Monday, June 4, 2012

Gary Johnson and critical Libertarians: a lesson from my days in AM radio

Gary Johnson:  Look, buddy, I got
your Ludwig von Mises and your
Lysander Spooner right here, OK?
Recently there has been a spate of posts showing up on Google News and other aggregators that are critical of Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.

We've had various riffs on Robert Wenzel's interview with Gary in which he and others sniff, stick their noses in the air, and express "disappointment" that the Governor is not as grounded in Libertarian theory as they would like.

Then there are various similar pieces at Lew Rockwell (a place, I must admit, I rarely ever visit), that attempt to cast doubt on Gary's core Libertarianism.  Here and here for example.

There are three things you need to know about all this.

First, this criticism is a GOOD THING.  It means that Gary Johnson is moving from cloistered dogmatic Libertarian circles into the mainstream of American politics.  I know there are Libertarians who don't want their presidential candidates to go there, God love 'em.  They think we run candidates to educate the public, not to win.  I think that's lunacy, but to each their own.  Point being:  by running to win, by running to get the 15% necessary to get into the Presidential debates, Gary has to expand the definition of libertarian, and he has to convince people who may only be "libertarian about this issue" or "libertarian about that issue" to give him a serious look.  And--to put it quite bluntly--most people in the real world who will vote in the millions this fall don't give two shits about Ludwig von Mises or John Maynard Keynes, and probably don't even have a freaking clue who Paul Krugman is, either.  90% of the Ron Paul supporters who talk about "Austrian economics" learned everything they think they know about the subject from one speech by Dr. Paul or the four page chapter in his latest book.

People want to know what Gary will do about taxes, laws, regulations, wars, and budgets.

Second, this is a "pony" argument.  My friends at Delaware Liberal either created this reference or turned me on to it--not sure which.  Purists at the far end of the spectrum--any spectrum--are always disenchanted with any candidate close enough to the center to have a praye's chance in hell at winning. Far Left progressives are upset with Barack Obama because he didn't give them single-payer health care, so they threaten to primary him, or sit home and not vote for him, like they would be happier with a conservative Republican in office.  This is what my friends call "demanding a pony" rather than living in the real world, where every electable candidate is a bunch of compromises.  For a classice DL example of the pony theory in action (or at least in rhetoric), go here

If you are going to demand that your candidate give you a pony, you are always going to be (a) disappointed, and (b) out of power.  Libertarians have tried (b) for their entire existence.  Time to forget the f--king pony for awhile.

Third, what do you do about these criticisms from the Libertarian dogmatists?  This is going to be difficult advice to follow, because Libertarians are a contentious group, but the answer is simple:


Don't refute them, don't apologize, don't engage them, don't feed the damn trolls.  Ignore them and keep rolling.

I learned this from a fat old AM morning drive disc jockey over thirty years ago.  The average listening span on AM radio is fifteen minutes.  85% of your audience tunes in and out every fifteen minutes.  Even if they keep the dial on your station, their attention tunes in and out.  So at any given moment, 85% of the people listening don't know you screwed up fifteen mintues, ago, and won't know unless you are stupid enough to keep talking about it.  Of the other 15%, a solid majority either (a) won't care, or (b) won't remember, because you're a goddamn disc jockey and not that important to their day to day life.

Program directors know this.  Successful campaign managers know this.  You can bet your ass that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney know this.  If you campaign in the big time, and you are out there every day, you will screw up (at least in somebody's eyes) on a daily basis.  Call somebody a "macawcaw" and your campaign is over; people don't forgive or forget that stuff.  But blow a question about Ludwige von Mises?  Nobody cares.

Move the f--k on.

So here's my answer in a nutshell:  criticism means you are entering the debate; people who demand ponies won't help you get elected; and when you screw up (which you will do) keep moving.


KN@PPSTER said...

I haven't listened to the whole interview, but in the first part it is not an issue of whether or not Johnson is "grounded in libertarian theory."

Rather it's an issue of him throwing out a laugh line / historical blooper along the lines of Dan Quayle's "went to Latin America but I don't speak Latin" or Bluto's "we didn't give up when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor."

Johnson cited Milton Friedman as an inspiration, then went into talking about how opposed Friedman was to income tax withholding.

Friedman INVENTED income tax withholding.

I'm not embarrassed by Johson because he doesn't represent me and because even if he did, nobody outside the libertarian movement is paying much attention to him anyway.

But if he did represent me and if people were paying attention, I would be embarrassed by the fact that he didn't just accidentally make himself look stupid. He opened the door himself instead of it being held open for him, and he walked through it instead of being pushed.

If he keeps doing that, and if anyone outside the libertarian movement ever notices him, he'll eventually do it in the public eye instead of just on a movement podcast.

Steve Newton said...

Ah, gee, Tom, yes Milton Friedman was involved in the invention of tax withholding.

He also said he supported it only as a wartime measure, did not support it in peacetime and wished it could be abolished.

From his interview with Reason in 1995:

"I played a significant role, no question about it, in introducing withholding. I think it's a great mistake for peacetime, but in 1941-43, all of us were concentrating on the war.

I have no apologies for it, but I really wish we hadn't found it necessary and I wish there were some way of abolishing withholding now."

So, yes, Friedman was opposed to tax withholding except in one special circumstance.

That, to me, does not make Gary Johnson look like an idiot.

KN@PPSTER said...


It's not a big deal in the scheme of things. Outside of a handful of Austrian economics obsessors, even fewer people have heard of Bob Wenzel than will ever care one way or another about Gary Johnson.

But yes, when someone thinks they know something that happens to be the opposite of what's true, and says that thing, he looks stupid.

The "major party" candidates get trotted out as idiots when they mix up the capitals of Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan.

God help them if they go on a show pretending to know something about a prominent economist and then turn out to not have even the slightest grasp of whom that economist is or what he did/wrote.

Boning up on his facts before opening his mouth won't be SUFFICIENT for Johnson when it comes to making an impact, but if the bizarrely improbable should occur and he somehow miraculously gets into position to make an impact, boning up on his fact before opening his mouth may very well become NECESSARY.

Anonymous said...

Dumbledore said it best.

"It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."

Gary chose to veto 750 bills, even though he can't quote Libertarian authors off the top of his head. His choices define him, not his ability to quote authors.

Carol Moore said...

The problem is that every time it is not made clear that the existing government program is something created by and for a special interest that screws everyone else, deprives us of liberty and even allows the govt to persecute those it doesn't like, someone is going to get pissed off if that someone is very aware of how they are getting screwed. And then three other people will start to wonder when something overly statist will be said about some program where they feel they are getting screwed. So it's not just about ideology, it's about people getting screwed by government in their daily lives and want a CHAMPION against that sort of thing. At this point only Marijuana smokers who don't mind taxes and regulations can feel 100% that way about Johnson. Others remain wary he's on the verge of saying or doing something that will have us tearing out our hair.

Steve Newton said...

OK Carol

Very simple question: who have you got who is any better, who has any realistic chance of making an impact in American electoral politics?

Johnson is the first candidate this party has run who is actually qualified to be President of the United States.

Carol Moore said...

We've got who we've got. But he's enough of a Politician to know that if sufficient numbers of the base/core grassroots activists and contributors are not happy with him, he may have more trouble getting signatures and raising money. Not to mention those embarrassing articles about "how come he's not as hard core as Ron Paul" or the LP platform on this or that issue. If no one complained the last six months he might not even be hard core enough for you to support :-)

Anonymous said...

This article is right-wing trash.The purist vs, pragmatist thing is a right-wing memme--both are rejected by the radical center that put Johnson--who once 'pragmatically' advocated executing kids for drug offenses-- in. But they also warned him to get to current on Libertarianism, which he hasn't.

You need to know what you represent and be able to defend and explain it. Johnson's opponents at this point probably know more about Libertarianism than he does and would crucify him in a debate as the media did to Barr.

There's nothing pragmatic about ignorance. The writer is simply trying to smear Libertarians.

Steve Newton said...

Ah, Anon--to begin with, it's spelled meme, but I'll spot you thank in your frothy Misesian purist anger.

The "radical center"? Amusing.

Me as a "right winger"? Even more fun. I've got years of credentials for who and what I am.

But thanks for playing.

Ron said...



Anonymous said...

Luckily Gary Johnson did not take your advice to "IGNORE THEM". Instead he is reading the books we recommended, and he will be a better candidate and a better spokesman for libertarianism because of it.