Against the Libertarian Party

A vote for Gary Johnson is a vote for placing property rights over democratic rights.

Libertarian presidential hopeful Gary Johnson at a campaign rally in Phoenix, AZ in October. Gage Skidmore / Flickr

For a time, the voting public’s extraordinary, historic dislike of this year’s two major party presidential hopefuls propelled Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson to previously unseen heights. As late as mid-September, Johnson was polling at 9.2 percent — stratospheric for a party that’s never cracked 2 percent in a presidential election.

The Libertarian ticket has come back to earth in the weeks since, the result of voters drifting back to the major parties with the election nearing and a string of embarrassing blunders on the part of Johnson (forgetting what Aleppo is, finding himself unable to name a single foreign leader, inexplicably hanging his tongue out while answering an interview question). Johnson’s support is now less than half of what it was at its peak.

Yet for some attracted to Bernie Sanders’s insurgent campaign, Johnson retains some appeal. In addition to his anti-establishment sheen, Johnson espouses some policy positions in line with the Left’s goals.

The Libertarian Party’s opposition to war and foreign intervention, hostility to the ever-expanding US surveillance state, and advocacy for decriminalizing things like drug use and prostitution stand in stark contrast to the Democrats’ tepid-at-best support for such positions. It’s not hard to see why Johnson’s run has piqued the interest of some disaffected Sanders voters looking for an alternative to Clinton and Trump’s militaristic policies.

But a vote for the Libertarian Party is a vote for much more than ending the war on drugs.

It’s a vote for a far-right, free market agenda that places property rights over democratic rights. Today and throughout its history, the party (and its at times quite noxious standard-bearers) has pushed an array of regressive, pro-corporate policies on poverty reduction, environmental protection, labor rights, regulation, and a whole host of other issues.

In fact, on many of these issues, the Libertarian Party is far more extreme than even Clinton and Trump.

Repealing the Twentieth Century

The Libertarian Party formed in the living room of David Nolan on August 15, 1971. Though the US’s illegal, interminable war in Vietnam was the main driver of libertarian disgruntlement with the two major parties, what finally pushed Nolan and four of his colleagues over the edge was Nixon’s imposition of wage and price controls, coupled with his decision (announced in the same speech) to take the US off the gold standard.

By the following summer, the newly formed Libertarian Party had a national convention, a candidate, and a platform. In keeping with the traditional libertarian suspicion of state power, the platform contained numerous planks upholding the freedoms of speech and press, due process, and privacy rights, and advocated for withdrawing from foreign military commitments and alliances with repressive states.

On the flipside, however, the platform effectively called for the repeal of the entire twentieth century:

  • An end to the National Labor Relations Act (which protects workers’ right to organize), state-funded education, aid to the poor, and “the provision of tax-supported services for children.”
  • The elimination of the Department of Agriculture, “all antitrust laws,” and all wage, price, and rent controls.
  • The abolition of the minimum wage, “so-called ‘protective’ labor legislation for women and children” (which would presumably include child labor laws), and “so-called ‘consumer protection’ legislation,” as well as the eventual replacement of all taxation with voluntary fees.
  • Doing away with pollution regulation that restricted “the efforts of individuals to advance technology, to expand production, or to use their property peacefully,” on the theory that public property was the main driver of environmental degradation.

The party’s official slogan concisely summarized its view on public services: “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

If anything, though, the 1972 platform was more moderate than future iterations. Take the 1980 platform. To its already sizable list of targets for cuts, the party added: campaign finance laws and the “despotic Federal Election Commission”; Medicare, Medicaid, and any other tax-supported plan for providing health services; regulation of the health insurance industry; the “fraudulent, virtually bankrupt, and increasingly oppressive Social Security system”; agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration; and even public roads and waterways.

Apart from minor tweaks, the substance of this platform persisted virtually unchanged.

In his 1988 presidential run on the Libertarian ticket, former and future Texas GOP congressman Ron Paul described the party’s economic philosophy in a number of interviews. In one, he explained that “we detest bigness and we detest corporate power when it’s gained through privilege from government,” making the largely faith-based argument that monopolies are impossible in a truly free market because competition will always emerge.

In another, Paul objected to the notion that limiting government involvement in health care would harm the poor, pointing to the state of VA hospitals and public health care on Indian Reservations. “There are more people without health care now since the government’s been in the business,” Paul claimed. The solution, he said, was “the marketplace,” where people would work for goods and services.

Since the US is the only country in the advanced capitalist world that doesn’t guarantee its citizens some form of health insurance, working in the marketplace to afford health care is precisely what people did in the decades after Paul uttered those words. The result? The number of Americans lacking health insurance hit all-time highs year after year, even as people labored for longer and longer hours. By 2011, some of Paul’s supporters were literally cheering the idea of simply letting the uninsured die.

When asked in the 1988 interview about real-life examples where “libertarian rule has worked,” Paul cited the United States prior to roughly 1918 as “the most libertarian society.” This, mind you, was the same era when inequality ran rampant, children toiled for twelve hours a day and lost arms in mines and factories, and enormous monopolies virtually owned the government. It also wasn’t a particularly peaceful time: the US launched a war against Spain in 1898 on false pretenses, then prosecuted a brutal four-year war against Filipino guerillas fighting for independence from their new American colonizers. A time of unfettered freedom indeed.

This year, the party’s platform is little different from those of previous years. It still calls for the evisceration of the welfare state and the repeal of the few existing restrictions on corporate malfeasance. One laudable shift is on climate change: while climate change denial has often emanated from libertarian quarters, Johnson at least acknowledges that the planet is warming. Unfortunately, he also thinks there’s no point doing anything about it since the sun will obliterate the earth in billions of years.

Taken as a whole, the proposals pushed by the Libertarian Party would have disastrous consequences for ordinary Americans.

More than 55 million people rely on Medicare for basic health care services, and an additional 33 million low-income children are covered by Medicaid. Two out of five elderly Americans who receive Social Security checks count on them for 90 percent or more of their income. Yanking programs like these away — not to mention repealing laws that keep drinking water clean and local environments relatively pollution free — would drastically reduce the living standards of millions.

The libertarian solution is to hope voluntary private action will step in, at least to help the indigent. Yet charities are woefully underfunded — and were so even before the welfare state was established. There’s a reason why the response to the Great Depression wasn’t to provide incentives for charitable giving, but to construct a rudimentary social safety net.

Already the American welfare state is far less generous than those of other wealthy, developed countries. Already workers and the poor are heavily exposed to the harsh ups and downs of the market. The Libertarian Party looks at this state of affairs and recommends a high-dosage shot of economic insecurity.

To be sure, the party has taken laudable positions on civil liberties, foreign intervention, and social issues over the years. There were few voices in 1984, for example, calling for a no-first-strike policy on nuclear weapons, or for the end of the war on drugs (as every one of the party’s candidates has done in the years since).

But a handful of positive stances don’t negate the brutal consequences of the Libertarian Party’s economic philosophy.

Privatization, Racism, and Capitalism

Through the years, the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidates have been relatively unremarkable, even bland, former politicians, businessmen, and academics. (One trailblazing exception: the party’s inaugural ticket ended up featuring the first openly gay man and the first woman to ever receive an electoral vote, when a “faithless elector” went against his party and voted for the Libertarians.)

Some deserve closer scrutiny, however. Take Gary Johnson, for instance. As Nick Tabor has detailed, Johnson’s general goofiness and frequent association with the legalization (and use) of marijuana mask a far-right record during his time as governor of New Mexico. Johnson cracked down on welfare, cut taxes for the rich, championed prison privatization, and slashed government programs, including those that subsidized drugs for AIDS patients. Johnson’s policies sent New Mexico rocketing to the top of the country in poverty and for-profit prisons.

Ron Paul, possibly the most well-known Libertarian candidate until Johnson’s arrival on the scene, had an unsavory past of a different kind. Although it didn’t become an issue until many years later, incredibly racist and homophobic newsletters were produced under Paul’s name around the same time he was launching his 1988 presidential bid. The monthly newsletters warned of “mostly black welfare recipients . . . stealing from mostly white ‘haves’,” referred to blacks as “animals,” and termed Martin Luther King Day “annual Hate Whitey Day.”

While it turned out that Paul’s friend, adviser, and former congressional chief of staff Lew Rockwell, had most likely authored the noxious articles, Paul was implicated as well. His statements claiming ignorance of the newsletters’ content strained credulity considering their lengthy print run and their lucrativeness (bringing in $1 million annually).

Paul was either extremely incompetent and had unknowingly consorted with a bigot for years, or was guilty of silent complicity, looking the other way as his friend fanned the flames of racism using his name (and raking in a fortune in the process). Given that Paul explicitly promoted the newsletters in the 1990s — and that he was well aware of Rockwell and libertarian intellectual Murray Rothbard’s strategy of courting paleoconservatives by stoking racial resentment — the latter seems more likely.

It also didn’t help that Paul unapologetically opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, arguing that the law violated the property rights of business owners (aka a shopkeeper’s right to discriminate).

Still, for all his ignominious positions and associations, Paul isn’t even the party’s most infamous candidate.

That honor likely goes to David Koch, one half of the duo of billionaire oil executive brothers who today are best known for bankrolling various right-wing causes and candidates. Before the Kochs rolled out their plan to turn the country sharply to the right, David was the Libertarians’ vice-presidential pick in 1980.

The right-wing oil magnate — who said that a strict new post-Watergate campaign finance law made his “blood boil” — was picked for one reason alone: to exploit a loophole that allowed candidates to fund their own campaigns limitlessly. He did so, to the tune of $2.1 million (more than half the campaign’s budget).

So transparent was this ploy that among the questions presidential candidate Ed Clark prepared to answer on the campaign trail were queries like, “Didn’t your vice presidential nominee, David Koch, buy his nomination with the promise of a $500,000 contribution?” and

Most of your campaign is financed by the oil-billionaire Koch family. Your ad in the “Oil and Gas Journal” indicates your support for complete deregulation of the energy industry. You are an attorney for [oil company] Atlantic Richfield. Wouldn’t a Clark administration simply be “rule by Big Oil?”

As the New York Times pointed out, at the same time Koch was railing against overregulation and financing a campaign dead set on eliminating corporate taxes and rolling back regulations, Koch Industries was being audited by the Department of Energy (one of the government agencies the party planned to eliminate) for overcharging energy customers, and had been subpoenaed in an investigation over fraudulently obtained oil and gas leases.

After the election, Koch and the party parted ways. The party was worried about looking like corporate shills, while Koch was underwhelmed by the results of his investment. The party received nearly one millions votes, or a little over 1 percent — something of an electoral success by the party’s standards (and a tally it wouldn’t surpass until 2012) but a disappointment in Koch’s eyes.

A History of Corporate Funding

David Koch’s involvement with the Libertarian Party was no anomaly — the libertarian movement has long been knee-deep in corporate money.

The modern libertarian movement has its roots in the 1930s, when a host of business leaders, terrified by Roosevelt’s New Deal, set up a series of overlapping organizations to oppose what they saw as a government incursion.

One such group was the American Liberty League, founded in 1934 by executives from General Motors, US Steel, and other corporations, as well as three members of the du Pont family (who owned the DuPont Chemical Company).

Another was the Volker Fund, a charitable trust set up in 1932 by Kansas City businessman William Volker (who put his nephew Harold Luhnow in charge). The fund sponsored various right-wing initiatives, such as the Mont Pelerin Society, an annual summit of pro-market scholars, journalists, and businessmen. It also helped subsidize the careers of various free-market intellectuals, such as Ludwig von Mises (“the fountainhead of modern libertarianism”) and, even more importantly, Friedrich von Hayek (whose 1947 book Road to Serfdom is widely viewed as kickstarting the free-market right’s intellectual resurgence).

Two of the nascent movement’s most important backers were also drawn from the ranks of corporate America: J. Howard Pew, president of Sun Oil, and Jasper Crane, the former executive vice president of DuPont Chemical.

Both had helped lead the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), a vehemently anti-union business organization. Pew went on to bankroll the Liberty League, as well as conferences, advocacy groups, and the conservative Christian organization Spiritual Mobilization, which put out the Christian libertarian magazine Faith and Freedom in the 1950s. Crane helped organize, and used his business connections to fund, the Mont Pelerin Society and a whole host of other initiatives. He, along with the du Pont family, would go on to donate to Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964.

Perhaps the most important libertarian cause Pew and Crane were involved in was the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), an organization that sought to teach the public about libertarian ideas.

Both acted as trustees, joined by an array of corporate executives: Donaldson Brown, a former executive of both DuPont and General Motors; Erle P. Halliburton, the founder of Halliburton; A. C. Mattei, the president of Honolulu Oil Corporation; Hughston McBain, president and chairman of Marshall Field & Company; W. C. Mullendore, executive vice president of the Southern California Edison Company; Charles White, president of Republic Steel; and B. E. Hutchinson, chairman of Chrysler’s finance committee. (The Volcker Fund’s Harold Luhnow was also a trustee.)

Pew and Crane’s participation in the libertarian movement and its corporate circles didn’t end there. The pair sat on the board of the Freeman, the movement’s flagship magazine, alongside a smattering of businessmen.

Major firms bankrolled the Freeman through advertising that doubled as ideological propaganda. Instead of touting their products, major firms like Chrysler, DuPont, Republic Steel, Marshall Field, General Motors, and Sun Oil — whose executives, past and present, were involved in the FEE and older anti–New Deal groups — took out ads promoting the virtues of business and the free market. (During the 1950s and 1960s, General Electric — also a frequent Freeman advertiser and a member of NAM — featured the publication on its anti-union reading list for managers and supervisors as part of its effort to delegitimize labor leaders.)

So by the time David Koch sunk millions of his own fortune into a presidential run, he was hardly the first business executive to invest in the libertarian movement.

And it’s not hard to see why.

Without taxes, they would be free to accumulate wealth limitlessly. Without laws protecting unions, they could quash organizing drives more easily than do today. And without regulations, they could continue their existing business practices no matter the cost to the environment, their workers, or their local communities. After all, DuPont Chemical itself spent decades poisoning waterways and the bloodstreams of human beings with a chemical it knew was unsafe.

None of this is to say that the Kochs and other business leaders don’t genuinely believe in right-libertarianism, or that the movement doesn’t have non-elite adherents with honest intentions. But, of course, it’s always more tempting to believe in something when it suits your bottom line, and it’s always easier to start a movement with the backing of corporate money.

A Force for Reaction

It’s one thing for leftists to work with libertarians when their positions intersect. The Libertarian Party’s anti-interventionism and civil libertarianism are genuinely held, and even Bernie Sanders teamed up with Ron Paul on certain issues. But it’s quite another to cast a ballot for Gary Johnson.

Supporting the Libertarian Party would directly empower one of the most anti-egalitarian forces in American politics, making it easier for the party to get on the ballot in the future and potentially setting them up to receive federal matching funds.

The Libertarian Party wants to gut the welfare state, roll back regulations, and hand out enormous tax cuts to the rich. Closely tied to corporate executives through the years, associated historically with a panoply of unsavory figures, it’s the partisan expression of a movement that is fundamentally hostile to democracy. It’s hawking an economic philosophy that, if implemented, would cause immense misery for non-elites.

On Election Day, the Libertarians deserve no support from the Left.