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Trump and Libertarians in the Political Arena


For perhaps most self-described libertarians, supporting any politician is an uneasy exercise in bullet-biting pragmatism, premised on the idea that we ought to support the most libertarian individual in the race—even if that person is really not very libertarian. The author has, as it happens, spent years arguing against this view, suggesting that abstaining from the voting booth is a perfectly acceptable choice for the liberty contingent; and many non-voting libertarians do just that, despite the fact that a Libertarian Party has existed and run candidates since the early 70s (the Party’s first ticket featured the philosopher John Hospers and Tonie Nathan, the first woman and the first Jew to receive an electoral vote in a presidential election). For a large segment of the liberty movement, a libertarian political party has always seemed to be a contradiction in terms. Libertarians are, after all, devoted to and focused on principles, and the political process itself regrettably seems to be antithetical to many of those that we hold most dear—for example, the idea that each individual is sovereign, that his property is his to manage, that trade and other associations should be strictly free and voluntary. Arguably, participation in electoral politics seems to aggrandize political power, acquiescing to it where we could resist it. But regardless of what we libertarians think of the existing state of affairs, campaigns and elections, presidential elections most of all, present a golden educational opportunity for liberty lovers. Most Americans, for better or worse, interact with the world of political ideas as they come filtered through candidates and elections, sorted by the often arbitrary dictates of partisan divides.

This presidential election particularly demonstrates the strange arbitrariness with which we separate ourselves along partisan lines, our left/right designations evidencing a sequence of historical accidents more than genuine philosophical differences. Libertarians (both Libertarian Party members and otherwise) offer a principled and therefore consistent alternative. Our positions aren’t pre-chosen for us, accidents of political alliance or history; they are the result of the careful application of the idea that individuals ought to be free to live their lives as they choose, just as long as they respect the same freedom for everyone else. Libertarians sometimes call this the law of equal freedom: the law ought not distinguish between individuals, applying in the same way to everyone, and it is up to each person to decide how he will conduct himself and choose between different values. Quite contrary to popular belief, we are individualists not in the sense that we would narrow the space for collective effort, but in our belief that the individual is the starting point and all collective action must be voluntary and consensual. This way of thinking about government, society, and the sacredness of the individual sets libertarians apart, particularly this election year. Both the Republican and Democratic parties are represented by serious, demonstrable menaces to liberty, authoritarians whose motivating instincts will always lead them to the policy “solution” that centralizes power at the expense of the individual.

Consider Donald Trump’s haphazard vision of conservatism, which promises not less government, more protection for individual liberty, but an executive branch that bullies people Trump happens to disfavor. The foundation of Trump’s political brand is an embrace of malleability, a practiced affectation that says, “I’m a wild card. Every position I take is negotiable.” Disagreeing with himself, even within the same week, even during one interview, is, for Trump, a strength; such inconsistency allows him to be a Rorschach test onto which almost anything might be projected. His success is the result of popular discontent, the apparently widespread sense that the country has gone off track, lost its former glory and greatness. That sense, however, turns out to be a sense only — an impression detached from historical reality, especially insofar as the tools that Trump would use to “make America great again” involve racial profiling, xenophobic and economically harmful border walls, and ruinous protectionism. Trump’s favorite characteristics of his largely imagined “great” America are exactly the kinds of poisonous ideas that the country must leave in its past.

We seem to have reached a kind of high water mark of terrible candidates, the “choice” this election offers presenting two flavors of authoritarian progressivism. This time around, the two major party candidates are indeed so repugnant that even mainstream (and famously progressive) news outlets like CNN are paying attention to the Libertarian Party, represented by Gary Johnson and Bill Weld. The authoritarian spirit, the shared belief that it is America’s government that makes it great, unites Democrats and Republicans. Libertarians represent a fundamentally opposite view, the conviction that the great thing about America, the quality that made it a global exemplar of prosperity, is the freedom of its people — really, the idea of freedom. Libertarians (to borrow from the Libertarian Party’s Statement of Principles) “challenge the cult of the omnipotent state and defend the rights of the individual,” steadfast in the belief that no one should be “forced to sacrifice his or her values for the benefit of others.” Compare that to the popular idea and deeply mistaken that “government is just a name for the things we choose to do together.” It’s difficult to remember a presidential election in which both major party candidates were quite so odious — and already impossible to remember one in which the Libertarian Party candidate grabbed so many headlines and generated so much interest.

It is worthwhile, then, to consider some of the flaws in the election’s troubling campaign rhetoric, particularly that of Donald Trump, whom conservatives may be tempted to support. To Trump’s often-incoherent jumble of “positions” we may juxtapose libertarian ideas generally and the Johnson-Weld ticket specifically. Both former governors come from predominantly blue states, New Mexico and Massachusetts respectively, the former going red only once in the past six presidential elections (for George W. Bush, in 2004), the latter consistently regarded as among the bluest states in the country. If, in nominating Johnson and Weld, the LP has sacrificed something in the way of ideological purity, then it has more than compensated in couth, mainstream appeal, and real world governing experience. And regardless of how they compare to other libertarians, Johnson and Weld compare quite favorably to the Republicrats on virtually every issue. Consider international trade, a favorite subject of libertarians, who actually understand basic economics and apply its valuable insights to public policy questions. Trump is the worst candidate in recent memory on questions of trade: Earlier this year, Trump even threatened a 45% tariff on goods entering the United States from China, the source of almost half a trillion dollars’ worth of imports in 2015 alone, according to the Office of the United States Trade Representative. If sincerely held, this kind of opinion about trade policy bespeaks economic illiteracy of a profound depth. A trade war with such an important trading partner would see lasting negative implications for overall economic health, American consumers, and the United States’ position in the world.

Trump engages so many fallacies about trade that it’s difficult to know where to begin. First, international boundaries do not alter the mutually-beneficial character of trade. If an exchange makes sense for the parties involved when it takes place within national borders, then why should this mysteriously change when the parties happen to sit in two different countries? Human beings have benefited tremendously from expanding trade across political boundaries, from broadening the base of potential traders with whom we can deal. Because every individual, firm, and nation possesses different strengths and resources, the opening of these options generated wealth in ways and at levels never before imagined. “Economic history,” University of Illinois economics professor Deirdre McCloskey explains, “has looked like an ice-hockey stick lying on the ground,” its straight handle — representing conditions of extreme poverty — stretching back into the fogs of prehistory. That was until new, liberal (in the classical, Enlightenment sense) ideas allowed the seeds of commerce to germinate, unlocking a latent power. In the two hundred or so years since, “a wholly unexpected blade” has shot up, the prosperity that accompanied the liberal, bourgeois idea that the merchant was worthy of respect, even admiration, that old ideas about the “balance of trade” had been misguided.

Libertarians are unashamed of trade, assured by the fact that global free trade has lifted more people out of abject poverty than any government program. Angry populist rhetoric notwithstanding, American individuals and firms don’t buy China’s exported goods to profit China — to allow China to “win” — but to benefit ourselves, because we actually want those inexpensive products. Those who find themselves susceptible to the anti-market cluelessness of Trump’s stentorian promises to start a trade war with China or to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. should consider the prices of consumer goods. If we Americans were to start manufacturing many of the items sold at, for example, Target and Walmart, dollar figures in the checkout line would look very different. Trump merely recycles the old mercantilist fallacy that a trade deficit indicates that “America is losing,” cozened into bad deals or sold out by our leadership. Economists have effectively refuted Trump’s protectionist arguments (if even they deserve the name) for hundreds of years, showing that in a free market trade benefits everyone involved. Granted, few would seriously deny that we are today a long way from the eidolon of a perfectly free market; but while, as imperfect human beings, we may never reach that ideal, the furtherance of international trade nevertheless means an increase of wealth on both sides of a given deal. In any voluntary exchange, the subject parties both want what the other has, valuing it more highly than what they already possess and therefore hoping to benefit from the swap. The great libertarian economist Murray Rothbard called this the “double inequality of subjective valuations.” Absent the introduction of coercive force, neither party is being exploited, even while they do not judge the exchanged items to be of equal value in any absolute sense. Trade-bashing populists like Donald Trump apparently believe that everything (or close) should be made here in the United States, specialization and comparative advantage be damned.

And if Trump doesn’t understand trade and markets, then it shouldn’t surprise us that he doesn’t understanding the importance of private property either. He has demonstrated an alarming comfort with and willingness to resort to eminent domain, in his characteristic indifference toward individual rights. For Trump, power is more important than principle—or, more accurately, power is his principle; he is just fine with the kind of public-private cronyism that allows opaque government agencies like the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority to steal private property using the power of eminent domain (see David Boaz’s “Donald Trump’s eminent domain love nearly cost a widow her house”). Libertarians believe that private property is a fundamental individual right, one that precedes government, that it is government’s job to safeguard. The radical nineteenth century liberal Thomas Hodgskin was a staunch defender of private property of the natural kind, as conceived by libertarians, an extension of individual sovereignty and a bulwark against government tyranny. He argued that “the great object contemplated by the legislator” was to gather “all the wealth of society” in the hands of the government and its hangers-on, of whom Trump is a modern representative. For libertarians, the proper inquiry is decidedly not whether someone has amassed a great fortune but how he obtained it, whether it was the result of ingenuity and voluntary trade in the marketplace or government-backed robbery. And that’s what eminent domain is — robbery, the reasons advanced to justify it being no more than thin pretexts. Hodgskin urges us to “set aside as mere pretexts the assertions of the legislator,” focused always on the preservation of his power, and to instead observe the results of legislation. We would find, he argues, that the law’s main purpose has been to preserve the “powers and privileges” of “kings, nobles, and priests.” Today’s equivalents are businessmen like Trump who don’t deserve the name, who, rather than competing fair and square, use the coercive power of government for their private advantage. On eminent domain, Gary Johnson again represents a genuine break from the political mainstream and the policies of both Republicans and Democrats. As Governor of New Mexico, Johnson never used the power of eminent domain to force a property owner out of his home. Libertarians take private property rights seriously and, following Hodgskin, draw a sharp distinction between natural and artificial forms of property ownership.

Trump seems to be a bizarre hybrid of very conservative and very progressive views, at least until you look more closely. In fact, Trump is straightforwardly authoritarian. And for all his anti-establishing posing, his authoritarianism is much nearer to the Beltway political consensus than he would admit to his followers. The most destructive aspects of that consensus are the policies and issues on which “centrist” Republicans and Democrats have remained most constant; the two parties have much more in common than most voters are likely to think. Neither party seems to care very much for overarching, principled commitments, save for a commitment to the big-government progressivism that has dominated every election for decades. Our political life is stagnating in a fetid swamp of centrist embraced by the leadership of both major parties. Democrats and Republicans alike have made possible the endless growth of the administrative state, dangerous and hubristic military interventionism, reckless spending and ballooning debt, and blatant disregard for individual rights. For at least three-quarters of a century, no major party candidate for President of the United States has seriously questioned these, the inviolable articles of the progressive faith, and now Trump spouts his embarrassingly unsophisticated and dangerous positions, playing to the crowd with an outdated and vulgar populism. Top GOP leaders have made their peace with the Donald, but principled advocates of individual liberty, free markets, and limited government don’t have to. Conservatives, libertarians, and classical liberals alike must rally to the banner Always Liberty!

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    David S. D'Amato is a policy advisor at the Future of Freedom Foundation, an attorney, and an adjunct law professor. He is also a regular contributor at the Cato Institute's Libertarianism.org and a policy advisor at the Heartland Institute. His writing has been featured at public policy organizations such as the Institute for Economic Affairs, the Centre for Policy Studies, and the Foundation for Economic Education, and in popular media such as Forbes, Investor's Business Daily, Newsweek, and RealClearPolicy.