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Should libertarians like me declare a pox on both major parties' houses by voting for the Libertarian Party candidate, Gary Johnson? Or should we opt for the Republican Mitt Romney, who I think would be significantly less bad than the Democratic incumbent, Barack Obama?
Over the decades since I first became eligible to vote, I have often faced this choice in presidential elections. Sometimes I voted Libertarian, and other times I voted Republican, depending on the circumstances. This year, as a resident of Florida, there is no question that I will vote for the Romney/Ryan ticket. If I lived in a different state, my choice might be different.
My prime consideration in deciding how to vote in 2012 is the future of liberty. I've considered myself a libertarian since my college days, when I was good friends with Dave Nolan, an MIT classmate and subsequent founder of the Libertarian Party in 1971. While I did not attend the first LP convention, I participated actively in the LP's first 15 years, as a delegate to state and national conventions and once or twice serving on the national platform committee. Most of my professional career has been devoted to advancing liberty, building a national magazine and a national think tank devoted to that end.
In Gary Johnson, the LP has the most credible and best-qualified candidate it has ever run. After building and running a successful business, he was elected governor of New Mexico, winning as a Republican in a traditionally Democratic state. He reduced numerous taxes and vetoed countless bills that threatened personal or economic liberty, and was re-elected to a second term in which he did likewise. In short, he has demonstrated the ability to apply libertarian principles in the executive branch of government, and he did so in a manner that led to him being re-elected in a state that seldom elects Republicans.
Unfortunately, Gary Johnson has no chance of being elected President in November. If the two major-party candidates offered the kind of Tweedledum and Tweedledee choice that libertarians rightly disdain, I would proudly vote LP this time around, hoping for a powerful vote total that would send a message that many voters are fed up with politics as usual.
But in fact—and despite Gov. Romney being a long way from libertarian—the differences between a Romney administration and another four years of Obama have major implications for liberty. They really do reflect two different conceptions of the role of the federal government, with the former focused largely on getting government out of the way of entrepreneurs and investors and the latter intent on government management of the economy. To be sure, a Romney administration might not govern consistently with its market-friendly rhetoric, but I cannot imagine it being less market-friendly than the current administration.
The most important policy issue of this election is fixing the looming insolvency of the federal government. The Obama approach would basically accept the federal role in ever-expanding entitlement spending and would increase taxation to whatever fraction of GDP it would take to eventually reach budget balance. The other approach is to ratchet down the federal government's role over time, reducing it to its historic share of peacetime GDP. The plan put forth by Romney's running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, is a start on this project. The other side seems committed to making America into something like a European social-democratic welfare state. That, by itself, would be enough to determine my November choice.
Another crucially important issue is the Supreme Court. It is likely that the next president will fill one or more vacancies on the Supreme Court, if either Kennedy or Scalia steps down during the next few years. Despite many losses for liberty, recent years have seen many 5-4 decisions that would have gone the other way if one of these justices had been replaced by a liberal Democrat. Many of these decisions protected personal or economic liberty. A Supreme Court less supportive of individual liberty, property rights, and economic freedom would have far-reaching consequences for decades to come.
Yet another other critically important issue is political appointees to the numerous executive branch agencies. In my work on federal policy issues over the past 30 years, I have worked with appointees of both parties, some good and some bad. My assessment is that a Romney/Ryan administration would appoint far more market-friendly people to key agencies like the Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission, and more. These people's decisions have enormous consequences for the economy. It is at this level that rules and policy details are written, and the implementation of policies is often as important as the policies themselves.
I have left for last the final reason why I will vote for Romney in November. I live in Florida, which is a swing state. Depending on who's counting, there are between seven (Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia) and 11 (adding Iowa, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) swing states. It the votes in these places that will very likely tip the balance to either Obama or Romney. Were I still living in California (which will go solidly for Obama), my vote for Johnson would "send a message" without affecting the final outcome. But since I live in Florida, I will vote Romney.
I hope my libertarian friends in swing states do likewise.
"The Libertarian Case for Gary Johnson," by Nick Gillespie
"The Libertarian Case for Barack Obama," by Mike Godwin