The Western Lands

Larry Craig, Bill Richardson, and the "libertarian West"


If you followed last year's congressional campaigns, you may have encountered the theory of the libertarian inner West. The new swing states, the argument goes, are in the Southwest and the Rockies—places whose local values of live and let live and leave us alone are increasingly at odds with the national Republican Party. The writer most closely associated with this theory is The New York Sun's Ryan Sager, and he's fairly persuasive, in part because he's careful not to overstate how libertarian the "libertarian West" really is. "These are not literal, registered, or self-identified libertarians, for the most part," he writes in his 2006 book The Elephant in the Room, "just voters who, whether or not they're particularly conservative in their personal lives, subscribe to a typically western, leave-me-alone philosophy when it comes to government busybodies in Washington, D.C."

In the last few months, two figures have raised that region's profile again. Neither is a libertarian—literal, registered, or self-identified—but both have periodically given libertarians reasons to cheer. Suss out their stances, and you might get a handle on the stances of the people who elect them.

The first is Larry Craig, a Republican, who has been Idaho's senator since 1991 but might not keep the post much longer. (In case you've been living under a toilet: Craig was busted this summer in an airport men's room for allegedly soliciting sex from an undercover cop.) From a libertarian perspective, Craig's record is a mixed bag. He fights to extend his constituents' property rights, and he fights to extend their subsidies; his civil libertarian instincts are rarely roused when a gay man wants to express his sexuality anywhere outside a restroom, but he played a significant role in excising some egregious provisions of the PATRIOT Act. You don't have to probe his sex habits to see him living a double life. When he slides easily from denouncing federal bureaucrats to pushing new coal subsidies, he sounds like one of the characters in Catch-22: the "freedom-loving, law-abiding rugged individualist who held that federal aid to anyone but farmers was creeping socialism."

Put another way, Craig reflects his state's values pretty well: opposed to outside interference but not to outside assistance, socially conservative but skeptical of concentrated authority. Not fully libertarian, but with a stronger libertarian streak than you'd find in Connecticut or South Carolina.

The second figure is Bill Richardson, a Democrat, who's vying with John Edwards for the third-place spot in the race for his party's presidential nod. In the '90s, Richardson worked in Washington as Bill Clinton's secretary of energy and ambassador to the United Nations; since 2003 he has served as governor of New Mexico. My colleague David Weigel has already taken a close look at Richardson's record, and he found that, like Craig's, it's a mixed bag. Gov. Richardson slashed some taxes but raised some others; he supports medical marijuana and gun rights, but signed a statewide smoking ban.

But even with those caveats, the most striking thing about the man is how much more attractive he is in Santa Fe than he was in Washington. As governor of New Mexico, Richardson cut income, capital gains, and gross receipts taxes. As secretary of energy, he persecuted Wen Ho Lee. As the New Mexico–based candidate for president, he has staked out the most antiwar stance this side of Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich, and Mike Gravel: He wants a quick withdrawal, exiting Iraq in just six to eight months. As ambassador to the U.N., he was a conventional internationalist, and even after moving to the Department of Energy he found time to defend Clinton's war in Kosovo.

I don't know which of these fellows is the "real" Bill Richardson—though my inclination with any politician is to imagine the worst. I do suspect that the Southwest's individualist culture, with an outlook similar to Idaho's but more socially tolerant, encourages local pols to pitch themselves accordingly. Some statesmen you admire for their stances; others you like for their constituencies. (Savvy officials will also heed the limits to the state's antistatism. Richardson's predecessor, the much more libertarian Gary Johnson, is a vocal critic of the war on drugs—and not just the laws against medical marijuana. But he didn't push his posture further than he felt the voters would accept. "I think that it is OK to launch the discussion and have the debate," he told reason in 2001. "But I don't think it's right to take it upon myself to pardon convicted criminals based on laws that the population has supported by electing the people that they have elected.")

So where does that leave the libertarian West? I was delighted to see the American Land Rights Association rushing to Larry Craig's defense, with a press release threatening a boycott of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on the grounds that the cops who caught Craig had "effectively declared war on the West. They are primarily responsible for greatly weakening private property rights and Federal land use advocates in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and in Congress." A silly gesture fueled by ridiculous rhetoric? Sure, but it sets off a happy fantasy of frontier queers and embattled landholders joining forces against Leviathan. Out with Brokeback Mountain, in with My Own Private Idaho!

Back in the real world, the West's libertarian leanings should remind us of the virtues of federalism. If Idaho and New Mexico could set their own rules about land use and marijuana without Washington interfering, they wouldn't become Hayekian utopias, but they would become much freer than they are today. That's valuable whether or not they also serve as swing votes.

But federalism only takes us so far. Foreign policy is set in Washington, not the states, and the same goes for the powers of the national executive branch. When Larry Craig criticizes the PATRIOT Act and Bill Richardson denounces the Iraq War, they may speak for much or most of their region, but that region can't set policy on its own. What it can do is produce politicians who, for all their flaws and inconsistencies, still speak the language of liberty more adeptly then the mad power-grabbers and mealy-mouthed accommodationists who dominate their parties.

Jesse Walker is reason's managing editor.