Johnson and Wrights Square Off in Libertarian Presidential Debate

Las Vegas—The final debate in the race for the Libertarian Party presidential nomination between Gary Johnson and Lee Wrights was, mostly, a friendly affair that felt more like an infomercial for libertarianism than a debate. Former LP presidential candidate David Bergland softly tossed questions to the candidates that seemed as if they were designed to elicit responses that would convert those watching on C-SPAN to libertarianism rather than display the differences, however slight, between the two candidates. At times it was even tedious, though as Johnson would say later in the debate, you almost always know how a Libertarian will come down on an issue. Even though we live in an era where libertarianism is more popular and widespread than ever there are still people out there that have no idea what it is about, so there is the need, in the LP’s eyes, to appeal to the casual viewer.

Early questions like, “How you found the Libertarian Party” and “What is Libertarianism?” reinforced the infomercial feel but they did get some great responses.

Johnson said he became a libertarian after somebody gave him a book in 1971 about libertarianism. His worldview was forever changed and he passed the book on in the hopes of changing the mind of somebody else.

“For eight years I got to serve as a Libertarian governor under the guise of being a Republican. I have come out of the closet,” he said.

Wrights tried to connect his libertarianism with the delegates on a more personal level.

“Libertarianism is a life choice, it is more than a political party. It is more than the people in this room,” he said.

As the debate wore on it became clear that Johnson was taking the debate very seriously and thinking about the long term while Wrights played the role of convention jester. Johnson has stated numerous times during his run that he is committed to the Libertarian Party and, assuming he loses in 2012, running again in 2016 on the LP line. Wrights has been running since 2010 and tomorrow could potentially be the end of his presidential aspirations, meaning that he has nothing left to lose.

The only real point of contention between the two came during a discussion about the elimination of the IRS, a long-time dream of LP members. Johnson talked up his record of not raising taxes and said he would repeal the income tax and abolish the IRS while replacing it with the Fair Tax.

Wrights pounced.

“I agree. We need to abolish the IRS, do away with the income tax and replace it with nothing. I am sorry folks but there is no such thing as a fair tax. It might be fair to government but it isn’t fair to us. We don’t need a national sales tax,” he said, his voice occasionally booming.

Johnson, somewhat startled, stayed on message and defended his position on the Fair Tax as incremental.

“I think at a minimum, abolishing the federal income tax, the corporate tax, the IRS, and replacing it with a consumption tax, I think that is an improvement over what we have. I think as a president I would like to articulate the need for replacing that tax,” said Johnson.

Wrights fed off this exchange and he became even more animated, endearing himself to the crowd.

Johnson may have appeared as the more serious candidate but he occasionally stumbled when answering even the most basic of questions. The Federal Reserve raised its head during the debate and Johnson’s long and complicated answer, which stopped short of calling for the Fed's elimination, could hurt him with Ron Paul supporters.

The initial reaction to the debate seemed mixed. Most delegates I spoke to said Wrights impressed them, but we won’t know until tomorrow if the debate moved any votes. Meanwhile, more delegates, most expected to support Johnson, are expected to arrive on Saturday.

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  • Randian||

    It sounds to be like Lee Wrights is a genuine libertarian who couldn't resist throwing red meat to the extremist crowd and demogoguing to win popular favor.

    I prefer my libertarians a little more thoughtful.

  • Brandon||

    He sounds more like an an-cap.

  • Randian||

    And purists and an-caps have a place, as I stated below, but I would not put one forward as the Presidential candidate.

    I am reminded of the Mary Ruwart / child porn fiasco from 2008. Her point was important to make people think a little harder about something they would have reflexively and instinctively opposed, but to risk having a candidate say that on a national platform? When reasonable people disagree and with the way it sounds? no thanks.

  • Alexander S. Peak||

    Randian,

    I do not know if you share my definitions, but I would say that one does not necessarily have to be an anarchist in order to be a purist. I would say Harry Browne was a purist and also a minarchist. (I would likewise say the same of Tibor R. Machan.)

    You say you would not put a purist forward as the LP presidential candidate, but does that mean you would not have supported Harry Browne?

    Personally, I regard Harry Browne as the main reason I became a libertarian. His articles, speeches, and radio discussions convinced me that libertarian approaches would provide the most effective solutions to our political problems.

    It's also worth noting that, except for the 1980 election (in which the vice presidential candidate was extremely rich), Harry Browne received the highest vote percentage of any LP presidential candidate.

    There is nothing inherently bad about having a purist as our presidential candidate, as long as said candidate can effectively communicate libertarian principles to potential voters. I believe Wrights would have done a fine job had he received the nomination.

    Respectfully yours,
    Alex Peak

  • Alexander S. Peak||

    Brandon, to me, Wrights sounded like a hardcore minarchist, not an anarchist.

    I did not hear him say he would eliminate the state, or anything similar.

    In fact, he appeared to support the use of a government-funded military for purposes of defence in the event that these United States are invaded.

    Anarchists typically favour market-based solutions to protect and defend America. (See The Market for Liberty (1970) by Linda & Morris Tannehill.)

  • wareagle||

    Wrights pounced.

    so, did Wrights follow up with an idea better than a consumption tax or did he just demagogue the idea? If it's the latter, we get plenty of that from the Reds and Blues.

  • ant1sthenes||

    Presumably he'd go back to whatever we had before income tax? I would be interested to know.

  • sloopyinca||

  • Brandon||

    BLOGWHORE!!! MARY!!!!

    J/k. How's the convention from a non-insider perspective?

  • sloopyinca||

    How's the convention from a non-insider perspective?

    Read my blog if you want to know.

    (I keed!)

    It's not too bad. There are some quirky oddballs here. Starchild finally made an appearance. He's wearing a miniskirt, bustier and stockings. Rather disturbing.

    We're in the middle of the first ballot. It's typical procedure bullshit now. I guess there's no way around it.

  • Randian||

    I think we all know the answer to that. It's easy to say abolish this and I'll get rid of that; it is a different thing altogether to have a plan.

  • ||

    "Let's get rid of the income tax and replace it with...nothing!!!!"

    Wee...I'm a purist...everyone look at me!!!

  • CE||

    They laughed at Ron Paul when he suggested abolishing the income tax in his 2008 presidential campaign. "But that would increase the deficit by a trillion dollars a year!" they cried. Then they increased spending so much the deficit went up by a trillion a year anyway.

  • ||

    the laughing part is what concerns me.

    I know this nation existed without an income tax for quite a while. However, this is not the same nation anymore.

    The heroin addict existed for quite a while without heroin before getting hooked, but. that person is no longer the person he or she was prior to shooting dope. A suggestion of going cold turkey might prevent him from ever considering quitting.

  • wareagle||

    and even when the income tax was introduced, which was barely 100 years ago, it impacted a very small % of the population and contained zero loopholes, exemptions, and subsidies. Yes, the nation has changed though if the income tax is the barometer, tough to say the change is for the better. And this is why I will continue to maintain that the single greatest source of govt power is the US Tax Code.

  • sloopyinca||

    And the strawman was fine until people lit matches around him.

  • Alexander S. Peak||

    AnthonyD sarcastically writes, "Wee...I'm a purist...everyone look at me!!!"

    Is that supposed to be some sort of coherent argument against repealing the income tax without replacing it with some sort of new tax?

    I mean no offence in saying this, but I do not find your argument very convincing.

    Best regards,
    Alex Peak

  • Alexander S. Peak||

    Randian writes, "I think we all know the answer to that. It's easy to say abolish this and I'll get rid of that; it is a different thing altogether to have a plan."

    Are you saying that we should not abolish unconstitutional federal programmes and departments, on the grounds that any plan to abolish unconstitutional programmes and departments is not actually "a plan"?

    If I recall correctly, Wrights said that we need to eliminate all unconstitutional federal spending, and that if we were to do this, the federal government would garner more than enough revenue from low tariffs to cover the remainder of the federal government's operations.

    Now, with all due respect, whether you like that plan or not, it is still a plan (in as much as any presidential candidate can ever "plan" for such things, of course).

    (Naturally, the president won't be able to abolish the IRS or any of the many unconstitutional federal programmes or departments without the action of Congress. But the president can utilise her or his veto power over future legislation. Moreover, the election of someone like Wrights, or even Johnson for that matter, would send a pretty strong message to Congress.)

    Respectfully yours,
    Alex Peak

  • Alexander S. Peak||

    wareagle writes, "so, did Wrights follow up with an idea better than a consumption tax or did he just demagogue the idea? If it's the latter, we get plenty of that from the Reds and Blues."

    If I recall correctly, Wrights said that we need to eliminate all unconstitutional federal spending, and that if we were to do this, the federal government would garner more than enough revenue from low tariffs to cover the remainder of the federal government's operations.

  • ||

    Gary Johnson has a record, not perfect. But a record.

  • CE||

    ...as Johnson would say later in the debate, you almost always know how a Libertarian will come down on an issue.

    Not anymore (if ever). Issues such as abortion, immigration, how to fund government, how much to cut spending, and how fast and how far to unwind the regulatory state and the empire can provide distinct differences between LP candidates, and libertarians in general.

  • LibertyInfusion||

    Wrights view on certain issues is a perfect example on why Libertarians are viewed as kooks (sometimes) by others. It is a nice academic exercise to discuss whether or not the federal government should have a tax system, but it is not a good approach to take generally.

    The general public, call them Johnny and Sally Voter, may not be as well read or educated as Wrights is, but "tax" in general terms is something they will understand. They will be MUCH more receptive to, "tax reform" than, "tax elimination." Anybody, to them, who thinks otherwise is a kook. The "Fair Tax" falls right into the, "tax reform" wheelhouse and will sit much better with "the Voters". Eliminating the tax sounds like crazy talk to them.

    If we, as Libertarians, are going to ingratiate ourselves with Mr. & Ms. Voter, we will have to accept certain truths, moving in small increments to a more free society. Freezing government spending at 2008 levels is a good first step, it makes sense to Mr. & Ms. Voter to reign in spending. Next, it makes more sense to look for cuts...thus moving the economy further toward a true free market system and less government intrusion. Simply stating we need to "abolish the government" really gets us nowhere. While we, as Libertarians, may cheer those ideas...although we are not Anarchists, they do not resound well with non-Libertarians.

    Mr. Wrights may play well to the delegates and Anarchists, but he does nothing for the true cause of Libertarianism.

  • Randian||

    I would not say "do nothing". Extremists (and extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, as AuH2O said) serve a dual purpose: they provide a font of ideas that can be "mainstreamed" by others, and they act as an anchor to ensure that libertarians don't go too far adrift.

  • wareagle||

    they provide a font of ideas that can be "mainstreamed" by others,

    this view of extremists may fall under the careful what you wish for category. Most of us would agree the Occutards are certainly extremists; which ideas from their fount do you wish to see mainstreamed? That is what made the tea party unique, until others tried to co-opt it. It was about and only about the spending.

  • Randian||

    All in all, I sympathize with both "sides" of this issue. I think the clear place the LP has fallen down is to be too preoccupied with national politics. The states still have a lot of say in the average citizen's day-to-day life, and it is important for us to field our best candidates on a state level. For example, what if Bob Barr (I know, I know, just go with the example) had run for Congress again as a Libertarian in his home district? I bet he would have gotten double-digits. What if Gary Johnson ran for Senate in NM? Again, that's a game-changer. You can take that down even further into the smaller fields of state representative and senatorial districts, where a few thousand votes determines elections.

  • wareagle||

    first issue for either Barr or Johnson re: Senatorial runs is ballot access. I lived in NC for about 20 years and simply putting the LP on the ballot for statewide races was a nightmare. The duopoly is strong is limiting competition to those under its umbrella. Not saying it cannot be done, just that it is going to be a tough slog.

  • Alexander S. Peak||

    LibertyInfusion writes, "Wrights view on certain issues is a perfect example on why Libertarians are viewed as kooks (sometimes) by others. It is a nice academic exercise to discuss whether or not the federal government should have a tax system, but it is not a good approach to take generally."

    It annoys me greatly when I see people employing strawman arguments.

    Wrights, who is a minarchist, not an anarchist, did not "discuss whether or not the federal government should have a tax system." He did not say we should abolish taxation. Nor did he even say we should abolish federal taxation.

    What Wrights said, if I recall correctly, was that we need to eliminate all unconstitutional federal spending, and that if we were to do this, the federal government would garner more than enough revenue from low tariffs to cover the remainder of the federal government's operations.

  • Alexander S. Peak||

    LibertyInfusion writes, "If we, as Libertarians, are going to ingratiate ourselves with Mr. & Ms. Voter, we will have to accept certain truths, moving in small increments to a more free society."

    If you advocate a hardcore libertarian stance, and try to enact it, you will, at best, succeed in moving, in small increments, to a freer society.

    If you advocate incremental change in a libertarian direction, you will, at best, succeed in making no change at all.

    If you advocate no change at all, you will, at best, succeed in only slightly slowing down the swing toward bigger government.

    We must accept these truths.

  • Alexander S. Peak||

    LibertyInfusion writes, "Simply stating we need to 'abolish the government' really gets us nowhere."

    I do not necessarily agree, but even if I did agree, it does not matter, because nothing Wrights said would lead any listener to think that he wanted to abolish the government.

    It annoys me greatly when I see people employing strawman arguments.

  • Alexander S. Peak||

    LibertyInfusion writes, "While we, as Libertarians, may cheer those ideas...although we are not Anarchists, they do not resound well with non-Libertarians."

    Most libertarians are what we call minarchists, meaning they advocate, as Wrights does, a very small government limited to a small number of functions. Only about 15% of libertarians, according to Brian Holtz, are anarchists, by which I mean are people who believe that all useful social functions currently handled by the state can be better performed by voluntary organisations, such as private firms or mutual aid societies.

    Those of us who are anarchists (and, note: Wrights is not one of us) do not typically simply say, "abolish the government," and leave it at that. (Well, unless we are being lazy, which admittedly we sometimes are, especially when we are posting soundbites on Facebook.) Rather, we usually try to present an explanation as to why voluntary organisations would be more effective at supplying society with goods and services (including defence and adjudication) than the state.

  • Alexander S. Peak||

    Finally, LibertyInfusion writes, "Mr. Wrights may play well to the delegates and Anarchists, but he does nothing for the true cause of Libertarianism."

    There are plenty of anarchists in the libertarian movement who would never vote for a man like Wrights, not because he is "too radical," but because he is "not radical enough."

    In any event, I do not mean to offend you by saying this, but to say that Mr. Wrights does "nothing for the true cause of Libertarianism" is a shameful thing to say. Mr. Wrights has dedicated the past twelve years of his life to promoting and supporting the LP. Done nothing? I have to suspect that he has already done more than most of the people posting in this thread. If I am correct (and feel free to correct me if I am indeed wrong), I believe he has, for example, worked to repeatedly secure the LP's lease of an office in the Watergate Hotel.

    Respectfully yours,
    Alex Peak

  • sloopyinca||

    Anybody watching on CSPAN? Banjos and I are sitting right behind the mic the delegates are announcing their votes at. I've got on a blue shirt and she's wearing a black dress.

    Look at me! Look at me!

  • ||

    is that a bright blue?

  • sloopyinca||

    Yep. I'm on TV! I'm on TV!

  • Garrett Quinn||

    Sloopy and Banjo are real, I met them.

  • ||

    An ex-governor as the nominee. Who would have thunk it.

    I hope Governor Johnson is ready for this fight.

  • ||

    An ex-governor as the nominee. Who would have thunk it.

    I hope Governor Johnson is ready for this fight.

  • SIV||

    As ready as he was for the GOP primary fight...

  • ||

    I hope he does better than that.

  • Flaco||

    Gary Johnson flubbed his line about how he became a libertarian. He said the book he read was Libertarianism in One Lesson. But he didn't say it was written by David Bergland, the debate moderator. Wouldn't have hurt to do a little sucking up.

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