When I and many other self-described liberty Republicans heard that there would be two candidates bearing the liberty standard in 2012 we didn’t know what to think. Would there be a civil war to divide the liberty movement which even still is only in its infancy, or would two candidates bring the liberty message legitimacy?
Early indications were not good. Powerful advocates of Ron Paul, most notably Justin Raimondo at Antiwar.com and Lew Rockwell, started running hit pieces on Gary Johnson as soon as he announced his candidacy. Authors at The American Spectator and The American Conservative wrote slightly less vicious pieces along the same lines. On the other side institutional libertarians at such places as Reason, the CATO Institute and the Republican Liberty Caucus appeared to be rallying around Johnson, blowing off Paul as either less libertarian or as less electable. (Editor’s Note: The RLC has not endorsed any Presidential candidate.) The battle lines were drawn: The R3volution vs the “libertarian power elite” (as the late Murray Rothbard called them).
For all of the antagonism, there was little animosity between the actual candidates themselves. As Ron Paul was mulling over an entrance into the race he was asked whether he would endorse Johnson if he decided not to run. His answer was simple: “I can’t imagine endorsing anyone else.” Likewise, when Gary Johnson is asked why someone should vote for him over Ron Paul, as he was on Stossel’s program recently, his canned answer was “I would never make that case.”
Luckily for our cause of liberty, a de facto truce seems to have developed between the two camps. This is a fortunate development indeed, considering the degree to which the liberty movement has succumbed to infighting and self-destruction in the past. Ron Paul enthusiasts can identify with being locked out of a debate, as Gary Johnson was in New Hampshire. And Gary Johnson followers, who were mostly Ron Paul followers less than three years ago, have given up converting any who still identify more with Paul’s brand of libertarianism. Presumably they have come to realize that his candidacy is only useful to the degree to which he attracts new voters to the cause, and dividing the fledgling movement serves no constructive purpose.
And as the race has developed and the message and rhetoric from each candidate has further evolved, it seems that the two standard bearers for liberty have tailored their message to vastly different constituencies. Beginning in March, at The Family Leader Presidential Lecture Series, Ron Paul began targeting his stump speech towards religious groups and family values voters. He makes a fantastic case for liberty based on the experience of the Israelites in 1st Samuel Chapter 8 (which he aptly points out is closely related to Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution). The 75 year old has also lead a personal life that is very much in line with the values of social conservatives. He has only had one wife, he has five children, many grandchildren, and even a few great-grandchildren. It‘s clear to anyone who hears him speak that his faith plays a significant role in his life.
On the other hand, Gary Johnson has not lead such a Christian conservative life. Divorced, he has two children and, while raised Lutheran, does not attend church (although he believes in God and will even “admit to praying once and a while”). To the Christian conservative base to which Ron Paul has tailored his message, this would be a huge negative. But not to the pragmatic liberals who are itching for a candidate who understands economics but are wary of the caricature Bible-thumping snake oil salesmen which have sadly become associated with “Republican.” Being a two term governor of a blue state in which he remains popular, Johnson also brings credibility to the notion that a liberty oriented candidate could actually govern if elected. As an entrepreneur who grew a one man handy-man business into one of the largest construction firms in his home state, he also has credibility with small-business types. In addition, Governor Johnson has been able to take arguably even more liberty oriented stances than Paul on such issues as abortion and immigration, stances that Paul simply could not take if he wished to maintain his appeal with Christian conservative voters even if he did agree with them himself (and there is no indication that he does).
The contrast between the two liberty candidates extends into core philosophy. Ron Paul is what a “rights-based” libertarian who advocates for liberty on the basis of the morality of personal property rights. Gary Johnson, on the other hand, is a “consequentialist” libertarian who would claim that everything government does should be looked at from a cost-benefit analysis. The fact that these two different perspectives arrive at the same policy conclusions should not be surprising: a geometric proof and an algebraic proof of a mathematical theorem should arrive at the same conclusion. Otherwise there is something wrong with that theorem.
Practical implications of this slight difference are significant even on issues which the two candidates largely agree. Ron Paul, for instance, would never admit to supporting “gay rights” because even though his policy would be very friendly toward gays, as a rights-based libertarian he does not believe that any group has specific rights and he is loathe to spin his rhetoric in a way that implies this is the case. This could confuse some voters who do not understand rights-based libertarianism. As a consequentialist libertarian, however, Gary Johnson is proud to say that he supports gay rights and voters who support gay rights but may not understand the issue deeply enough to take a second look at Ron Paul could be drawn towards Johnson’s campaign. Likewise, Paul’s message retains more credibility with social conservatives if he refrains from talking about “gay rights” as such.
In a similar fashion, when it comes to foreign policy Gary Johnson will not admit to being a non-interventionist. He even appears to be insulted by pundits who identify him as such. In order to stay philosophically consistent, as a consequentialist libertarian he has to view each potential conflict from a cost-benefit standpoint. Johnson will not even rule out intervening in conflicts for humanitarian purposes if he thought such an intervention would yield greater benefits than costs. That being said, he has decided virtually every conflict we are currently involved in fails the cost-benefit analysis test. He believes that much of our military spending, many of our strategic alliances, and scores of overseas military bases fail the test as well. Ron Paul, on the other hand, is a strict non-interventionist. As a rights-based libertarian, he sees intervention in the affairs of other nations as inherently illegitimate. This distinction between the two candidates may lead hardcore anti-war voters to be naturally drawn to Paul while Gary Johnson is more open to receive the support of voters who are receptive to more moderate rhetoric when it comes to national security issues.
Rhetorical and philosophical differences between the two liberty candidates naturally lead to slightly different geographic constituencies as well. Whether or not the candidates have understood this and communicated it to each other, they seem to recognize it. Ron Paul has made a strong effort in Iowa, where religious conservatives who will understand his references to the Old Testament and the founding documents are likely to grasp his ideas and hopefully identify with them. Being a caucus state, Iowa is also a naturally favorable state for a politician with such fanatical followers as Paul. Meanwhile, Gary Johnson has pinned all of his hopes on a strong finish in New Hampshire, the “Live Free or Die” state where thousands of liberty loving activists have moved as part of the Free State Project. With a broader, simpler message of the “religion of the pocketbook”, Johnson hopes to make a big impact on a state which is known more for its appreciation of distilled liberty than its appreciation of religion.
Looking onward to the next two primary states, it is my opinion that the same strategy of “divide and conquer” should be employed in a similar way. Nevada, much like New Hampshire, is a state which is famously liberty oriented and not known for its conviction to religion. In stark contrast, South Carolina is a famously religious state and member in good standing of the so-called “Bible Belt.” By defining themselves slightly differently, Ron Paul and Gary Johnson should be able to appeal to these two states in a way that a single liberty candidate would be unable to do. It should also be noted that, as a Congressman from a southern state, Ron Paul may be able to make a close connection with voters in another southern state. Likewise, as the former governor of a western state, Gary Johnson may be able to make a connection with voters in another western state.
This is not to say that Gary Johnson should abandon Iowa and South Carolina, or that Ron Paul should completely give up on New Hampshire and Nevada: there are vast numbers of individuals in each of these states who do not fit the general character of the state who would identify better with the opposite candidate. With that clarification out of the way, it is in the interest of the liberty message that each of these candidates focuses their efforts in the state most likely to be receptive to their rhetoric in order to maximize the degree to which the message of liberty resonates.
Each candidate should recognize that it is unlikely that a liberty candidate will win the nomination this time around, but it is important that the message gets out and that a liberty loving base for future liberty candidates is built. We can only win the battle for the presidency once we win the battle of ideas.
Kyle R. Johnson is a masters student in chemical engineering at the University of Idaho. He is originally from Richland, Washington.