Somin on Gary Johnson and Ron Paul: A Reply

Ilya Somin over at The Volokh Conspiracy, it seems, is no more a fan of Ron Paul now than he was four years ago. His criticisms remain about the same. This time around, though, he’s got a candidate to contrast Paul with in Gary Johnson. His conclusion? Johnson is a better libertarian than Paul. My first response to this was laughter. This is my second response:

To start, Somin nearly lost me in his first sentence when he suggested that Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels was even on the radar for libertarians considering voting. If anyone thinks a hypocritical drug warrior, who might be most charitably described as untested on foreign policy issues (and much less charitably described as a propagandist for the Empire), should even be in the running, then they should probably be disqualified from commenting on the question of who the most libertarian candidate is. All that said, we’ll give him the benefit of his doubts about Daniels for now and move onto his criticisms.

Ron Paul’s Unlibertarian Positions?

Somin claims that Ron Paul “has very nonlibertarian positions on free trade, school choice, and especially immigration.” He goes on to criticize Paul’s views on the Fourteenth Amendment. He doesn’t spell these criticisms out in this piece, but rather directs us to an older article from 2007. We’ll take each one by one.

1. Free Trade

Anyone who knows about Ron Paul’s policy positions would be shocked to find this on the list of his deviations from libertarianism. Doesn’t Paul support complete, unrestricted free trade? Has he not always advocated this? Yes, and Somin admits as much in his 2007 article. But this is apparently not enough. Instead, Paul’s libertarian credentials are called into question due to his opposition to “free trade agreements.” These, Somin argues, must be supported because they are better than the status quo. But is this true? Somin fails to address Paul’s arguments that these are not “free trade agreements” at all – but that they are instead managed trade agreements. Instead, he merely dismisses Paul’s refusal to support NAFTA and similar agreements as some misguided focus on libertarian purity and perfection as the enemy of the good. But this is not so. As Murray Rothbard explained many times, managed trade agreements like NAFTA are not a step toward freedom, but rather an extension of government controls. So much for that.

2. School Choice

A similar story with school choice. Ron Paul, an erstwhile opponent of the government interfering with people’s educational choices, is thrown under the bus for opposing the reformist “solution” of school voucher programs. Somin’s objections to Ron Paul’s position here is the same: he admits Ron Paul has a libertarian position on school choice, but thinks that some attachment to libertarian purity gets in the way of Paul taking steps to improve things. And, again, Somin declines to address the serious and significant libertarian criticisms of this proposed policy. Laurence Vance has done excellent work covering this issue, and Ron Paul himself has voiced the same concerns. Stefan Molyneux has raised some major objections to the idea as well. Far from the obvious libertarian position being one of support for school vouchers, even just as a stepping stone, it seems that they might very well be a step in completely the wrong direction.

3. Immigration

Here, you’ll find no objection from me on the criticism of Ron Paul’s position. I agree wholeheartedly with the libertarian critics of immigration restrictions and I make no excuses for Ron Paul’s position here, and I won’t go into wild speculation about whether he “really believes” what he says about immigration (given his change of heart since 1988). What he “really believes” is not my concern, rather I will focus on what he says, which seems to be that we must dismantle the welfare state before dismantling the statist border controls. This is an odious rationalization, and one that could easily be turned on almost any issue – we can’t end the drug war until we get rid of welfare and government-provided healthcare (as Ann Coulter says); we can’t get rid of the Patriot Act until we have stopped our foreign policy that promotes terrorism; we can’t get rid of welfare until we stop taxing and regulating the economy enough to provide everyone jobs; we can’t lower taxes until we pay off the national debt; and so on and so on. So, yes, Ron Paul’s position on immigration is indeed unlibertarian.

4. Fourteenth Amendment

I must admit, I do not know what to say about this. Mr. Somin claims that Ron Paul “thinks the Bill of Rights does not apply to the states.” This position, Somin thinks, is just “theoretically libertarian,” and only if one thinks that the Bill of Rights should apply to the states, but believes that, as a matter of fact, it does not. I won’t go into what the facts of the matter are (though I’m very skeptical of the claim that “virtually all libertarian constitutional law scholars” believe that the Fourteenth Amendment is rightly interpreted as applying the Bill of Rights to the states – Kevin Gutzman and Thomas Woods both come to mind as scholars who might take issue with that claim, I would be surprised if there weren’t many others), instead I’d like to ask: is it the obvious libertarian position that the federal government should be empowered to impose the restrictions in the Bill of Rights onto the states? Gene Healy, Roderick Long, and fellow blogger Stephan Kinsella all have argued to the contrary. Ron Paul’s position here, at the least, certainly has support amongst libertarian scholars regardless of the fact of the matter.

Is Ron Paul more libertarian than Gary Johnson on any issue?

Somin has one last argument to go. He writes, “I can’t think of a single issue where Paul is more libertarian than Johnson, though I’m open to correction by people who know more about their records than I do.” Well, I might not know more about their records, but I have a few in mind. For the sake of argument, I’ll disregard the points I had above and call it a wash, except for that of immigration, and we’ll count that in Johnson’s favor. Here are three issues where Paul is head and shoulders above Johnson: 1) war, 2) sound money, and 3) torture.

1. War

Gary Johnson looks like a pro-peace candidate. He talks like a pro-peace candidate. But when it comes down to it, he is open to “humanitarian wars.” See here and here for the interview. So, as admirable as Johnson’s opposition to the current wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya is, the difference between him and Ron Paul on foreign policy remains stark. From my point of view, this alone would be enough to put Paul miles ahead of Johnson – there is no issue more important than war. It cannot be repeated enough: War is the Health of the State. I take it, though, that Somin will not be joining me in this judgment, given that he wrote, “I don’t agree with Johnson on everything. For example, I’m significantly more hawkish than he is on foreign policy.” Yikes.

2. Sound Money

Ron Paul has made no secret of his opposition to the Federal Reserve. Indeed, it was the keystone of his 2008 campaign, and likely will play a major role in his 2012 run. He has brought the message of sound money to the masses and introduced the Austrian Business Cycle Theory back into the mainstream. On this most important issue, Ron Paul is the standard bearer. What about Gary Johnson? Admirably, he calls for an audit of the Federal Reserve, and should be credited for that. That puts him way above most candidates. But let’s not kid ourselves. Gary Johnson is not calling for the Federal Reserve to be abolished. Gary Johnson is not making the Federal Reserve into a focal point for his campaign. Despite the supreme importance of sound money in arresting the growth of the State, Johnson has given the issue very little time and supports what is, compared to Ron Paul, a marginal compromise position.

3. Torture

This is one I couldn’t believe myself when it happened. On Freedom Watch of all places, Gary Johnson said that he would not close the torture camp at Guantanamo Bay, an absolutely appalling position. What was his justification? If we didn’t have it there, we would just have to open one elsewhere. Incredible. Why not at least give these men trials? Why not at least house them inside the borders of the United States where they might be afforded even the most minimal legal protections? This is a disgusting position. A few of my fellow bloggers commented to me that this does not represent a deviation from libertarianism on the part of Johnson, but rather makes him no libertarian at all. I could not agree more.

I could go on, but these three issues alone are more than enough to overcome any doubt on this issue. Gary Johnson has some great qualities – he supports marijuana legalization, he seems very serious about dramatically cutting spending, and despite his squishy position on it, he’s generally anti-war (for now). But more libertarian than Ron Paul? Don’t make me laugh.

19 comments… add one

  • Great post. From his new book, Liberty Defined, it appears that Ron Paul has improved somewhat on immigration. In any event, Johnson is not nearly the libertarian that Paul is, and he is also a much less knowledgable, less sophisticated thinker.

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  • On items 1 and 2, and maybe even 4, this Somin character’s criticism seems not to be that Paul is unlibertarian, but that he is too libertarian.

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  • Ron Paul is in a whole nother ballpark from Johnson in terms of libertarian bona fides. Note that Johnson also said- again on Freedom Watch- that he does not want to abolish the Federal Reserve, the Department of Agriculture or the Department of Commerce, which are three of the most anti-libertarian institutions in our country. Johnson supports some very basically anti-libertarian positions on social issues as well, such as legally-mandated restaurant smoking bans.

    Regarding Ron Paul’s immigration position, your counter-examples do not properly address it, for you miss a crucial distinction; Ron Paul wants to immediately and SIMULTANEOUSLY end the empire and the PATRIOT Act, end the taxes/regulations before ending welfare, etc., but does not want to end welfare immediately as he does with the empire and PATRIOT Act, arguing instead that we should gradually phase it down. If repealing the PATRIOT Act is dependent upon ending the empire, then one who supports an IMMEDIATE end to the empire is consistent in also supporting an immediate repeal of the PATRIOT Act. On the other hand, if ending immigration restrictions is dependent upon dismantling the welfare state, then one who supports gradually, rather than immediately, cutting down the welfare state is consistent in supporting the removal of immigration restrictions only after the gradual welfare-reduction process is complete.

    As such, the root of your problem with Ron Paul may actually lie in his welfare position more than anything; do you agree with him that the populace should be “weaned” off welfare through a process of advanced notices, opt-out programs, etc., or would you pull the plug on the system right off the bat? It could, afterall, be seen as unlibertarian to sanction any extension of the welfare state, though I can hardly blame Dr. Paul for wanting to set the populace down a little more lightly, since it is, in fact, true that there are millions of people who are immediately dependent upon receiving government checks which they have been promised. A man onboard a sail boat may think that a boat design which involves no mast is superior to the mast-centered one currently buoying him, but this does not mean that the proper solution from the passenger’s perspective is to immediately move to the center of the boat and rip the mast from its foundation; instead, he may think it wise to take the boat ashore, redesign and restructure parts of the boat, and only THEN remove the mast and attempt to sail without it.

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    • @C. Wendt> I think it is strictly unlibertarian not to “slam on the brakes,” as I think Rothbard may have put it, wrt entitlements. However, I too support a gradual letdown. A lot of people have made plans counting on entitlements, and a phase out would give them time to make adjustments, and not cause a mass “step function” (dislocation(s)). (Hey, I was one of those people who used to think entitlements perfectly okay, and did (not) plan accordingly.)

      I suppose a younger generation would say wrt SS “hey, I payed *some* in and get nothing back under your plan.” The politicians would have to sell it (and it would be true) by saying they will comparatively come out farther ahead with the phase out rather than simply leaving the current system in perpitude.

      I think it is strictly non-libertarian as far as theory goes to not just terminate the whole thing immediately. However, I admit I have fears of this because of the mass dislocations resulting. Maybe I am not strictly speaking a libertarian. I don’t think it will happen anyway. For that matter, I don’t think Dr. Paul, or Gary Johnson will be elected, so maybe this is all jibber-jabber. Yet I cannot resist voting for Dr. Paul.

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  • Ron Paul’s immigration policy is not “unlibertarian”. There are many prominent libertarians on his side, including Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Murray Rothbard and Milton Friedman.

    Regarding Johnson and the war issue – you forgot to link to this piece by Robert Higgs, “Are Questions of War and Peace Merely One Issue Among Many for Libertarians?“, which shows that libertarians must be anti-war.

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  • There are two issues that are of utmost importance to any serious libertarian. War and control of the money supply are so crucial to the expansion and maintainance of state power that they must be opposed at every turn. That Johnson is squishy on these two issues means his name cannot even be mentioned in the same sentence with Ron Paul’s.

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  • Nice piece, Matt. I think it’s an absurdity to question Dr. Paul’s libertarian bona fides relative to Gary Johnson. I mean, I really like Johnson for the most part (certainly contrasted against every other GOP candidate other than Dr. Paul) but he is no Ron Paul. Honestly, I believe Somin like a handful of other anti – Ron Paul libertarians, has an agenda with respect to Ron Paul and contrives for ways to justify that agenda.

    With respect to the 14th amendment, this is something I can’t quite come to a conclusion about. Frankly, some of the arguments against it that I have read have not been very convincing. I don’t see any real difference between tyranny exercised by the federal government and that exercised by states, municipalities or neighborhoods. The federal government has one single legitimate role in our lives and that is to protect our liberty. Take that away and all you have left is it’s many illegitimate functions.

    The argument goes that the smaller and more local government is, the more inclined it is towards liberty. Well, maybe, but there are countless examples otherwise. The other part of the argument is that if our communities, municipalities and states are oppressive, we can always move. First, the notion that you should have to undergo the trauma and hardship of uprooting your life in order to maintain your basic human rights is absurd on its face. Second, any local government which is free to behave tyrannically could certainly find ways to make it impossible for someone to get out from under that tyranny. Generally, the more local government is, the more accountable. Unfortunately, they are still only accountable to the majority, leaving the local pariahs subject to the whims of that majority.

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  • “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended” ~ Frederic Bastiat

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  • To follow up on Pablo Escobar’s comments above:

    So long as there is government, it makes an immense difference who actually resides within the State. (We needn’t to get into anarchism vs. minarchism here.) Without immigration controls, the U.S. and other Western countries (for all their faults) would be completely swamped with Third World immigrants. (Indeed, nearly all contemporary immigrants to these countries are already from the Third World.)

    Some libertarian ideologues would say: So what? Freedom is freedom.

    But if the denizens of a country exist without any tradition of liberty, you’ll merely end up with an impoverished, tyrannized populations such as you find in Mexico or Algeria. (One thing you won’t find in places like that is the candidacy of someone like Ron Paul — or even the pseudo-libertarian Gary Johnson — for national office.)

    If liberty is ever to be restored — or even if we’re only to hold back further predations against liberty — we need to preserve the Western liberal tradition which still exists within our longstanding population. From where else could liberty make a “comeback”?

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  • You all must have missed all the times Johnson said he’d abolish the fed including last night on Hanninty. But he also realizes the debt/deficit is the more important and pressing issue that will have a better chance at being addressed.

    Johnson is also not squishy on war. He’s been staunchly against the wars. The exception was going into Afghanistan to get bin laden which Paul voted in favor of doing also.

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  • Supporting keeping gitmo open is a separate issue from torture. Johnson is opposed to all torture see his website, see first debate, see other interviews. Hes for giving captives speedy trial.

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  • Johnson also is squishy on foreign relations and foreign aid, he simply won’t go on record as saying we should cut off all aid to both Israel and her neighbors, that it is time for them all to stand on their own two feet and learn to work out their differences as adults on their own without the U.S. providing an allowance or acting as a parent to negotiate their squabbled.

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  • Dear Matt (if I may),
    Nicely done. I had been wondering about this and it’s nice to see chapter and verse.

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  • Two seconds of reading this Somin guys vapid tripe and it’s clear we aren’t dealing with genuine philosophical arguments, but carefully crafted globalist psy-op propaganda.

    Thanks for dissecting it for the layman.

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  • I call bullshit on this Ilya Somin. Let’s be honest here, this critique of Dr. Paul is clearly MUCH more an attempt to re-brand libertarianism than it is an honest defense of libertarian values. My guess is our entrenched political establishment is doing its best to mold a pragmatic semi-libertarian candidate in Gary Johnson to steal some of Dr. Paul’s votes and divert the attention of libertarian-minded voters toward someone they aren’t nearly as afraid of.

    Perhaps I am being too cynical??

    [Some inappropriate remarks were edited out of this comment. — The Moderators]

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  • Don’t forget Johnson has come out in favor of the “fair” tax.

    That is right, he thinks the government is entitled to a piece of every mutually beneficial trade and transaction.

    Fuck that.

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  • Congressman Ron Paul recently expressed support for the Defense of Marriage Act, voted for a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, and is an advocate of removing birthright citizenship from the Constitution. Governor Gary Johnson believes gay marriage is a state issue and supports gay civil unions. As a former border state Governor, he adamantly opposes a border fence and hopes to establish a temporary guest worker program and enforce current immigration laws to secure the border. Congressman Paul is among the most vocal critics of Israel in Congress, once charging that “Israel created Hamas” on the House floor and that Gaza is “almost like Concentration Camps”. Ron Paul also signed the federal pro-life pledge of the Susan B. Anthony List and voted to enact a sodomy law in Washington, DC in 1981. Johnson is clearly more libertarian. Ron Paul is a paleo-conservative.

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  • Ilya Somin is a crackpot fake-libertarian; like about half of the people at Volokh (or Reason, for that matter).

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  • The 14th Amendment issue.. The Bill of Rights DOES apply to the states.. the problem is that the due process requirements as laid out in the U.S. Constitution have been subverted due to the fact that we are allowing states to prosecute and be the plaintiff party in cases that are based around state laws. The way due process is SUPPOSED to work is that ALL cases in which a state shall be party.. original jurisdiction (the place where the case is FIRST heard) was supposed to go dircetly to the Supreme Court, at which point a defendant would have the ability to argue against the Constitutionality of a State law. If a federal judge agreed that the law was in violation of the Rights of the defendant according to the Bill of Rights, that law would be struck down as unconstitutional. Now, however, the states, through a legal manipulation known as “concurrent jurisdiction” have usurpe the system of due process and prosecute their own cases with “magistrates” that have no Federal/Constitutional jurisdiction, and so we are not able to argue based upon our Rights according to the Bill of Rights and state laws cannot, therefor, be challenged regarding their constitutionality. This is a HUGE issue that very few people understand or are even aware of.
    If you doubt what I’m saying, read the Constitution.. Article 3, section 2, clause 2..

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