In a well-received speech at FreedomFest last July, independent presidential candidate Robert F Kennedy Jr. declared himself to be a libertarian. But how libertarian is he? To find out, let’s take a quick tour through Kennedy’s views on issues that libertarians view as important.
Kennedy’s campaign website lays out many proposals that libertarians would happily agree with, but it also promotes others that most libertarians would oppose. Here are some highlights:
On foreign policy, Kennedy appears to be a libertarian, at least in principle. He promises to “start the process of unwinding empire. We will bring the troops home. We will stop racking up unpayable debt to fight one war after another. The military will return to its proper role of defending our country. We will end the proxy wars, bombing campaigns, covert operations, coups, paramilitaries, and everything else that has become so normal most people don’t know it’s happening.”
Regarding the right to bear arms, Kennedy has ruled out any effort to impose gun control at the federal level. At a recent town hall meeting, he said, “I believe in the Constitution, including the Second Amendment. I do not believe that, within that Second Amendment, that there’s anything we can meaningfully do to reduce the trade in the ownership of guns, and I’m not going to take people’s guns away.” He continued, “Anybody who tells you that they’re going to be able to reduce gun violence through gun control at this point I don’t think is being realistic. I think we have to find other ways to reduce that violence.”
On foreign policy, Kennedy appears to be a libertarian, at least in principle. He promises to “bring the troops home.”
In the area of civil liberties, Kennedy’s platform is very libertarian. Here is a sampling of his views, as presented on his campaign website:
Censorship: “Freedom of speech is the capstone of all other rights and freedoms. Once a government has the power to silence its opponents, no other right is safe. We will therefore dismantle the censorship-industrial complex, in which Big Tech censors, deplatforms, shadowbans, and algorithmically suppresses any person or opinion the government asks them to.”
Privacy: “We will respect the right to privacy and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, by ending mass surveillance of American citizens and the abuse of civil asset forfeiture.”
Drug policy: “We will end the failed War on Drugs and grant amnesty to nonviolent drug offenders.”
Pandemic policy: “We will make sure that the covid-era suspension of the right to assembly, trial by jury, and freedom of worship will never happen again. The same for the right to property.”
Kennedy’s viewpoint on immigration will resonate with some libertarians but not others.
Abuse of government power: “A Kennedy administration will respect American citizens and stop treating them like suspects and schoolchildren. We will stop manipulating the public with propaganda and targeted leaks. We will never weaponize the law against political opponents, nor hold our own officials above the law. We will return the intelligence agencies to their proper role as protectors not violators of liberty.”
On the issue of women’s reproductive rights, Kennedy is solidly pro-choice, as are most (but not all) libertarians.
Regarding whistleblowers, Kennedy has said that if elected, he will pardon Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.
Libertarians can readily agree with most of Kennedy’s positions detailed above, but unfortunately this is where such agreement is likely to end.
On the topic of immigration, libertarians hold widely divergent opinions. Kennedy’s viewpoint will resonate with some libertarians but not others. He considers the border situation to be a “humanitarian crisis” that can be resolved only if the federal government regains control of our southern border. “We will use technology that was installed at the border then dismantled by the Biden administration, such as cameras, lights, and motion detectors, coupled with physical barriers in key areas (there is no need to build a wall across the entire 2000 mile border). We have the technology to prevent people from getting through undetected. We can control the border.” Once the border has been secured, says Kennedy, “our policy will be . . . to fully fund and prioritize the administrative infrastructure for lawful, orderly immigration to this country.”
Why does Kennedy wish to further inflict the heavy hand of government upon the US economy?
Kennedy’s environmental policies are in some respects more draconian than those of President Biden. For example, he promises to curb “mining, logging, oil drilling, and suburban sprawl.” Kennedy has stated a preference for market-based solutions to our energy and environmental problems. But he considers climate change to be an existential threat to humanity, and his policies show that he considers fighting global warming to be a higher priority than marketplace freedom. Kennedy correctly calls for an end to direct and indirect subsidies to fossil fuel companies. But he opposes restarting the Keystone Pipeline, and he recently declared he would seek to ban the oil extraction method known as fracking, which accounts for more than half of domestic oil and natural gas production. (He has since backed off this proposal.)
His economic policies are closely aligned with those promoted by the JFK administration in the 1960s. Kennedy’s proposals include raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, providing free federally-funded childcare, subsidizing home mortgages at a 3% interest rate, restricting natural gas exports, “protecting” American workers from foreign competition, increasing federal spending on health care and education, raising corporate taxes, and stepping up enforcement of antitrust laws.
Why does Kennedy wish to further inflict the heavy hand of government upon the US economy? According to his campaign website, Kennedy’s “guiding principle” is that “people who work hard should be able to afford a decent life.” He says that “we can restore the American middle class by reversing the missteps of the last 50 years . . . The broad prosperity of the Eisenhower and JFK era can be ours again. It is just a shift of priorities away.”
Unfortunately this is where such agreement is likely to end.
But that ship sailed a long time ago. The economic and technological landscape is radically different from when Kennedy’s father and uncle were in office, and reenacting their policies will not bring it back. More and more jobs today are becoming integrated with modern technology and require a different and more advanced set of skills than those that were in demand 60 years ago.
If Kennedy wishes to restore the middle class, no mix of subsidies, tariffs, export controls, and higher taxes will accomplish this goal. What’s needed are policies that will support a level of individual autonomy in the economic realm that is equal to the level Kennedy proposes in the realm of personal and civil liberties. This will require a comprehensive reform of the legal system, removing all the special privileges enjoyed by corporations, political parties, and other groups favored by government. Policies such as lowering income taxes and promoting freedom of choice in education and health care will help the middle class far more than a new round of subsidies and government controls.
And there you have it. Libertarians have many reasons to support Kennedy, and many reasons not to. Taken as a whole, his current program is not likely to appeal to most libertarians. But if his views continue to evolve in a more freedom-oriented direction, his candidacy will be worth a second look.