29 Aug 2016

Scorecard of Gary Johnson’s Interview With Chris Wallace

David R. Henderson, Libertarianism 20 Comments

[UPDATE below.]

I’m upset with Gary Johnson because he is running as a Libertarian, so I hold him to a higher standard than other candidates. But I realize I’m possibly being too hard on the guy, so when David R. Henderson recently singled out Johnson’s August 28 interview with Chris Wallace as his best performance yet, I decided to do an experiment.

Specifically, I decided that I would jot down each policy issue as it came up, and then ask: (a) Did Gary Johnson give the standard libertarian answer on it (if applicable); and (b) Did Johnson explain why this was the libertarian position, to educate the viewers? So I’ll embed the video below, and then underneath will be my scoring.

Free Trade: Johnson is good in that he wholeheartedly supports free trade. However, he then goes on to link it to the “IPP” (sic), which Wallace has to correct as the “TPP.” So that’s bad for two reasons: (1) The flub is embarrassing, but (2) Johnson didn’t say one word about the distinction between lower tariff rates and the legitimate concerns over IP and other measures that transfer sovereignty. So this is a very tricky topic, yet Johnson is proudly saying that the libertarian position is to embrace the TPP. This is an unforced error in reaching out to progressives who liked Sanders but don’t trust Clinton.

Immigration: I know this too is a tricky topic, but for somebody like Gary Johnson I’m fine if he says (as he does in the interview) that the libertarian position is to allow anybody to come here and work. However, when he elaborates, he says immigrants are just taking the jobs that Americans don’t want. That’s not really a good argument, because there aren’t a fixed number of jobs and whether native workers take them depends on the wage rate, which of course varies based on (illegal) immigration. (It would be more accurate to say, “Have you seen the Mexican guys busting their a**es on lawns when it’s 100 degrees out? Do the teenagers in your cul de sac want to work like that?”)

(Not a huge deal, but start at the 4:00 mark and you’ll see Johnson try to “get real” and he says, “Look, Hillary or Clinton, isn’t the polarization in Congress going to be greater than ever?” That’s a flub, he was trying to say TRUMP or Clinton, or Hillary or Trump, not “Hillary or Clinton.”)

Cut Spending 20%: Wallace said this was Johnson’s position, which is great if true, but Johnson didn’t talk about it, because Wallace lumped it in with the elimination of various government agencies (next item).

Eliminating Federal Agencies: Wallace said that Johnson wanted to eliminate the IRS, Commerce Dept., Department of Education, DEA, and NSA. So this is great, and epitomizes my problem with Johnson. I heard Wallace list these items, and I thought, “OK, I have been too hard on Johnson and too eager to argue with Scott Sumner. If this is the baseline, that Johnson is calling for this stuff, then yeah that’s so hardcore I gotta cut the guy some slack, that takes guts to call for abolishing the IRS and NSA.”

So guess what happened? The first thing Johnson does is try to clarify that he did NOT want to eliminate all of those agencies. Wallace says, “It’s on your website,” and Johnson says, “Not on my website, you might read that on somebody else’s website.” (Note these aren’t exact quotes, but close.) Johnson clarifies which agencies he DOES want to eliminate. You ready? Education, Commerce, and Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and he wants to roll the Dept. of Homeland Security back into the FBI. Nothing about the IRS or the NSA, the two that made me initially cut him some slack for being hardcore. He doesn’t even want to eliminate the DEA at first, even though that’s his signature issue. (If you guys think I misunderstood him, tell me in the comments and I’ll fix. But I’m pretty sure that’s what he clarified as his position.)

Replace Personal Income Tax and Corporate Income Tax with National Sales Tax: Sure, if we could choose between an income tax and a sales tax, I’d far prefer the latter. But I actually would not support a deal like this in practice, because I would fear that it would simply bring the national sales tax in, and we’d eventually have the income taxes again down the road. So I’m not even willing to give Johnson credit for having this position.

But then when it comes to selling the position (and using the opportunity to educate Americans about libertarian principles), again it was a train wreck. Wallace asks a tough question about this proposal being very regressive, and Johnson says, “Again, Weld and I aren’t running for dictator or king.” (This was the second time he’d said this during the interview.) So Wallace crushes him by replying, “Now wait a minute. When you say you aren’t running for dictator, it means we shouldn’t take your policies seriously, because you know they won’t get through Congress.” And yes, that’s exactly what Johnson WAS doing with that phrase.

Foreign Policy: He was good on agreeing with Wallace that Johnson was a non-interventionist and thought Obama’s policies had had unintended consequences. But when Wallace brought up ISIS, Johnson’s first response was to say we should contain ISIS, and that, “Think of them as sands through the hourglass, we’re going to see the sands through the hourglass.” I barely understand what that it supposed to mean. Anyway, Wallace keeps hitting him, saying ISIS wasn’t contained because of the attacks in Belgium, etc. Johnson says these were ISIS-inspired, and asks whether ISIS itself was carrying out these attacks directly. Wallace says, “Well in the case of France they’d seem to, yes.” (Crushing.)

Johnson wisely realizes he is losing this, so he pivots and says that military personnel support him over the other candidates. From this point forward, I admit he did a good job, speaking passionately (he actually looked angry) and citing some specifics on Obama/Clinton policies, without tripping over his words. I am assuming this is the segment that David R. Henderson liked.

(To give more specific praise: Johnson was really good on why eliminating ISIS was a fool’s errand, and his pivot to North Korea was good. I also liked that he wanted to reach out diplomatically to Russia and China.)

Drugs: Then, at the very end, Wallace brought up something I didn’t realize. Johnson had been the CEO of a company that sold cannabis. I knew people had called him a “pot entrepreneur” but I thought it was just a joke about his habits.

So, I can pull a Seinfeld and say, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” but I thought the one saving virtue of Johnson is that he was an accomplished governor and would show America that the Libertarian Party was serious, and not a freakshow. Well…

In conclusion, with the exception of maybe 2 minutes on foreign policy and then a brief statement of his view on marijuana legalization, this 11 minute interview was a train wreck. I am not saying this to be funny, I am dead serious: If we were back in college and were going to pick somebody to represent libertarians in a debate for the student body, I would have vehemently objected if someone who had given this 11-minute performance wanted to be the guy. I would have thought surely out of the 20 people in our group of hardcore libertarians, we could find a better representative of our perspective. And remember, this is the interview that David said is the best he’d seen yet from Johnson.

UPDATE: Oh! I forgot to mention. When Johnson was trying to sell his tax reform plan to Wallace, in order to reassure him that it wouldn’t be too regressive, Johnson said that his “Fair tax” would involve sending a “pre-bate” to every American. In other words, the Libertarian candidate’s tax reform plan would mean that literally every single tax-paying American would get a check from the federal government. (David at the end of his EconLog post also noted that that aspect of Johnson’s proposal was really problematic.)

So Johnson is already admitting his plan is not going to go through in its current form; why not ask for something really nice?

20 Responses to “Scorecard of Gary Johnson’s Interview With Chris Wallace”

  1. Tel says:

    So… it’s Hillary or Clinton, take your pick.

    Hmmm, perhaps Johnson isn’t as naive as he looks. He seems to have a pretty good grasp of how the anointment process operates.

    • Darien says:

      Given those choices, I’d have to pick Clinton, if only for the outside chance we’d get *George* Clinton.

  2. Tel says:

    So Wallace crushes him by replying, “Now wait a minute. When you say you aren’t running for dictator, it means we shouldn’t take your policies seriously, because you know they won’t get through Congress.” And yes, that’s exactly what Johnson WAS doing with that phrase.

    Johnson had a perfect come back on that, he just doesn’t have sufficient understanding to know how to use it.

    The President and Vice-President have this thing called “executive power” so they are not supposed to be out there making laws. The Libertarian Party has policies as a party, but that isn’t the same as running for executive office.

    Congress has this quite different thing called “legislative power” which works in conjunction with “executive power”. Congress makes the laws, and hey it would be great to see Libertarians getting into Congress but in the meantime the President should remain focussed on the best operational way to enforce existing laws, or handling those things Congress has placed within the discretion of the executive (I think that might include marijuana listing).

    Does the President have the power to eliminate the DEA? Not entirely sure, at the moment Obama has managed to get close to universal leverage on budget allocation so that could certainly prune out a few departments.

    It kind of annoys me that most people in the media neither understand the difference, nor do they particularly care.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Tel, did you watch the video or just rely on my summary? I think Johnson believed he *was* making the point you are making, but in practice he was bringing it up to dodge hard questions. So it certainly came off like he was using that line to avoid answering Wallace’s questions about the specifics of his proposals.

      • Tel says:

        Yeah I just watched it, and Johnson never even spelled out the distinction between executive power and legislative power. He might have been making the point (if you want to use your imagination), but sure as heck a lot of people wouldn’t have got that.

        Anyone running for President should have a very, very clear idea of what job the President does and be able to give a specific reply to that point (IMHO).

        Note that in Australia we don’t get get this distinction, because executive power is driven by whoever has Parliamentary majority.

  3. Tel says:

    The first thing Johnson does is try to clarify that he did NOT want to eliminate all of those agencies. Wallace says, “It’s on your website,” and Johnson says, “Not on my website, you might read that on somebody else’s website.” (Note these aren’t exact quotes, but close.)

    I think the relevant link is here:


    It shows considerable budget savings by cutting funding to various agencies (a lot of agencies actually). These type of cuts would be considered brutal by today’s standards so it would be a magnet for major party critics.

    Not sure if that’s considered current LP policy though, and who knows might be Wallace was looking at some other website (but going to LP would be somewhat logical).

    The way I interpret Johnson’s reply, “Not on my website! My site is right here on this postage stamp, and I keep that safely in my back pocket, so don’t go telling me what my policy is.”

  4. Chris says:

    If the fair tax truly replaced the income tax (not saying this is realistic), why would the prebate be concerning? Assuming government spending is going to happen and we need to design a revenue collecting system to pay for it, a progressive consumption tax seems to me to be the best of many bad options. I can see arguments in favor of a flat tax rate, but is anybody actually in favor of regressive taxes (which a sales tax with no prebate would almost certainly be)?

    Bob, what would be your preferred tax system? Don’t say just cut spending. Assume we have to pay for the current level of expenditure and you’re in charge of raising the revenue.

    • mh says:

      It’s not a regressive tax, if the tax rate is constant.

      There were states in Switzerland (where tax rates and about everything else is subject to popular votes), where the majority of the population voted for regressive income taxes. This was later ruled unconstitutional by their federal supreme court, but the people in those states were clearly in favor of regressive taxes.

  5. Echarles says:

    Agree that is was a poor performance overall by Johnson.

    What would everyone’s LP dream ticket be?

    I think a Richard Epstein/Randy Barnett ticket would be pretty formidable or at least fascinating given their level of economic and legal fluency.

  6. Andrew_FL says:

    “Sure, if we could choose between an income tax and a sales tax, I’d far prefer the latter.”

    You sure you don’t want to clarify this as at the same given rate? I assume you’d prefer a sales tax because it would bring in less revenue. When I hear the rates people would like to set on every single purchase every single person makes, I almost literally choke.

    • Andrew Keen says:

      I think it’s more along the lines of, “Sales tax is easier to avoid, less invasive, less of a bureaucratic burden on small businesses, encourages saving rather than consumption…” I believe Bob would say that a sales tax is preferable to an income tax even if it the switch is revenue neutral.

      • Andrew_FL says:

        I can’t agree with that. But I especially can’t agree with this argument:

        “encourages saving rather than consumption”

        Here I believe is perpetuation of a common error amongst otherwise market oriented economists, which can in fact be traced to Adam Smith-namely, the belief that people are insufficiently future-orient on their own and must be encouraged to be more so by various interventions.

        The market is perfectly capable of allowing individuals to coordinating their savings and investment activities at their desired levels. This rhetoric of encouraging or discouraging consumption is nothing more than another form of second guessing individuals’ preferences.

        • Andrew Keen says:

          Whenever you use government power to do anything you are second guessing individuals’ preferences. The question is whether a sales tax or an income tax is preferable if you have to adopt one or the other to raise the same amount of government revenue.

          The sales tax encourages saving. The income tax forces consumption. There is no neutral position in this scenario.

          • Andrew_FL says:

            “The income tax forces consumption.”

            How do you figure?

            • mh says:

              I think it’s because the government inevitably consumes a portion of your income.
              With a sales tax you can still control how much of your money goes into consumption.

  7. Bob Murphy says:

    Hey guys,

    Some of you are talking about tax reform. I used to think that it was a right-wing prejudice that favored saving over consumption (when it came to tax analysis), but then I realized there really is a sense in which the income tax distorts the consumption/saving decision. (However, some right-wing tax reformers don’t say the point properly.)

    Here are some things I’ve written on this general topic:


    • Andrew_FL says:

      Okay, this actually kind of answers my question, but it’s still not clear to me this justifies your *preference* for a bias against consumption to a bias saving.

      • Bob Murphy says:

        It’s not, though. The point of saving is to consume in the future. So if you tax saving, you are still hurting consumption.

        If you tax consumption 10%, then you are distorting the work/leisure tradeoff. But, you are not distorting the “consume now vs consume later” tradeoff. Once the person earns $100 in income, he spends it now (and gets $90 worth of consumption) or he can invest it at interest and then consume ($90x(1+i)) next year. So the tradeoff of now vs. later is the same proportionately as it would be with no tax, i.e. it’s the interest rate.

        But if you tax income 10%, then you are still distorting the work/leisure tradeoff, but on top of that you are imposing an additional disincentive to save. Ie given that the person is going to earn income, you are making present consumption of it artificially more attractive. If the person earns a pre-tax income of $100, then he is left right now with $90. He can spend that now on consumption and get $90 worth of consumption, or he can spend it next year and get ($90x(1+i)(0.9)) of consumption. I.e. because the interest income is taxable, his $90 doesn’t grow as much as it would with no taxes. So do you see how the choice has been distorted?

        So to summarize, there really is a legitimate sense in which an income tax is qualitatively more distortionary than a consumption tax, for the same amount of tax revenue. (Note that I used the same 10% rate in both examples above just to avoid confusion, but really you want to choose the tax rates to make the total government revenue the same, to make it apples to apples.)

  8. Silas Barta says:

    Great investigative work in documenting all this, Bob. I don’t understand his analogy either:

    >>“Think of them as sands through the hourglass, we’re going to see the sands through the hourglass.” I barely understand what that it supposed to mean.

    It’s like an hourglass, but whose sand you can see through the glass. Or like a rainbow, but with all the colors. (Apologies to Bojack Horseman.)

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Thanks Silas. I don’t know if you’re joking, but I think Johnson means that the US has choke points set up and ISIS can’t get from point A to point B without US forces getting a crack at them.

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