook is in reply to a follow-up question by Wenzel to name a specific book [at 23:20], and it's unclear why Vance implies that Johnson should have answered otherwise. Considering Cato is the best known libertarian think tank in the U.S., it's hard to understand the objection here as well. It certainly seems to qualify as a libertarian author.

Austrian economics. After dismissing valid libertarian authors, both Wenzel and Vance criticize Johnson for not having read books by several Austrian economists. Johnson suffers a little bit here, because earlier in the interview (at 6:25) he says that he has read some of Murray Rothbard's work, but then has to rescind that comment and apologize (at 23:50). Rothbard helped found the Cato Institute that Johnson lauds repeatedly, and he was an early influential member of the Libertarian Party for which Johnson is now a presidential candidate. It is reasonable to think that Johnson has read at least some of Rothbard's work, and disappointing to learn he hasn't.

Johnson goes on to say he has read excerpts from Mises, and then he gets exasperated saying, "If you're out to catch me, you got me: hook, line, sinker." As Vance says, Johnson admits to not having read Henry Hazlitt. But here's the thing: Wenzel's original question (at 22:18) was "Who are your favorite, say top two or three libertarian authors." Strictly speaking, neither Mises nor Hazlitt were libertarians, both of them having died before the term "libertarian" was applied to any socio-political ideas. ("Libertarianism" has long been used in a different philosophical context to refer to people who believe in human free will, as opposed to "determinism" — see my post on Sam Harris' Free Will.) It's hardly fair to criticize Johnson for not replying with their names when asked a question about libertarian authors. Wenzel does another bait-and-switch by stating afterward that he just wanted to see where Johnson falls on the spectrum of having read "as far as libertarianism and Austrian business cycle theory" (25:45).

The thing that gets me, though, is that this final segment of the conversation begs the question of whether a person must adhere to Austrian economics to be a libertarian. Many libertarians do adhere to Austrian economics, but it certainly isn't necessary. As an example, Bryan Caplan, a well-known and respected libertarian professor of economics at George Mason University, has a fairly in-depth explanation about why he is not an Austrian economist.

* * *

I like Johnson, and unless Ron Paul miraculously wins the Republican party nomination, I probably will end up voting for Johnson in the presidential election. I do think that he probably needs to brush up on some of his economic insights, but I don't agree with Wenzel's statements and implications that those economic insights necessarily need to be from the Austrian school. As governor of New Mexico, Johnson has already shown that he knows what it takes to turn an economy around. Before signing off, Wenzel notes that Johnson has good economic instincts, and I agree. I just hope he has a chance to employ them nationally.

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