Every four years, Liberty offers a forum in which the claims of the Democratic, the Libertarian, and the Republican presidential nominees are presented, along with a case for not voting at all. It’s a testament to the continuing diversity of thought in the libertarian movement, as well as the difficulty and urgency of finding a place in contemporary politics where individual liberty can flourish.
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Here is a libertarian’s case for Joe Biden.
Longtime readers of Liberty may recall that in 2008, I wrote “The Case for Obama.” Several complained, saying that I couldn’t be a libertarian, having endorsed such a left-wing guy. Well, I hadn’t endorsed Obama; I had presented the case for him, which is different. It is Liberty’s tradition to offer a case for all the major alternatives, and I was asked to write the one for Obama. In 2008 I voted for the Libertarian, Ron Paul.
This time I think I will vote for Biden, so abuse may be more justified. Pile it on — but let me explain first.
First is the question of why to vote at all. It’s not a question for most people, but libertarians are individualists, and many of them stop right there. They argue that your chance of changing the outcome is zero, so why bother? I accept the arithmetic. It is zero. In that sense, your vote doesn’t matter. (And why should it matter, in that sense? What qualifies you to pick the President of the United States?) But in the aggregate, votes do matter — because countries that choose their political leaders through honest public voting are qualitatively different from the countries that don’t. (See Hong Kong. Also Belarus.) An election is the comparison of heaps of sand — and you contribute only one grain to one heap.
Why do it? Maybe because you are a citizen and take it seriously. If not, fine. Don’t vote. (And why are you reading this?)
For those who do plan to vote: do you vote as if your vote could determine the immediate outcome? As if your vote could influence something other than that? Or do you put the “strategy” out of your mind and drop your grain of sand on the pile of the people closest to you?
For many of us, the third option means voting for the Libertarian.
My first vote was for a Libertarian, John Hospers, who was a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. In 1972 Hospers and his running mate, Tonie Nathan, were on the ballot in two states, one of which was my state. Neither was qualified for the job, in the sense of having had a high political office that prepared them for the presidency. And they had no chance to win. I didn’t care. I was 21; I could vote, and I wasn’t going to vote for Richard Nixon. Or George McGovern, either.
In my 20s I decided that the Libertarian Party was never going to elect its nominee president. Americans had been living under Republicans and Democrats since before the Civil War, and they were not going to change. For the rest of the 20th century, I voted for the Republicans because they professed to be the small-government party, though I was rarely impressed by their commitment. Then came George W. Bush running for reelection in 2004. Bush had gotten the country into the Iraq War. In fact, he had started the war, and under an argument that never made sense to me. I was not going to vote for Bush. I voted for the Libertarian, Michael Badnarik, even though he was a political nobody. I voted Libertarian again in 2008, not because I was hot for Representative Ron Paul — I thought his focus on gold and the Fed was off — but because John McCain was too favorable to war. In 2012 I considered voting for Mitt Romney, but the Libertarians nominated Gary Johnson. As the former governor of New Mexico, Johnson was the most qualified candidate the Libertarians had ever chosen. He didn’t have the “fire in the belly” that a winning candidate needs, but he was a sign that the party was getting serious. I voted for him.
The Libertarian Party gave up on nominating actual politicians and went back to its old practice of nominating plumb-line libertarians with zero experience of public office.
In 2016 came Donald Trump. I was in the hospital recovering from an operation when The Donald rolled over the Sad Sacks and captured the Republican nomination for president. Staring at my hospital TV, I watched all the speeches and news conferences on CNN, over and over again, thinking, “There’s no way the Republicans are going to nominate that man for president.” And they did. Well, I voted for Gary Johnson again.
So that’s how I’ve voted. It hasn’t been only for candidates I thought could win. I’ve voted as if my grain of sand could influence events, but the events I had in mind were usually distant. I placed my grain of sand as encouragement — to promote certain ways of thinking and to discourage others.
For the race this year, the Libertarians might have run Representative Justin Amash. I would have voted for him in order to promote libertarian views in the Republican Party. I’d vote for Gary Johnson again, for the same reason. Even Bill Weld, who is not a libertarian, but is closer to it than Donald Trump. But the Libertarian Party gave up on nominating actual politicians and went back to its old practice of nominating plumb-line libertarians with zero experience of public office. There was a whole debating society of them vying for the honor of being on the ballot in 50 states. One of them was named Vermin Supreme. At least they nominated Jo Jorgensen and not him.
To consider the choice this year, I watched Reason’s three-way debate, posted on July 22, 2020. For Jorgensen they had Angela McArdle, chairwoman of the Los Angeles County Libertarians and author of The Communist Cookbook. For Trump they had Francis Menton, a retired attorney and blogger at ManhattanContrarian.com. For Biden they had Ilya Somin, professor of law at George Mason University and author of Democracy and Political Ignorance.
McArdle’s argument was that Jorgensen is a libertarian, and that libertarians should vote for her. On Somin’s thought that voters have afflicted themselves with “rational ignorance,” she said, “You combat rational ignorance with radical ideas.”
And I thought, “Not interested.”
Somin’s argument for Biden was that Trump is worse. On the domestic side, Trump has reinstated the federal asset forfeiture program that Obama had partly shut down, and has used eminent domain to take private property for his border wall. He has sent federal police to Portland in defiance of the local authorities. He supports qualified immunity for police. He supports the War on Drugs. He has used regulatory agencies to crack down on his opponents. And he has approved a flood of government spending that has run the federal deficit up by several more trillions.
Regarding foreign policy, Somin said, “Trump is deeply ignorant about the state of the world… He has engaged in dangerous saber rattling.” He has avoided a war, and that’s good, but if he did start one, he has made sure that the United States would have no allies. Regarding international trade, Trump has picked fights with China and the European Union and withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Somin is an immigrant from Russia, and he cares a lot about immigration. “Trump has made the U.S. more closed to immigration than at any time in our 200-year history,” he said.
Biden is no socialist. He is a cork floating in the middle of the Democratic mainstream.
“If Trump is reelected, you can expect the Republicans to continue to be a nationalist, big-government party,” he said. “If you want the Republican Party to move in a different direction, it needs to be a Republican Party that gets beaten.”
This is the argument that moved me. I would add also that Trump is bullying and coarse; he has the wrong temperament and background for the office; he doesn’t think before he opens his mouth; and he has degraded the office by supporting quack theories and quack medicine. He is an embarrassment to a civilized American. He never had any qualifications for the office. Barack Obama’s qualifications were short, but Trump had none. He has three and a half years’ experience now — and we have had three and a half years’ experience of him.
On behalf of Trump, Menton listed the bad things Biden might do: the “Green New Deal,” banning fracking, free college, racial reparations and a volcano of spending, taxes and debt. You can imagine Biden (or a president Kamala Harris) being worse than Trump. It is not difficult. But Somin replied, “Most of the really bad stuff the [Democratic] Party wants to do does have to get through Congress. A lot of it would be undermined by the judiciary.” In contrast, Somin said, “All of the harmful things I listed, Trump has done by executive power.”
To Somin, McArdle said, “Do you want to support the progressives taking over the Democratic Party?” Somin did not. People on the Right can get in a sweat about Biden ushering in socialism, just as 12 years ago they were in a sweat about Barack Obama ushering in socialism. (Some people sweat easily.) Biden is no socialist. He is a cork floating in the middle of the Democratic mainstream. As the party has moved left, he has moved with it, but he is not trying to push it that way. Bernie Sanders is the guy who honeymooned in Russia and went to Nicaragua to break bread with the Sandinistas. He’s the socialist. And he lost. In the Republican Party the big-government, nationalist wing won. They took over the party, they won the presidency, and they are asking for another four years.
Merton’s argument for Trump was that in America, only the two big parties matter. And what libertarians should do, he said, was “to join one of the two big coalitions, and work within one of those coalitions to move it in a libertarian direction.” He added, “Libertarians have no place in the Democratic Party.” He argued that they belong in the Republican coalition and will have more influence inside the tent than outside it.
One of the most tolerable governments of my adult life was the Clinton government in the ’90s, which paired a moderate Democratic president and a Republican Congress.
Longtime readers of Liberty may recall an article of mine in December 2006 called, “Our Allies the Conservatives.” Essentially, I argued what Merton is arguing. I still like the argument. In the Republican Party there is no way libertarians are going to get everything they want. Accept that. But the party has to give you enough to earn your support. Your power is your willingness to leave. “If Republicans can get libertarian votes in the current state,” argued Somin, “there’s no incentive for them to change.”
For several elections now, that has been my argument for voting Libertarian. If you can’t stomach Biden, vote for Jorgensen. I can’t argue that you’re wrong. For myself, I’m tired of voting for Libertarians; I’m so disgusted with Trump I’ll even vote for Biden.
Not straight Democrat. One of the most tolerable governments of my adult life was the Clinton government in the ’90s, which paired a moderate Democratic president and a Republican Congress. In 2020, I think, a Biden presidency and a Republican Senate would be the best possible outcome.
If Trump loses there will be a fight within the Republican Party. Libertarians will need to be part of it.