May 31, 2016

The Disappointing Libertarian Party

The Libertarian Party got a fair amount of media attention over the Memorial Day weekend, thanks to their convention in Florida. The libertarians nominated former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson and former Massachusetts Governor William Weld as their ticket for the presidential election. 

Judging from the discussions in libertarian-leaning online forums, the Johnson-Weld ticket is more than a little controversial. Most critics focus on Weld's Democrat background, questioning his libertarian credentials. Few seem to want to raise concerns regarding the credentials of Gary Johnson, though his spending record as governor of the Land of Enchantment should grab the attention of all true-to-the-core libertarians: on average, total state spending increased by more than nine percent per year under Johnson's gubernatorial tenure.

Regardless of how casually one takes libertarianism, it is impossible to call a fiscal-policy record "libertarian" when its only content is spending increases by close to double digits. The choice of Gary Johnson as presidential candidate makes sense from a practical viewpoint, but it also raises questions about exactly what kind of policies he would be pursuing, were he to be elected president of the United States (and there is a much bigger chance that he becomes the president than the opinion polls show - more on that later).

The most pressing question from a libertarian viewpoint is what the Libertarian Party wants to do with the welfare state. As I have explained in recent articles, the American welfare state is big enough to pose a serious threat to the future prosperity of this country, in much the same way as the welfare state in Europe has brought that continent down from the heights of prosperity into a state of permanent economic stagnation. It is therefore absolutely critical that our political leaders, be they Republican, Libertarian, Constitutionalist, Conservative or whatever flavor they prefer, begin the hard work to dismantle our welfare state - and do it now.

Since it is out of the question that Republicans would do this, the only realistic hope is left with a party the name of which shares the same philosophy as the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century: Robert Nozick. And what better document to explore for a true-to-the-core libertarian evaluation than the party platform.

The specific question, of course, is: if given the right political influence, would the Libertarian Party work for the dismantling of the welfare state?

There is no specific, direct answer to this question in the party platform. There is, in other words, We have to work our way toward an answer through bits and pieces spread out through the platform. We start with the preamble which concludes with the following sentence: 
Our goal is nothing more nor less than a world set free in our lifetime, and it is to this end that we take these stands.
This is a promising pledge, though the actual meaning of "a world set free" depends on how the party defines "free". Our next clue is in the section Statement of Principles:
Governments throughout history have regularly operated on the ... principle, that the State has the right to dispose of the lives of individuals and the fruits of their labor. Even within the United States, all political parties other than our own grant to government the right to regulate the lives of individuals and seize the fruits of their labor without their consent. 
In the context of the meaning of "freedom" this paragraph has a radical meaning, namely a ban on all kinds of taxation. If so, the Libertarian Party would essentially have adopted the principle of justice that Nozick defines and applies to put very strict boundaries on the state. Under Nozick's "justice in acquision" principle, there can be no coercive collection of any property from any citizen, so long as that property was acquired through free trade with the consent of the other party. For example, so long as Jack voluntarily works for Joe, then 100 percent of the money that Joe pays Jack is Jack's alone, and nobody else's. 

The principle of justice in acquisition completely bans taxation, except to fund the minimal state. There can be absolutely no taxation for the purposes of redistribution of property, including but not limited to income. 

Does the Libertarian Party platform agree on this point? Let us continue to read through it; keep in mind, though, that of the four times that the word "tax" is mentioned in the platform, only once it is with direct reference to the abolishment of taxation.

The Statement of Principles section continues:
where governments exist, they must not violate the rights of any individual: namely, (1) the right to life -- accordingly we support the prohibition of the initiation of physical force against others; (2) the right to liberty of speech and action -- accordingly we oppose all attempts by government to abridge the freedom of speech and press, as well as government censorship in any form; and (3) the right to property -- accordingly we oppose all government interference with private property, such as confiscation, nationalization, and eminent domain, and support the prohibition of robbery, trespass, fraud, and misrepresentation.
Here they could easily have thrown in "taxation" as an example of government interference with private property. That, however, does not happen, although the principled language continues:
People should not be forced to sacrifice their lives and property for the benefit of others.
The most natural interpretation of this is that if government takes part of Roy's income to benefit Roger, it means that Roy is sacrificing his property. In other words, neither taxation nor redistribution is permitted under the principles of the Libertarian Party. As a direct consequence, the party should be totally against the welfare state.

So why not spell it out?

Next, we turn to chapter 2 with the promising title "Economic Liberty". It opens with an introductory paragraph concluding (emphasis added):
The only proper role of government in the economic realm is to protect property rights, adjudicate disputes, and provide a legal framework in which voluntary trade is protected. All efforts by government to redistribute wealth, or to control or manage trade, are improper in a free society.
The bold part appears to formulate another ban on the welfare state. However, the use of the word "wealth" instead of property blurs the focus of the sentence; is it OK to redistribute property so long as that property is not valuable enough to be defined as "wealth"? This is the only time the word "redistribution" is used in any grammatical form, so the question about the distinction between income and wealth definitely has merit. 

Had the platform spoken of redistribution of property, then it would have covered both income and what we traditionally refer to as "wealth". That does not happen though; instead, the platform casts a shadow of vagueness over the core mechanism of the welfare state, namely redistribution of income. Another example of this vagueness is found in the subsection "Property and Contract":
Libertarians would free property owners from government restrictions on their rights to control and enjoy their property, as long as their choices do not harm or infringe on the rights of others. Eminent domain, civil asset forfeiture, governmental limits on profits, governmental production mandates, and governmental controls on prices of goods and services (including wages, rents, and interest) are abridgements of such fundamental rights.
The term property is here being given a distinct but economically incorrectly limited meaning. It is rather clearly referred to as stock, or "capital". But as mentioned earlier, income is property as well. (So is a contract of future payments.) It is fine that the platform objects to frivolous confiscation of said form of property, but it is almost as though the libertarian platform writers are afraid to touch the core of the welfare state and spell out its incompatibility with libertarian principles. 

The platform makes one last attempt to convince us otherwise. From the subsection "Government Finance and Spending":
All persons are entitled to keep the fruits of their labor. We call for the repeal of the income tax, the abolishment of the Internal Revenue Service and all federal programs and services not required under the U.S. Constitution.
So the "fruits of their labor" is the metaphor for income. If so, the termination of the income tax is a good idea, and entirely logical. But what about sales, excise, value added, property, wealth and death taxes? If the platform can spell out that the income tax goes against the party's principles, then why can't they do it with all other taxes? 

Why is it so difficult for the Libertarian Party to go straight for the core and declare that the welfare state, a system of confiscatory taxation and active income redistribution, cannot exist in a libertarian society?

Some would say this has to do with "political pragmatism" and what is possible to accomplish. That is a fair point per se, but one also has to be aware of who defines what is pragmatic and possible. It is almost without exception the incumbent legislator, governor or president. 

Others would say that you cannot present ideas that are too radical because the public are not ready for those ideas. To that, the obvious answer is that Nozick's monumental work "Anarchy, State and Utopia" influenced and inspired a quarter century of libertarian political, public policy and scholarly work. It is fair to say that without his book there would not have been a libertarian movement today. Yet his work was a direct and unabashed challenge to the philosophical backbone of the American welfare state, namely "A Theory of Justice" by John Rawls. 

Despite its bluntness - or, more appropriately, thanks to its bluntness - Nozick's book make a huge splash in the political debate of the 1970s. Its shockwaves were felt as far away as in the early 2000s, though over the past decade the American libertarian movement (don't even speak of a European counterpart - it simply does not exist) has drifted into the shadow realm of social issues. The most prominent example is the Institute for Humane Studies where legalization of marijuana has been occupying the libertarian center stage for a good long decade now. The welfare state? If you can't see it through the weed smoke, it is probably not important anyway.

The Libertarian Party's refusal to go head-to-head with the welfare state puts it in an awkward position. On the one hand it attracts liberty-minded people with a deeply rooted distrust for the Republicans; on the other hand it shies away from distinguishing the practical end of its policy principles from that very same party. What can the party offer beyond rhetorical high points and the promise of being "not the GOP"?

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