The great debate: Potshots, purism & politics as usual (Part 1 of 2)

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April 3, 2016
The Inter-Rationale    
Posted in The Inter-Rationale

Part One: The debate, such as it was?

I was at a “watch party” Friday night, for the first half of the Great Debate among the three top contenders (according to most polls) for the Libertarian Party Presidential nomination: ex-New Mexico Governor (and 2012 LP nominee) Gary Johnson, antivirus-software developer/guru and millionaire bon vivant John McAfee, and a 35-year-old LP activist/blogsite-operator named Austin Petersen. I came away with not much changed in my preference for that nomination, once we convene for the LP convention in Orlando over Memorial Day weekend: my first ballot is likely to go to Darryl Perry, the hardcore libertarian with a clear track record of such; if/when he fades from the picture, I will support John McAfee. (If it ultimately comes down to Gary Johnson, I’ll still honor my recently gained Elector status in Tennessee and cast my vote for the LP ticket in November.)

With the exception of one question, all three handled themselves pretty well, with one notable exception (more on that to follow). This missed opportunity came when Stossel asked each candidate to outline how “the poor people” would be helped under a free-society context, and whether the tax-funded “safety net” might still be necessary or feasible. Each went immediately into the “entitlements” realm, defending or defaming the validity and/or effectiveness of the various programs:Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and so on.

I believe they all missed on one golden opportunity: Instead of focusing on how the tiny sliver of government spending that actually goes to public assistance should be handled, why not turn the guns on the crony-corporate welfare and other subsidies to “the rich,” which along with war spending takes a much bigger bite out of the annual budget, by at least an order of magnitude or two? Even a few seconds spent targeting this issue would have had some value, both for Republicans weary of overspending and waste, and for Democrat “Berners” (who are told that it’s all about taxes being too low).

Before anyone talks about raising taxes (on anyone), they should be pushing for the elimination of the “pork” and other bailouts and payoffs that go directly into the hands of those same “greedy capitalist pigs” in return for their generous “campaign contributions”! Pausing even a minute to address this issue (which McAfee did to some extent during a later question) might have been more valuable than all the posturing and platitudes.

As for the individual candidates, I was very impressed with John McAfee’s ability, not only to answer questions but to do so in clear, concise language, while showing a surprising understanding of some deeper levels of libertarian thought. I also liked how easily he handled moderator John Stossel’s one tough question, regarding his unfortunate experiences with corrupt officials in the government of Belize. (I had heard him answer this question before, and found his answers on both occasions to be quite consistent and hole-free.) He comes across as a hero, and a bit of a dashing pirate (Ragnar D. from “Shrugged”?), yet a pretty solid libertarian from the core, and an articulate spokesman for the cause of liberty. He has also been a successful businessman and innovator in the tech world, and has a unique perspective on the cyber war that may be on our next horizon.

I also liked most of what Gary Johnson had to say, even when he was ambushed by the third man on the podium (I’ll get to him in a minute), who inexplicably went off topic on the question he was being asked, to fire a shot in Gary’s direction, regarding the whole issue of “gay Nazi cake bakers” (Reason editor Matt Welch’s post-debate quip, paraphrased). Johnson gave a very pragmatic response, saying that given current legal and cultural contexts, he would tend to allow government to force a Jewish baker to bake a Nazi cake (or whatever “gotcha” scenario was presented).

For this, he is now being pilloried as “clearly not a libertarian,” when the reality is that any other answer (in this public forum, nationally televised to a general audience and not just to those already presumably familiar with the finer points of liberty) would have labeled him a homophobe, and by extension a racist. [I’ll have more on this question in Part Two of this analysis, including some of my own experiences as support.]

In a later question (one Stossel actually did ask, as a follow-up), Johnson gave the most real-world answer to the gay-marriage question: There are literally dozens if not hundreds of laws and rules that would have to be unraveled and overturned, in order to create a system of “marriage” that was truly outside of government influence. The practical thing for now is to extend the prohibition of discrimination (by government officials) to cover everyone (adult and consensual) wishing to marry. Although the other two candidates both gave more “purist libertarian” responses to the question, Johnson’s answer reflected a level of political reality in the present-day context, and I do not hold it against him.

Meanwhile, I had seen and heard a lot about Austin Petersen, mostly on Facebook posts and discussions. I came in with a pretty low opinion of his basic good sense and maturity (based on his reactions to hostile posts, and even his comments about his detractors and competitors); I left with an even lower one. When he raised the hypothetical “baker” issue, his lack of common sense gave me solid reason not to support him. He has been quoted many times, saying that “the Libertarian Party should stop being a debate society”; yet, when the chance arose to rise above that level, he raised an issue that is far more proper for a white paper, or at most a discussion over beers among aware libertarians. It was virtually impossible to address it in the kind of soundbyte-driven forum this “debate” had presented.

Morever, this event was not just a debate among three libertarians seeking the same office; it was a nationally televised program, on a fairly well-viewed cable network, hosted and moderated by someone with a nationwide reputation as holding at least somewhat “libertarian” views. In other words, we had a public forum with which to present the ideas of liberty, and Petersen probably should have kept that foremost in mind, instead of using the occasion to snipe at one of his opponents on the stage.

Austin apparently ignored all this, seeing a chance to go for the jugular and embarrass Gary Johnson before whatever part of the world was watching, and so he seized that opportunity. As he knows all too well, having seen his own chosen GOP candidate, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, fall badly after making the mistake of raising the issue a few months ago, regarding this same conflict (over gay people seeking wedding cakes), this was a no-win question. (Paul at the time attempted to cite the Civil Rights Act as “an overstep of government authority”; correct though he was, he only got called a racist and worse.)

Even when baited with this no-win question by Mr. Petersen, Johnson attempted to take it in stride, noting that equality under the law should be preserved, and as long as the line has already been drawn to protect other “classes” of people, the only way to do so was by prohibiting discrimination already banned under similar conditions. To address this issue properly, one would also need to examine the civil rights battle of the 1960s (As Senator Paul had attempted to do), where government officials controlled the game; had any of those lunch-counter owners and managers dared to allow “people of color” to sit, they would likely have only found themselves in adjoining cells.

Revisionist history also now claims some of those early ‘60s businesspeople were more than willing to break those color lines; after over twenty years living South of the Mason-Dixon line, I can only speculate that some likely were, based on conversations with friends who were there at the time. (It’s also pertinent to note that when the Federal government integrated the schools in the Deep South, it was Governors and Mayors, not local businessmen or even school principals, standing in the doorway blocking access of the students and their marshal escorts.)

Bottom line: Austin Petersen turned a public forum into a rat-trap to denigrate one of his opponents, as much an indication of his immaturity (personal as well as political) as any other. I compare it to the time back in 2004 in Atlanta, when the much older and presumably wiser Aaron Russo, upon meeting me and seeing a Badnarik button on my lapel, merely scowled, cursed and walked away. NOBODY would be so politically obtuse, let alone so rude to a fellow libertarian. (Mr. Russo also did not bother to know, or even find out, that I was a longtime LPer, and at the time a current member of both LNC and Platform Committee, and potentially in a position to crush his nomination then and there, if the whim had occurred to me.)

This was political stupidity, and it guaranteed I wasn’t going to be in his corner if the nomination came down to him and one other candidate. So is Austin Petersen's raising of a still-controversial issue during a nationwide public showcase for libertarianism, which this clearly was. In doing so, he showed little or no concern for how this might present the overall aspect of liberty and free societies, to a general public starving (even more than usual) for something outside of the two variants of statist clown-car presented by the two war-party wings, Demoncrap and Republicant.

For this reason, there is no way I will vote for him for President to represent the Libertarian Party in 2016.

[NOTE: See part two of this essay for a further discussion of the issue this “ambush” involved, as it perhaps might be addressed from a libertarian perspective.]  

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