Saturday, October 25, 2008

When a Libertarian Debates

Say what you will about the Libertarian Party, its candidates enliven the political process.

This past Wednesday, in debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters in Williamsburg, Nathan Larson, a Libertarian candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in Virginia's First Congressional District, faced off against Republican incumbent Rob Wittman and Democratic challenger Bill Day.

The result, according to press reports, was an actual debate rather than an exchange of predictable soundbites.

The Flat Hat, a student newspaper at the College of Willam and Mary, noted in an editorial headlined "Debates Need Third Parties":

While Democrat Bill Day and Republican Rob Wittman vied to show their support for energy independence and fiscal responsibility, Libertarian Nathan Larson helped shape the debate — and drew some jeers from the audience — with his plans to drastically reduce or eliminate the role of government. We applaud the Williamsburg League of Women Voters’ decision to admit him. Open political discourse comprises a key tenet of the American democratic ideals, and we hope that in the future, debate organizers will seek to include all registered candidates.

The traditional debate has become a tennis match of platitudes. Game-changing moments rarely emerge between the memorized volleys. But drop in a third-party candidate and the calculus changes.

Larson’s argument that the American economy would have been better served by allowing bad banks to fail required the others to justify their support for the Treasury Department’s bailout package. Without him, Day and Wittman likely would have stuck to criticizing the original bailout package’s earmarks or lack of accountability as they’d done in the past.
Larson is the only Libertarian candidate for the U.S. House in Virginia this year. (LP national chairman Bill Redpath, who ran for Virginia governor in 2001, is on the ballot statewide as a candidate for the U.S. Senate. His opponents include former Republican Governor Jim Gilmore and former Democratic Governor Mark Warner. They are all seeking to fill the seat being vacated by 30-year incumbent John Warner.)

Writing in the Daily Press about the LWV debate, Hugh Lessig reported on Larson's positions and the reactions from the audience:
Larson said the government should stop "bailing out businesses that are failing." The only way for capitalism to work, he said, is when poorly managed companies are allowed to fail. That allows capital to flow to businesses that are good stewards of their money....

Larson said he favored abolishing Medicare, an answer that brought gasps from some older members of the audience. In his view — where government plays as limited a role as possible — the tax dollars that fund Medicare would be better spent in the private sector with insurers and other private organizations that could provide health care to the elderly....

Larson said he would privatize the Chesapeake Bay. If it came under private ownership, there would be a natural incentive to harvest its resources responsibly and prevent pollution. The key to environmental protection, he said, is to establish property rights over all resources, extending to sections of the ocean floor.
Reporter Alex Guillen of The Flat Hat focused on some other topics covered by the three debaters. He noted, for instance:

Larson argued for privatizing transportation and other areas of government.

“There’s no service the government provides that couldn’t do better privately,” he said.

Larson said that education should be privatized and, in a move that drew laughs from the audience, made optional. Larson argued for the abolition of almost all government services and taxes, although he was unable to say how he would convince Congress to do so.

There was even a rare moment of agreement among all three, said Guillen:

Larson, again shocking the audience, advocated the abolition of Medicare.

After touching on federal recognition of Indian tribes — which Wittman and Day supported and Larson did not — all three candidates affirmed their support of nationwide congressional redistricting by an independent, non-partisan body.

The three differed in how they would advise the incoming president, however:

Larson said he would give the next president some economics books to read, bringing a laugh from the audience.

Wittman argued that the next president must reach across the aisle to enact change.

Day was more specific, saying that the next president must focus on the national debt, balancing the budget and securing energy independence, issues he said cross party lines.

In an email to Libertarians around Virginia, Larson provided the text of his closing remarks at the Williamsburg debate:
Now is the time to begin restoring freedom to America. Congress should completely deregulate the economy, so that businesses can thrive to their fullest potential. We should break the government monopoly on currency, so that entrepreneurs can create gold- and silver-backed currencies that will be more stable than our present U.S. dollar. Government services should be privatized and funded entirely by user fees, so that the different needs and desires of customers can be better accommodated through a competitive marketplace. Taxation should be abolished so that Americans will be free to devote their money toward productive investments, charitable contributions, and improvements in their quality of life, rather than having their incomes siphoned off into wasteful government programs, including unnecessary foreign wars and bailouts of poorly managed companies.

Historically, we've seen that nations such as the Soviet Union, in which government tried to exercise too much central control over the economy, have often collapsed. At best, they tend to experience economic stagnation compared to freer countries. The current recession is a result of some of the same kinds of harmful government interference. By electing a Congress that will simply rein in government, and let the market correct itself, America can get through the recovery faster and continue on to a more prosperous future.
While the editorial board of The Flat Hat praised the League of Women Voters for including Nathan Larson in the debate, credit is also due to Congressman Rob Wittman and to Bill Day. In a year in which candidates are refusing to debate their opponents in fora that might attract a large audience, Wittman and Day deserve congratulations for being unafraid to debate someone who brings new ideas to the table. Regardless of who the official "sponsor" might be, the two major parties generally control the terms of these sorts of events, usually excluding third-party and independent candidates, so Wittman and Day's openness to participation by all certified candidates is welcome.

Let's hope other candidates follow their example in future campaigns.

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