Saturday, November 02, 2013

The Libertarian Evolution of George F. Will

Reason magazine's current issue has a lengthy interview with conservative columnist George F. Will, conducted by Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch, authors of The Declaration of Independents.  Not yet on line, the article is headlined "George Will's Libertarian Evolution."

That's a title I thought of using myself recently (and you will see a variant above) when I saw Will's October 23 column that virtually endorsed Virginia gubernatorial candidate Robert Sarvis, running as a Libertarian Party nominee, and I remembered Will's 1992 column about Libertarian presidential candidate Andre Marrou, which in the Washington Post was headlined "Consider a Libertarian?; Get Serious."

(I should mention that, as a campaign advisor, I accompanied Marrou to the interview with George Will at his Georgetown office that preceded the publication of the column, and we both came away from it feeling positive and expecting, perhaps naively, great praise and even an endorsement.)

At the Post, that article is behind a paywall, but I found a copy on the Baltimore Sun's web site.  Here are some tidbits:

There hangs about [Marrou] the acrid aroma of strange incense burnt at silly altars. There is, in fact, some Lenin in the clanking rhetoric by which he expresses his encompassing ideology, his life in the familiar 20th-century abode, the well-lit prison of one idea.

The idea is that ''government power is opposed to individual liberty.'' Must we still debate such sophomoric notions? One's spirit sags at the prospect of plowing all the over-plowed intellectual ground from late-night college arguments, long ago when we smoked French cigarettes and thought Italian movies were deep. But plow we must.

So, here goes: Police and armies that keep bad people at bay, and roads that make practical the freedom to travel, and education that makes people competent for life in a free society, these are not ''opposed to individual liberty.'' Besides, liberty, although very important, is not the only value. There are also justice, domestic tranquillity and a good five-cent cigar.

The Libertarians' extremism (they oppose laws setting minimum drinking ages, or banning concealed weapons, or restricting immigration, and so on) makes them unelectable, so their extremism also makes them safe recipients of protest votes....

All of which makes the Libertarians' frivolousness especially regrettable. Once upon a time there were politically serious third parties -- Bob La Follette's Progressives, Norman Thomas' Socialists -- which, by working at the margins, expanded first the nation's political discussion and then the nation's agenda. No more.
By contrast, Will's latest foray into commentary on Libertarian candidates has more negative to say about the Republican and Democrat running against the LP candidate than about the Libertarian Sarvis, whom Will finds so attractive he includes the script of a pro-Sarvis TV ad:
During an intermission in the telecast of a notably disagreeable McAuliffe-Cuccinelli debate, viewers heard from their television sets a woman’s voice asking, “Can’t vote for these guys?” Then Sarvis’s voice:

“Like you, I can’t vote for Ken Cuccinelli’s narrow-minded social agenda. I want a Virginia that’s open-minded and welcoming to all. And like you, I don’t want Terry McAuliffe’s cronyism either, where government picks winners and losers. Join me, and together we can build a Virginia that’s open-minded and open for business.”

McAuliffe is an enthusiast for, and has prospered from, government “investments” in preferred industries, which is a recipe for crony capitalism. Cuccinelli is a stern social conservative, an opponent of, among other things, gay marriage. Marriage equality interests Sarvis (whose mother is Chinese) because his wife is African American, so his marriage would have been illegal in Virginia before the exquisitely titled 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia.
Earlier in the piece, Will noted:
The Democratic and Republican candidates, Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli, each say that no good can come from electing the other fellow; Sarvis amiably agrees with both.

In Sarvis, the man and the moment have met. He is running at a time of maximum distrust of established institutions, including the two major parties. He has little money, but McAuliffe and Cuccinelli have spent millions of dollars on broadcast ads making each other repulsive to many Virginians, who surely feel as Will Rogers did: “You got to admit that each party is worse than the other.”
To be sure, Will doesn't predict Sarvis will win, but he recognizes the value of the vote as a message-bearing mechanism:
Third-party candidacies are said to be like bees — they sting, then die. Still, Sarvis is enabling voters to register dissatisfaction with the prevailing political duopoly. Markets are information-generating mechanisms, and Virginia’s political market is sending, through Sarvis, signals to the two durable parties.

One aspect of that signal is that Virginia voters want an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans.

Robert Sarvis with Coy Barefoot
If Sarvis breaks the 10 percent vote threshold, the Libertarian Party will have official ballot status for the next four years, meaning the LPVA can nominate candidates the way the DPVA and RPV do, through caucuses and conventions (and even primaries), without going through the tedious, time-consuming, and expensive process of collecting petition signatures to get candidates' names on the ballot. Money that could instead go into voter education (TV and radio ads, direct-mail appeals, phone banking) now gets spent on ballot access.

For four years, if the LP is organized well enough to take advantage of its new status, Virginia Libertarians can spend money on campaigning rather than on petitioning.

Whether George Will explicitly knew about this aspect of Virginia election law is not really relevant. The fact that he recognized the Libertarian candidate as a torch-bearer for electoral choice as well as human liberty -- and that this represents a shift in his thinking over the past two decades -- is what I find significant.

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