Sunday, June 5, 2011

Gary Johnson as a Lightweight Libertarian

Steven Horowitz reports on a conference call he participated in that featured presidential candidate Gary Johnson. Many have promoted Johnson as "the next Ron Paul". To me this is simply absurd.

From the Horowitz report, it seems like Johnson is getting the libertarian buzz phrases down, but I just can't help but think of him as a lightweight being fed information intravenously by handlers, a la Sarah Palin. The buzz phrases about libertarianism weren't there early on.

And some of the buzz phrases, indicate he is still a lightweight when understanding how the economy and society works. He doesn't, for example, get Hayek.

Horowitz reports:
What I liked was that he was invoking the idea of unintended consequences quite a bit in talking about how what we think are good ideas usually backfire.
But this is the pedestrian view of unintended consequences, that legislation can backfire. It is a very simple version and it ignores the much more insightful and important manner in which Hayek uses the term. As I have written:
What Hayek means by unintended consequences is not an idea based on the errors caused by misunderstanding reality [for example in legislation], but that consequences arise which are not the conscious plan of anyone. No one, for example, set out to create money. Money developed as the unintended consequence of many separate human actions. Language, in the same way, did not develop by someone drawing up all the words and the rules of grammar. The development of language was an unintended consequence of many separate human actions.
Hayek's meaning is not about poorly constructed legislation, where all the ramifications have not been thought out, it is about major societal structures that have emerged without any central planning, indeed any planning at all.

If Johnson really wanted to impress the libertarians on the conference call, he would have at least acknowledged Hayek's deeper sense in which he used the phrase, instead of sticking with the very surface manner in which mainstream political columnists use the phrase. Johnson's use is not incorrect, but it fails to get at Hayek's deeper point that central planning is not necessary for some pretty serious societal developments, e.g. money and language.

Once one realizes what Hayek teaches, it can be much easier to understand why central planning may not be needed. Whereas, Johnson's warning on legislation that is not completely thought out may result in other type thinking, such as A. we better do a better job of thinking out legislation or B. there might be unintended consequences of legislation, so we better be ready to go back and modify legislation once it is passed because we have may have initially not anticipated all the consequences.

Indeed, the B type thinking may result in even greater government control, which is behind the warning from Ludwig von Mises that there is no middle ground between free markets and central planning. For if one thinks of initial legislation as something that has simply not been properly thought out, then it becomes easy to jump to the dangerous conclusion that the legislation needs to simply be modified. For example, legislation may be introduced to limit price increases during a period of price inflation, but this will cause shortages. This might be followed by modifying legislation that rations goods, and then legislation to form a police force to monitor the rationing, and so on.

The greater emphasis should be on the manner Hayek uses the phrase unintended consequences because it points at a much more insightful and important lesson on how a free market order can emerge without any conscious planning. Given Johnson's comments, he does not appear to get this and thus he promotes the more pedestrian view, which could lead to even more mis-directed central planning.

Horowitz also tells us that  Johnson:
....also talked about how he applied cost-benefit analysis to a variety of regulations while governor and that he would bring that mindset if he were elected
How Johnson thinks a cost-benefit analysis plays any role in a libertarian society is completely baffling. As Murray Rothbard taught, there is no measure of the "social costs" that is comparable to to the costs an individual faces, and thus the entire concept of cost-benefit analysis is erroneous when it is applied to society at large:
....there is the grave fallacy in the very concept of "social cost," or of cost as applied to more than one person. For one thing, if ends clash, and one man's product is another man's detriment, costs cannot be added up across these individuals. But second, and more deeply, costs, as Austrians have pointed out for a century, are subjective to the individual, and therefore can neither be measured quantitatively nor, a fortiori, can they be added or compared among individuals. But if costs, like utilities, are subjective, nonadditive, and noncomparable, then of course any concept of social costs, including transaction costs, becomes meaningless. And third, even within each individual, costs are not objective or observable by any external observer...
It should always be about ethical principles for the libertarian and not about some meaningless cost benefit analysis for society. As Rothbard writes:
I conclude that we cannot decide on public policy, tort law, rights, or liabilities on the basis of efficiencies or minimizing of costs. But if not costs or efficiency, then what? The answer is that only ethical principles can serve as criteria for our decisions
Johnson does not, as evidenced by his call for cost-benefit analysis in government, get this. It's a slippery slope Johnson has placed himself on, where one can see all kinds of imagined societal benefits that need to be acted on. In the end this is central planning and as far as you can get from being a principled libertarian.


  1. Very interesting post. This, along with Johnson's foreign policy views, make me a little nervous about his candidacy.

  2. Good points, after reading this analysis it is quite obvious Gary Johnson is a lightweight Libertarian, hes certainly not a neocon like Sarah Palin but he is definitely no Ron Paul and needs to educate himself more on libertarian principles.

  3. Your first criticism of Johnson is weak sauce but I like the later criticism. Cost-benefit analysis is a very ambiguous term that rationalizes current tyranny anyways...

    Also, Johnson seems not to know about why it is important to End the Fed rather that taking a Friedmanesque stance on it.

  4. Probably the term Hayek was looking for was "synergy". "unintended" seems to connote "unwanted".

  5. Some have called Johnson a "Ron Paul Lite." No way. He's not even close.

    Although Johnson had a pretty good record as governor (how many bills did he veto?), he's never really had libertarian credentials in my mind. It's just that some of his policies happened to lean in a libertarian direction. But those policies were never based on moral or ethical principles, just the erroneous cost/benefit analysis.

  6. Just because the guy doesn't bathe himself in the writings of Hayek doesn't mean he's not libertarian in his positions.

    If you actually reflect on his policies, and let them determine the appropriate label for his stance, the picture will come into view.

    You assume that he was using the phrase "unintended consequences" in the same vein as Hayek. How do you know that? After all, the term existed BEFORE Hayke's work. And it is an accurate phrase to use to describe the phenomena that he is in fact describing.

    I still support Gary Johnson. He's a nice alternative to Ron Paul. But that being said, Ron Paul 2012!

  7. Gary Johnson is not a libertarian. He's a conservative that likes to smoke weed. That's pretty much Gary Johnson in a nutshell.

  8. I don't really care if he's a lightweight libertarian, a full-fledged libertarian, or an anarchist. Heck, I really wouldn't care if he was a democrat. What I care about is: can he help further the cause of liberty? I think he can. From what I know of his record as governor of New Mexico it seems clear to me he's an impediment to the growth of government.

    I'm not thrilled about his cost-benefit analysis theme, and certainly Ron Paul is the better choice. But we should still be glad he's another voice in the debate who's seriously talking about reducing the size of government.

  9. Even Democrats care unreservedly about "freedom" for abortion-seekers and gays who want to marry each other, but freedom--and 'choice' extend far beyond those issues!

    Mao's China offered free abortion on demand, but I certainly wouldn't call it any sort of a 'free society" and I don't think that Gary Johnson would either!

    Gay freedom? Freedom is for everyone! Gays have a right, I suppose to marry, serve in the Armed Forces--if they will have them--since there is no "RIGHT' to force yourselves on other people's property or to the use of other peoples' resources without their voluntary knowledge and consent! Again, I wonder if the fact that these armed forces violate the freedoms--and the lives--of many other people around the world, whether they accept gays, women, or not, play a part in such a debate!

    Freedom for special privilege groups? I think that Ron Paul, AND Gary Johnson have more important things to discuss, such as how we can most effectively save ourselves and each other when the TRILLIONS of $$$$ issued by the FED and the US government become worthless? I don't think that abortion or gaiety will provide useful answers!

    David K. Meller

  10. While I agree with the Rothbardian view about the impossibility of measuring social benefit, I always thought that Johnson applied "cost benefit analysis" to revoke legislation or to examine the claim of efficacy of potential legislation...if you do this right you can block A LOT of legislation (hence minimizing government).

  11. How do YOU know that central planning is inferior to free markets, if not for a cost benefit analysis?

  12. For that matter, Hayek was never a libertarian. He was a free-trade leftist. Boooring. The same BS we see with the Beltway 'libertarians'. Basically, at this point, if you're not an anarchist or a political nihilist you're worthless. There is no excuse except sheer herd mentality and stupidity.

  13. I'm sorry,I was looking for an article about Gary Johnson followed by some intelligent comments...instead I seem to have come to where good sense goes to die!It seems as though that a vast majority of the comments are those of people who have never really even bothered to look at Gary Johnson,but just go on the word of someone I can only assume decided to write a report for their high school journalism class,and forgot to look up any actual facts on the man-just sort of threw it together the night before the assignment was due.So,if anyone is actually interested in looking up the record of someone who:will submit a balanced budget by 2013,legalize marriage equality for ALL Americans,end a costly and dangerous drug war that has plagued our country for more than 40 years,bring transparency to government,while at the same time reducing government involvement in our personal lives,vetoed over 750 pieces of legislation that would have spent more money than New Mexico was taking in,left the state with a surplus of a BILLION dollars,and who,to this very day is STILL the only current candidate that is popular with the voters of his home state,not to mention has the most liberty torches given bu the ACLU(25 to be exact),then go to Gary Johnson you!