Gary Johnson, the former two-term governor of New Mexico, is the Libertarian Party's presidential nominee for 2012. He was recently interviewed by Robert Wenzel of the Economic Policy Journal. You can listen to the interview here:
After the interview, Wenzel posted a short piece comparing him to Ron Paul. The amusing thing in that post is reading all of the comments below.
Wenzel really tore into Johnson, in a respectful kind of way. He challenged him on his libertarian credentials. It is funny because the one thing that has always worried me the most about Johnson is whether he would really withdraw the troops and end the wars if he became president. If I was 100% sure that he would do that, then I would probably vote for him, regardless of his economic positions.
He is obviously much better on foreign policy than Obama or Romney. Johnson is also much better on economics than Obama or Romney. But when I listened to this interview, I think Johnson may be closer to Romney and Obama than Ron Paul when it comes to economics. I'm not sure if that is a fair assessment, but I really came away feeling like Johnson doesn't understand economics very well.
Gary Johnson seems like a nice and decent guy. Of course, the same could be said for Mitt Romney. And I do agree with Wenzel that it seems that Johnson has some good instincts. But he really doesn't understand the free market, libertarian position on economics.
Johnson said that we have to go through recessions and that recessions are good. But I have to say that no Austrian school person who really understands what he is talking about would phrase something like that. The Austrian position is that recessions are generally necessary after a central bank-induced boom. But the way Johnson said it, he makes it sound like we would still be going through recessions frequently in a free market environment. While he was somewhat correct in his assessment that recessions are a signal that there has been too much consumption, he misses the point that consumers and entrepreneurs miscalculated, probably due to central bank inflation.
Johnson cites Milton Friedman as a libertarian having influence on him. Wenzel is quick to point out Friedman's flaws. While there is a lot to like about Friedman from a libertarian standpoint, school choice is not one of them. Unfortunately, that was one of the two things that Johnson pointed out about Friedman (the other being drug legalization). I suppose we should be thankful that Johnson didn't praise Friedman for his monetary policy.
Johnson also cited Cato and Reason as good resources that he likes to read. This pretty much shows where Johnson is on the spectrum of libertarianism. He doesn't understand Austrian economics. He is from the Chicago school. The Chicago school of Milton Friedman is better than the Keynesians, but not so much when it comes to monetary policy.
One thing I have noticed about Gary Johnson is that he usually uses utilitarian arguments. He does not argue the position of morality often, if at all. He will say we need to legalize marijuana, but his reasons are pragmatic. He does not say that it is because people should be free to put anything they want in their bodies as long as they are not encroaching on other people's rights. He would never say that taxation is theft. He would say that we need to reduce taxation so that we can create more jobs and have a strong economy.
Ron Paul, on the other hand, uses both types of arguments. He argues from a pragmatic standpoint sometimes and he also argues based on morality. I think it is important to use both. There are some libertarians like Stefan Molyneux who tend to argue the moral position more frequently.
If Johnson is going to use utilitarian arguments most of the time, it would be nice if he understood them. He has little grasp of Austrian economics, which means his utilitarian arguments are not even that good.
In the interview, Wenzel tripped up Johnson by asking him about libertarian books. It has reminded some people of Sarah Palin when she was interviewed by Katie Couric. Johnson said that he had read Rothbard at the beginning of the interview, but then later recanted.
I don't think there is anything wrong with Johnson just because he hasn't read Rothbard, or Mises, or Hayek. In Johnson's defense, Mises is tough to read. It would be one of the last things I would recommend to someone new to libertarianism. I am partial to Harry Browne or Richard Maybury. If you want to teach someone economics, you don't hand him a copy of Human Action. That will put him to sleep and turn him off of the subject.
As I have written before, I wish that Lee Wrights would have won the Libertarian Party's nomination. He is a principled libertarian who understands the issue. Gary Johnson would not even come out and say that he favors legalization (at least from a federal standpoint) of all drugs.
Radical libertarians have been spoiled by Ron Paul. We start to take it for granted that other libertarians understand economics. Ron Paul looks highly articulate next to Johnson, only because Paul understands the issues with great depth and he believes in what he is saying. It will be interesting to see if Johnson's views evolve at all through the campaign and which way they evolve.