The great debate, part two: Shots and misses

posted by
April 10, 2016
The Inter-Rationale    
Posted in The Inter-Rationale

[Disclaimer: this is written from having watched the debate, taking notes as I did, and then watching it the late-night rerun to enhance or prop up the quotes. Had no transcript, and no other viewings, so if I misquoted someone badly, or distorted his position, please feel free to correct me.]

Well, they aired the second half of the Libertarian debate on the Stossel show this past Friday night, and not a lot was really different: John McAfee gave another strong performance -- straight from the gut, including sincere apologies for some of his past indiscretions; Austin Petersen continued to use any opportunity to go “off-script” and make Gary Johnson respond to his attacks; Johnson, meanwhile, appeared at times a little “tentative” (Matt Welch’s words, not mine) about expressing his deeper libertarian beliefs, preferring to present pragmatic, toward-liberty ideas the general public might actually listen to.

Stossel opened with Milton Friedman’s position that immigration restrictions might be necessary until after the welfare state has been ended. He addressed this to McAfee, who challenged Stossel’s claim that this was his own belief: “They have nothing to do with each other,” he said bluntly. Petersen noted another of Uncle Miltie’s thoughts on the subject: that in reality “illegal” immigration brings more money into the economy than it takes out, since working immigrants without papers have taxes and FICA taken from their paychecks, but then have no way to which to collect back from the system, even for tax refunds. Johnson noted that as a former governor of a border state, he had seen the issue up-close, and found the majority of those coming in illegally to be productive workers. (All three weighed in on the fact that immigration must be simplified and opened, or the problems would persist, and the illegal crossings continue, no matter how high a “wall” some people think they can build.)

Next it was about “free trade,” with McAfee quickly noting the main problem being barriers to entry set up by government. Petersen cited how lower prices for consumers resulted from open trading, adding some other good ideas as well. Johnson noted the recent success of entrepreneurship, where the “Uber mentality” has taken over in so many areas of life, despite opposition from government, unions and big business alike. He cited AirB&B and similar ventures in self-employment and private provision of services. “We just have to get government out of the way!”

With tongue firmly in cheek, Stossel then asked about “job-creation,” after playing clips of Drumpf, Hillary, Bernie, Cruz and Obama (and other pols, past and present), all ranting about “creating jobs.” Johnson began, noting that during his 2012 pre-LP campaign, after Texas Gov. Rick Perry spouted about how many jobs he had created, the tally had shown it was Johnson himself who had come out with a much better record. However, as he was quick to add, “I did not create a single job!” He noted that all government can do is to “level the playing field, and I played a hand in that.” McAfee repeated his previous comment, that only by reducing barriers, to allow business to produce jobs, could government have any role in this. “You shouldn’t need a license to cut hair,” he added. Petersen continued with the anti-licensing meme, while Johnson noted some of his 750 vetos while Governor might have helped.

Stossel went next to online responses received during the session. (As this was now almost ten days after the show had been taped, these were also not live.) He pulled one up from . . . Darryl Perry, who asked why only these three contenders had been invited to the event, when there were a half-dozen or more declared candidates, including several still appearing at state-LP convention debates around the country, attracting delegates. Stossel at first just answered the question, but was then informed that Perry was himself among those excluded who had a following. He apologized for the exclusion, but defended the limits on practical grounds. (No other Tweets were shown, as they went to commercial. Some credit is due to John Stossel for choosing to air that one response.)

The next topic involved the Apple iPhone and the San Berdoo attackers. Although this issue was mainly resolved between the taping and the airing of this portion of the debate, Stossel got pretty consistent responses from all three: McAfee declared that “breaking a single phone can’t tell you anything about a terror attack.” He noted (as he has in several debates and online interviews) the nature of these attacks, consistent throughout events that have already happened: planning stages involve throwaway cell phones and patterns of conversation, easily monitored and identified without infringing the liberty of anyone. Petersen gave a Thomas Jefferson quote and a bumpersticker response, but was on the same side of the issue. Johnson noted that phone privacy breaches had not done a thing to stop terrorism. He also predicted that any effort to create a master key to decrypt phones could be “a death sentence” if the Chinese government got hold of it—for their own dissidents as well as others.

The next question involved gun control and the right to bear arms, and it opened an unexpected can of worms. Johnson, asked about current concerns regarding people with homicidal/suicidal mental issues shooting up public places, acknowledged the problem, and said he might be “open to a discussion” of how we could perhaps keep arms from the criminally insane. He followed up very quickly by stating that he had “yet to see” anyone with a reasonable argument of how to define that line, and was apprehensive that anything that might be offered could one day be used to stop him or other innocent people from self-protection. (In other words, he acknowledged the problem, and said he had no idea of how to solve it without infringing on the rights of innocent people in the process. It was not an “anti-gun rights” position as some have claimed.)

Petersen’s response was right out of the LP handbook, quoting the Constitution, referring to King George (the 18th century British despot, not the recent wanna-be king and POTUS), and being absolute in his defense of the Second Amendment, while going on about the prized AR-15 he owned and fired regularly. When it was McAfee’s turn, he simply noted, “Anyone who doubts my position on this has never seen a photo of me.” He added that the issue was “not just about owning guns, but bearing arms,” against whatever aggression you might be facing. (He also asked, with reference to Johnson’s answer, who would make the laws to decide who was a criminal, or who was insane.)

Petersen now jumped back in, firing another shot at Johnson, accusing him of waffling on the question. (One more case of AWP forgetting the larger purpose of this forum: presenting the ideas of liberty to a wider audience, not taking potshots at each other in that public venue.) As Gary attempted to answer, Austin kept interrupting, until Johnson finally asked “are you listening?” He waited a second, and then repeated what he had already said about the need to “open a discussion,” repeating that he had seen no solution not involving infringing rights, and so was not in favor of anything proposed so far.

Stossel next addressed the isssue of pollution, and the perceived need for the Environmental Protection Agency to combat it. McAfee replied with his own question: How is government going to predict how to change anything in this area, given the constantly changing environment, and the scientific investigation showing contrasting results? Petersen gave a textbook response, that Congress should hold the EPA to its proper duties from when it was founded (investigating the findings of scientific studies), and not allow them to do other things (as in Oregon, holding sway over property disputes, and leading to conflicts like that).

Johnson took another tack, a bit more pragmatic than libertarian. Government, he said, exists to protect us against harm, whether it’s from government, criminals, corporations or whatever source. At times, he continued, it may be necessary for govt to step in. He cited an issue in New Mexico, where a river was polluting. “Without EPA intervention, there was no way to stop it,” he concluded. (His position on this has drawn fire from some anarchists; I'd note that Johnson has never said he didn't believe in the value of some aspects of government!)

All three of the candidates thus missed a golden opportunity to give a history lesson: Up until the 1930s or so, it was commonplace for people to sue each other over water (and even air) pollution conflicts, as a pure matter of property-rights. But the courts, seeing the future of class-action suits against companies, ruled this could no longer be done in its class-action form -- “for the good of the country and its commercial interests,” or some such claptrap. All three speakers missed the chance to advocate for a return to this formerly powerful legal tool to resolve such disputes (with some of the first suits being filed against the EPA itself).

To a follow-up question on climate change nee global warming, Petersen began by declaring that government should take no role in this issue, and then danced around warming trends, stating that “they’re not Nostradamus” and cannot predict the future. He also noted that most of the world’s air befoulment was happening in India and China, and that this would continue regardless of what the United States might be forced to do.

McAfee took a different angle, noting that warming and cooling cycles have been going on for as long as the earth has existed, as we move in planetary rotation and throughout the universe. “Ten thousand years ago,” he declared, “there was ice over most of the earth, and it went away again in about a hundred years or so.” He went on to ask, “What power do we have to approve or disapprove anything? We are not gods, and we do not control how the earth changes.” When Stossel asked his position on the Keystone pipeline, he shifted the question to eminent domain: “Government should not be able to take away or even cross property, without the owner’s permission. Let the market do its thing.”

Johnson noted that he had never enacted eminent domain during his time as Governor. He said he was unsure as to how much of Keystone’s development relied on this to take property. He went on to note how “the free market has bankrupted coal; no more coal plants are being built.” It was not his best answer of the evening (as many of us know, the decline of coal as a fuel had more to do with government regulation, and subsidies to the other fuel industries), but it seemed sufficient at the time.

In the next segment, a couple of Fox News talkshow hosts were on tape, asking pointed questions. Bill O’Reilly (Why can I no longer hear that name, without wanting to prefix it with “Comedian . . .” as Keith Olbermann used to for Rush Limbaugh?) threw out an acerbic question about the heroin epidemic. All three candidates had something of value to say:

McAfee gave a history lesson, noting that during the 1950s, opium (in the form of paregoric) was on the pharmacist’s shelves, and if you used it for other than medicinal purposes (cough medicine mostly), as some youth did for a “high,” your parents would punish you. “If drugs are illegal,” he noted, “kids will try them, just to be . . . a little bad.”

Petersen called Bill-O a “pinhead,” and cited the major problem of street drugs as being “unknown dosage,” so that overdose was a constant risk. He also noted recent admissions that the Nixonian War on (some) Drugs was mainly an effort to control and imprison “hippies and black people,” and cried out for “an end to the War on Drugs.”

Johnson took an international approach, citing Zurich, Switzerland, and its program to both legalize heroin and provide safe spaces for addicts to feed their habits. He also noted that “8000 people a year” die from heroin overdoses, and affirmed that legalization would resolve more problems than the continued tyranny. Although the specific details of this are a bit more complex, his point did address a possible route to use instead of criminal penalties, even for using this problematic substance.

Not knowing he was following up on Johnson’s point (as time travel continued to be the theme of the show), Geraldo Rivera was next on, asking about government programs to help addicts. McAfee was quick to point out the assumption being made: that all addicts want to be helped. He cited his own background of drug addiction and alcoholism, and concluded, “You have to want to be fixed before anyone can help you.” (Whether or not the others got to respond in the actual debate, it did not show in the broadcast.)

Once more, all three candidates missed a great chance to point out that the reason for the current heroin epidemic is Big Pharma, which has gotten half the country hooked on pain meds (synthetic heroin: more expensive, more dangerous and addictive, more side effects, etc.), and then cut them off so now they’re jonesing, and go to the street smack (with no idea of dosage, of course). Suddenly, it’s a “drug problem”—as if the issue had never existed before, while it was “only the legal drugs.” We need to hammer this point home, alongside the historical perspective on how scumbag politicians got this Prohibition II started, that crony corporate interests who make the substitutes for these evil drugs are just as culpable for the disasters created.

Stossel then asked a couple of his own civil-liberties questions. On the subject of prostitution, Johnson cited Nevada as the best example of how that can be legalized. “Empower women to protect women.” McAfee noted that his current wife had been forced into prostitution at the age of 20, with a vicious pimp ruling over her. “I rescued her from that, and then married her.” Petersen’s reply was not aired if he had one, but he did address a related issue, gambling, noting that “the worst example of crony capitalism is gambling licenses that let you do that legally inside the system.”

Judge Andrew Napolitano was next on tape, asking about how libertarians would “protect the Constitution.” Petersen said the Constitution “was a gift to us. We can protect it by obeying it, understanding it and reading it—as I do every day.” McAfee reminded us that “the Founders knew government would eventually become corrupt.” He noted that there was a “failsafe” embedded in the words of the Constitution, and that a current move to a new Constitutional Convention was well under way, chiding “anyone who thinks government is not insane, and is not just becoming our mother or father . . . The Constitution has the means to save itself.” Johnson noted the need to “obey it and recognize that we can change it.” He cited the need for repeal of the 17th Amendment, to restore direct election of Senators by state legislatures, and then (at McAfee’s prodding) added the 16th (income tax) to that kill-list.

And then they closed. Petersen accused society (and maybe by inference the LP itself) of “stagnation,” then did a bit of ranting, bumpersticker/soundbytes and even some flag-waving. (For a moment I wondered if he was channeling Sarah Palin on of her smarter days.) McAfee expressed the hope that “during these two hours we have presented some fundamental principles” of liberty. He also cited what are often referred to as “kindergarten rules”: don’t hurt others, don’t take their stuff, live up to contracts. He noted the need for privacy and personal freedom . . . and ended before the 45-second bell went off.

Johnson gave a pretty standard summary: “If you want smaller govt, less taxes, more individual liberty, and free markets, see immigration as a good thing, and want term limits, less spending, ending the drug war, [and battling] crony capitalism, for women’s equality, skeptical about military spending . . . we have the answers.”

In the post-event analysis with Matt Welch and Kennedy, both were critical of Petersen for his tendency to preaching and flag waving. Welch did note his raising of the ballot-access issue, so that got aired a bit. Both pundits saw Johnson as the pragmatist and McAfee with the solid stance on basic principles. (“You own your own life, Man!” Welch paraphrased.) Kennedy also commended him on his firm stand on prostitution, including his own story. Both hit at some of the extraneous details (dates, places, etc.) Johnson threw into each response, and agreed that he seemed “tentative in saying what he believes.”

Welch also cited a perceived “need” for the EPA to deal with pollution. (Again not even he brought up the history of court decisions on this shifting in the mid-20th century, or how restoring those rights to sue might help.) Both declared that these ideas needed to be presented “on a main stage”; when Stossel objected to the categorization, Matt amended this to “mainer” stage. Meanwhile, they all agreed that we are about to go into “eight months of nothing but these two awful, virulently statist people,” and that the libertarian voice would be most welcome if it got the chance. They commended McAfee on his take and his offers on the Apple phone issue, and all three showed their complete opposition to both Hillary & Drumpf.

[ I’m not sure what else I can add that hasn’t already been said. Comments and discussion are welcome. ]  

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