Gary Johnson and the libertarian swindle

September 12, 2016

Look beneath the Libertarian Party's public relations gloss, and you'll find a fanatical devotion to the most conventional beliefs about capitalism, writes Tyler Zimmer.

IF OPINION polls are to be trusted, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are the most disliked and distrusted pair of candidates ever to run for the White House.

It's no mystery why this is. On the one hand, we have Clinton, the consummate Washington insider and poster child of the status quo. Her ties to big business run as deep as her commitment to a bellicose foreign policy agenda that differs little from that of George W. Bush. On the other hand, we have Trump, an erratic, bloviating bigot whose claims to fame amount to having inherited millions of dollars from his father and becoming a regular fixture on reality TV.

So do you line up alongside Wall Street financiers and Republican foreign policy wonks and vote for Clinton? Or do you get behind the billionaire bullshit artist whose campaign is built on scapegoating immigrants? For a large part of the electorate, this apparent free choice is really no choice at all.

For this reason, we can expect--as is customary in the "world's greatest democracy"--that tens of millions of people will sit out this election. But there will also be a substantial number of people interested in registering a protest vote for an alternative to the two main parties of big business.

Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson
Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson (Gage Skidmore)

Is Gary Johnson, the candidate of the Libertarian Party, that alternative? He'd certainly like you to think so. Johnson is selling himself as a natural choice for those who were "feeling the Bern" a few months ago. The way Johnson tells it, left-wing Bernie supporters ought to agree with him almost everything--"everything but economics," he says.

Given that Johnson is polling as high as 8 percent in some national polls, which is higher than left-wing Green Party candidate Jill Stein, some voters might infer that voting for the Libertarian candidate is a viable way to register discontent with the status quo.

This, however, would be a grave mistake. A vote for Gary Johnson isn't really a protest vote at all. Just like voting for the Republican or Democratic candidate, a vote for the Libertarian Party amounts to a ringing endorsement of our highly unjust, highly unequal society.

A GLANCE at Johnson's platform confirms this.

Take his views on education. As readers of are all too aware, public education--from K-12 all the way up to the universities--is under attack. Right-wing politicians in both parties are for making punishing cuts to school budgets, and their friends in the private sector are waiting in the wings to profit from this manufactured crisis by pushing privatization. Meanwhile, college tuition continues to soar, and the student debt crisis continues to worsen.

What's Johnson's take on all this? As governor of New Mexico, he was a fierce champion of budget cuts and privatization, which is perfectly consistent with his right-wing libertarian politics. And when it comes to rising student debt and soaring tuition, the anemic education page on his campaign website is silent.

We can fill in the blanks ourselves, however. Should we invest in public higher education and eliminate tuition as Bernie Sanders proposed? Absolutely not--this would be tantamount to increasing the "wasteful spending" that Johnson's campaign loudly and resolutely opposes. What's more, making college more affordable would require taxing the billionaire class, which is never justifiable as far as libertarians are concerned.

So where does that leave students and recent graduates? Think of it like this: For libertarians, education is a luxury good--not something citizens deserve as a matter of right--and if you can't afford to pay the market price for it out of pocket, you're on your own. The same goes for health care--which, incidentally, Johnson's website doesn't even bother to mention.

Most of the other platform planks are similarly hard to stomach. For instance, he recently said in an interview with the New Yorker that he thinks the retirement age for Social Security eligibility is too low and should be raised as high as 72--even though average life expectancy in the U.S. is only 78!

Or consider the question of taxes. The left-wing rallying cry of the Sanders campaign was that the majority is being ripped off by an economy rigged in favor of the wealthy few--and, accordingly, Sanders' call to increase taxes on the 1 Percent to fund popular programs drew lots of praise.

What's Johnson's position on the matter? In his view, the 1 Percent is already taxed too heavily. (Yes, you read that correctly.) As Johnson puts it, if he could "wave his magic wand," he would "abolish the income tax, corporate taxes and the IRS."

Why is Johnson against taxing the rich? The libertarian journal Reason summed it up succinctly with the headline of a 2013 article: "Taxation is theft." Johnson thinks that wealth redistribution amounts to stealing property the rich justly earned and deserve to keep.

This is nonsense. The richest 1 percent didn't earn what they have, and neither do they deserve to keep it. Their income flows not from doing productive work of any kind, but from owning capital--think dividends, interest, rent, royalties and capital gains. The working class produces 100 percent of the goods and services that have value--that's why they're called workers, after all--but it's the owners who walk away with the lion's share of the revenue that the company brings in.

Libertarians, however, see no injustice in this arrangement--the only "injustice" that worries them is the idea that rich owners should be compelled to part with any amount of the wealth they made on the backs of the working-class majority. Marxists, on the other hand, think workers deserve all that they earn and more--because working people, not capitalist owners, are the ones who produce all wealth.

OF COURSE, most of these ideas--that the rich earned their wealth, that capitalist markets generally give to each what they deserve--are widely held. So it's worth asking what the raison d'etre of the so-called "Libertarian" party really is--and I'll explain why I'm starting to put the name "Libertarian" in quotes in a moment.

After all, we already have two parties firmly committed to the idea that the "free market knows best," that private is always better than public, that democratic control is inherently bad, that budget cuts to health and education spending are both necessary and just. What, then, is the point of having yet another pro-capitalist party?

The way they tell it, what distinguishes "libertarians" from everyone else is that they, and they alone, give the ideal of freedom the prominence it deserves in politics.

According to their distinctive branding and public relations strategy, everyone else--whether on the right or left--sacrifices freedom for the sake of other ends, whereas "libertarians" won't make such tradeoffs. As their chosen moniker tries to convey, a "libertarian" is one who prizes liberty above all else.

Is it true that libertarians value freedom first and foremost? The answer becomes clear the moment we ask: "Whose freedom are they talking about?" When they talk about the importance of freedom, the libertarians are actually just talking about the freedom of business owners, not workers.

Whenever the freedom of the working-class majority in society comes into conflict with the power and property of the rich, "libertarians" consistently side with the latter. What their ideology values, most of all, is protecting the interests of property owners--not living in a free, democratic society.

To illustrate, let's consider an example borrowed from the Marxist philosopher G.A. Cohen. Let's define freedom, as libertarians do, as the ability to do what you want without coercion or interference from other people.

Imagine you and I and 10 other people are hiking in the woods. Suppose there's only one safe passage through two colossal mountains, and we're just about pass through when police and state troopers armed with guns stop us. This land, they inform us, is the private property of a billionaire--he purchased it a few weeks ago, and although he lives thousands of miles away, he's said he doesn't want anyone setting foot on it (even though people have been freely using this passage for hundreds of years).

So here are armed agents of the state, threatening violence, interfering with us and preventing us from continuing our hike. They're here with guns to enforce the property rights of the billionaire. As a result, our freedom is curtailed.

But who do the libertarians side with in this example? Answer: The guys from the government with guns, acting on behalf of the billionaire. That's because the fundamental concern of libertarianism is maintaining the "sanctity" of capitalist property relations, not promoting the freedom of all individuals.

When property and privilege conflict with the freedom of other people, libertarian ideology consistently requires us to take the side of owners--no matter how many other people's freedom is stake.

When workers go out on strike and picket--or sit down in their workplace to shut down production--libertarians can be counted on to side with the employer when they call the police to break the strike. When Indigenous and environmental activists protest fossil fuel corporations and interfere with their pursuit of profit, the consistent libertarian must champion the freedom of the property owners, not of the many.

When pharmaceutical corporations price-gouge--as is their right under capitalism--libertarians have little to say except "Perhaps you should go out and form your own pharmaceutical company if you don't like those prices."

Even though redistributing wealth from the top 1 Percent to the masses of working people would greatly increase the freedom of millions of people, libertarians are against it--because it would mean infringing on the freedom for a minority to own and exploit, and that's more important to them.

SO MUCH for the idea that so-called libertarians are uncompromising champions of freedom. In truth, they're tireless defenders of the idea that the people with the most wealth and power in our society deserve to keep it.

This, of course, is hardly the subversive, counter-cultural brew that libertarians seem to think they're peddling--this is exactly what bought-off establishment politicians in Washington already think.

For this reason, I find it absurd that they call themselves "libertarians." But then again, more accurate labels like "capitalistatarian" or "wealthophile" don't exactly have a lovely ring to them.

Given how out of step Johnson and his ilk are on so many issues, it's probably wise of them not to lay too many of their cards out on the table when engaging younger voters. Better to talk about the absurdity of criminalizing marijuana and maintaining hundreds of military bases all over the globe.

But it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that criminalizing marijuana use is both morally egregious and a terrible public policy. And neither is it necessary to adopt a quasi-religious devotion to capitalism--and that's what libertarianism is at bottom--to see that U.S. foreign policy is deeply flawed.

What libertarians fail to grasp is that U.S. imperialism abroad isn't the unfortunate consequence of bad decisions in Washington, but the inevitable result of the system they so cherish. The capitalist world economy and its so-called "free market" forces nations to compete economically, and this, in turn, produces political and military conflicts.

All of this is simply a way of making clear what was probably already obvious to frequent readers of A vote for Gary Johnson isn't a vote to protest the system. It's a vote for one of the system's most fanatical defenders.

The solution to our woes isn't to pray for a "purer" version of capitalism, but to fight for socialism--that is, for a genuine alternative to a world based on profit for the few and un-freedom for the many.

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