A New Kind of Republican
Congressman Justin Amash discusses libertarian foreign policy, Austrian economics, civil liberties, abortion, and more.
Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), often touted as "the next Ron Paul" (by this magazine, among others), had a rocky start to his second term in Congress. After overcoming a redistricting effort to win re-election by a comfortable margin in November, Amash was welcomed back to Washington with a pink slip: He and a group of libertarian-leaning backbenchers were stripped of their committee assignments by the GOP leadership. Adding insult to injury, the party establishment claimed that the rebuke wasn't ideological; that it had more to do with what Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) termed "the asshole factor."
Amash, seen as the ringleader of the House "liberty movement," responded by leading a failed coup against House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in what was supposed to be a rubber-stamped re-election as majority leader. Meanwhile, on a series of crucial votes—the "fiscal cliff" tax hike in January and the March agreement to raise the debt ceiling—Amash and several of his uppity libertarian colleagues voted against party leadership. If Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is the leading liberty-movement troublemaker in the United States Senate, Amash is shaping up to be his main counterpart in the House.
Endorsed by the Republican Liberty Caucus and Young Americans for Liberty, the 33-year-old Amash has made waves by explaining all of his votes on social media, a practice he began during his single term as a Michigan state legislator. He has earned a 100 percent rating from the fiscally conservative Club for Growth, and has taken up where Ron Paul left off on civil liberties.
The son of Syrian and Palestinian immigrants, Amash has made a name for himself as a non-interventionist. "It's very dangerous if we get in the habit of deciding who the good guys are and who the bad guys are," he says of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and other unsavory characters. He's also a social conservative, describing himself as "100 percent pro-life," but opining that ultimately, "marriage is a private contract that has nothing to do with government."
In March, reason.com Editor in Chief Nick Gillespie interviewed Amash in his office, where the walls are adorned with likenesses of Frederic Bastiat, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Carl Menger, Murray Rothbard, and Ayn Rand. For video of the interview, go to reason.com.
reason: Talk a little bit about your general political philosophy. At reason we've called you the heir to the mantle of Ron Paul—is that accurate?
Justin Amash: Well, I'm a libertarian Republican, a constitutional conservative, a classical liberal.
reason: You've got more Austrians on your wall than the Von Trapp family.
Amash: I'm a big believer in the Austrian school of economics. But you know, I'm an independent and a moderate. Many people would look at my voting record and say: This is a moderate guy, he's willing to work with both sides, he's willing to do what the Founders intended for this country and not just play the political games.
(Interview continues below video.)
reason: Talk a little bit about foreign policy. You're what is called an isolationist or—in more polite company—a non-interventionist. How do you define your foreign policy? And what's a libertarian vision of foreign policy that is not simply saying "the world should just go away"?
Amash: It's a constitutional foreign policy. You're right to say it's not isolationist. When you decide how to deal with countries that are threats and you put sanctions on them and isolate them, that's isolationist. I've called for non-interventionism: We don't send our troops everywhere else in the world to deal with everyone else's problems, we have to defend the homeland here, and we follow constitutional policy.
Amash: If there's a threat, the president comes to Congress. Congress has to pass an authorization for war and then the president is authorized to do what he needs to do. But it should always go back to the people's house.
reason: So the American forces that were used in Libya, that's clearly unconstitutional?
Amash: Yeah, clearly unconstitutional.
reason: What about in Afghanistan and Iraq? Because there was an authorization for the use of military force. Is that still binding? What's wrong with that as a blank check for the president to keep prosecuting the war on terror?
Amash: I think it's okay for Congress to give authorizations that—it doesn't have to read "Declaration of War." I think what the Founders really intended was that Congress would be the starting point for all this. So whether you call it an authorization or a declaration of war is not as big a deal to me. But the war in Afghanistan, that's the longest war in U.S history, and now—
reason: Should we have invaded Afghanistan?
Amash: I think so, at the time. And it should have been for a limited purpose: to take out the terrorists who targeted us on 9/11.
reason: You have been an outspoken critic of the use of drones, particularly in countries we're not officially at war with. But going after bin Laden in Pakistan, say: Is that legal under the authorization that sanctioned intervening in Afghanistan?
Amash: I think so, to go after bin Laden. He was clearly in charge of the operation and I think it was legal to go after him. There are a lot of other situations where it's more questionable. If we're going after people who have nothing to do with 9/11, whether they are terrorists or not, it's the president's job to come back to Congress and say, "This is who we're going after and this is why," and for Congress to give the authorization.
reason: You were 21 when 9/11 happened. Was that a formative experience for you, in terms of how you thought about politics and America's role in the world?
Amash: It had a big impact on me. I think I cried for six days. It was not a small deal to me when that happened, like for every American. It got me more interested in politics. I don't think I developed some of my more libertarian leanings in a clear way until I was well out of college, well out of law school even. It did have a big impact on my life. I felt like this country is important. It is the beacon of liberty for the world.
reason: Do you think the 9/11 attacks were a result of blowback?
Amash: I think you can't blame everything on blowback and you also can't [say] our actions overseas don't have an impact on other people. You've got to look at the totality of it. Certainly there are things that we do overseas that incite people and get people upset. That doesn't give them any justification to come here and commit terrorist attacks against innocent people. But we need to look at our foreign policy and make sure we're not riling people up.
reason: Here we are a dozen years after 9/11 and Iran and Syria are our front-burner foreign policy issues. What should we be doing with Syria? Here we have a dictator who is a horrible, horrible leader who commits atrocities on a daily basis, but what does that mean to the United States?
Amash: Well, my mom is Syrian so I understand the situation a little bit. I think, of course, that Assad is a dictator. What his regime is doing is horrible. They are committing war crimes against the people on a daily basis. But the fact is that our national defense should be used for our defense here in the United States. And it's very dangerous if we get in the habit of deciding who the good guys are and who the bad guys are.
Because as bad as Assad is, you don't know who is going to come and replace him. They may be just as bad, and suddenly you've helped arm people who are going to commit the same atrocities and maybe come use [those arms] against the United States. You have to be careful when you get involved in this stuff. If there's a clear threat to the United States, then the president should come to Congress and get the authorization necessary.
reason: So how does that play out in relation to Iran? Should the U.S be isolating Iran through trade sanctions? Should they be engaging them through open trade? What's the best way to work toward some kind of positive resolution both for people in Iran as well as the United States?
Amash: Iran is a much more real threat. They speak out against the United States on a regular basis; it's pretty clear they're trying to develop a nuclear weapon. Sanctions that are directed toward preventing them from getting weapons of mass destruction, I think those sanctions are useful and helpful in the short run. I'm not sure you'd want to use them for 20 years.
But there are other sanctions that are targeted at the people of Iran. Those are not beneficial to the United States. If I felt Iran was a genuine threat to the United States, I would give the president authorization to do what's necessary.
reason: I assume that you think that Americans should be able to trade freely with Cuba?
reason: Should we be able to trade with Iran in the same way? Subject to certain restrictions on military technology or something? Would that be a better situation than the one we're in now?
Amash: I think so, but again it depends on what you're trading with them. I think there should be efforts to prevent any sorts of weapons, especially weapons of mass destruction, from entering Iran. Trading handbags and those sorts of things, that's not a threat to the United States.
reason: Is what you're saying about a libertarian foreign policy getting through to your colleagues in the Republican caucus? You hear Republican think tanks saying: We need to have a certain amount of the budget going to defense, we can never cut spending, etc.
Amash: I think it actually is. If you look at some of the newer members in Congress, if you look at Thomas Massie [(R–Ky.)], many of the new members, they have a different perspective on this. I wouldn't say that they all have a libertarian perspective on foreign policy, but you have maybe three dozen who lean in that direction. I don't think you had that 10 years ago.
The message of "spend, spend, spend" on military spending doesn't make sense. We have a huge national debt, and the biggest threat to our country is to let that national debt grow. Eventually, when we have a situation when we need military spending, when we actually need the money to go to our military to fight a major war, we won't have that money. Why would we burn that money now when we don't have a major threat to the United States, instead of saving the money so that when we do have a major threat, we actually have it? Then we might have a defense that is even bigger than it is now, but it would be justified because there's an actual threat to the United States.
reason: You mentioned that your mother is from Syria. Your father is from Palestine. He moved to Michigan in the late '60s—
Amash: In '56.
reason: Talk a little bit about how the experience of having parents who were immigrants to America. How does that inform your position on immigration?
Amash: Immigration is an important thing for this country. Everyone at some point, for the most part, was an immigrant; they came here from somewhere else. It's important to have a regular flow of immigrants. The biggest problem is having a welfare state. And this is the problem that Europe has—it's not that they have a large immigrant flow into the countries, it's that when you have a large welfare state, there's not as much assimilation into the culture. So what's happened historically in the United States, because we haven't had as strong of a welfare system as they do in Europe, [s0] people come here and they assimilate, they adapt, they go to work, they become a part of the culture, and they become Americans, and that's what we'd like to see going forward.
reason: Let's talk a little bit about your intellectual underpinnings. Where did your interest in Austrian economists—or in Frederic Bastiat, the French journalist and thinker—come from?
Amash: It developed after law school, actually. I found that my views, although I was Republican, were different than a number of conservatives in my class. There weren't that many, there were probably five at my law school, but I was different than those five. I was wondering: What is it about me that makes my views different or not fit in with the typical Republican way of thinking?
reason: One of the things you noticed was that when you would talk to conservatives in a legal setting, they would always be on the side of the prosecutor and you would be on the side of the defendant.
Amash: Yeah, I had a natural sympathy toward the defense side. I believe strongly in protecting people's constitutional rights and making sure they get due process.
I spent some time thinking about what my views were. I actually did a Google search. I went on Google and searched terms that were basically my views.
reason: Do you remember what they were? And was "safe search" on or off?
Amash: I don't remember, but F.A. Hayek popped up pretty quick. His Wikipedia article.
reason: What was it about Hayek's work that you find particularly interesting and relevant to your life as a legislator?
Amash: With Hayek the connection was pretty clear instantly. He believed really strongly in this spontaneous order, that things would come together on their own. Sort of like an evolutionary process. If you allow people to make decisions, they've got the knowledge because the decisions they're making are closest to them. Why should someone else make it from far away? And if you allow people to make their own decisions, you actually get good outcomes for society. That's something that I think about a lot as a legislator.
reason: Behind me on the wall there's a picture of Ayn Rand. How does she speak to your worldview?
Amash: Rand speaks in a sort of different way. I mean, it's more of an emotional appeal.
reason: I'm sure she would be very angry to hear that.
Amash: I know! But when I read some of her works, I find myself connecting to a lot of the characters, feeling the same frustrations they feel. And I think that's an important aspect of her work.
reason: When did you first encounter Rand?
Amash: Probably not until four or five years ago.
reason: So when you read a novel—Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead—you find yourselves hemmed in by the sort of over-reaching legislators of businesses?
Amash: Yeah, sure. And Rand's philosophy is very different from Hayek's. They come to many of the same conclusions about what kind of government you should have and what kind of social order you ultimately would get, but they think about it in very different ways. And I find that interesting. Bastiat is another person who appeals emotionally. He's very different from Hayek but adds something to the conversation.
reason: What's the spice that this Frenchman adds?
Amash: It's a nice French spice. It's short stories—almost parables—about folly, the folly of government and interventionism. And the folly of restricting free trade. I think that's beautiful to read. When you read Bastiat's work, people are really compelled to agree with him. It's hard to refute. I actually give away The Law when people stop by my office.
reason: You come from a part of the country, though, that is very steeped in protectionism. Not all parts of Michigan, but certainly the auto industry got fat off of protectionism. The industrial Midwest had a lot of tariffs against steel and various other things. Is it a hard sell in contemporary Michigan to say, "Look, guys, your economy has been tanking here for a long time and the answer is free trade," as opposed to "The answer is more protectionism"?
Amash: Well, it's always going to be a hard sell with some people, there's no doubt about that. If you're in a particular industry that's getting benefits from protectionism, then yeah, it's going to be a hard sell to you. But protectionism doesn't help people. It helps the people in those companies. And those people in those companies are a small percentage of the population. I'm concerned about the entire population in my district, the entire population in the state of Michigan, and the entire population in the United States. Everyone is a consumer. Only some people work in a particular industry. It doesn't make sense to have laws in place to protect a particular industry and then hurt 100 percent of the people.
reason: You also have a picture of Murray Rothbard. Rothbard is a big time anarcho-capitalist bomb-thrower. What do you find particularly compelling in his work?
Amash: He gives an interesting, more anarchist perspective. I'm not there; I fall more in the Hayek camp. I think it's important to understand his work, to understand his way of thinking. Because when you have discussions with those who are on the anarcho-capitalist side of things, it's important to understand where he's coming from and where they're coming from so you can make your arguments to persuade.
I ultimately think there's got to be some government. I believe in a minimal state, and you're going to have different amounts of government at different levels. At the federal level, it should be very small in how it affects your daily life; it should just deal with things of national scope. And at closer levels—local government, or your neighborhood association—well, it might have a huge impact on your daily life, but it's certainly not going to protect you from an invasion.
reason: Should there be federal recognition of same-sex marriages?
Amash: I don't think there should be a federal definition of marriage. I think the federal government should just stay out of this. Really, marriage is a private contract that has nothing to do with government.
reason: How does that play into things like the tax cut? Should we get rid of any sort of "married" status in the filing of taxes?
Amash: Ultimately, yeah, I think so. We're not even close to that situation now, and it may be the case that marriage is so tied into the tax code and other benefits that what will ultimately happen is that gay people will be allowed to marry under some federalized version of marriage. But my preference would be that the federal government just stay out of it. And government just stay out of it in general. It's a private issue. It shouldn't be something that government deals with.
reason: What about abortion?
Amash: I'm pro-life. One hundred percent pro-life.
reason: Should the federal government ban all abortions? Or should that be left to localities or states?
Amash: When you have the case of abortion, you've got two people involved. You've got a baby and you've got a parent. I think it falls within the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
reason: Under current federal law, the constitutional reading is the state does not have an interest in a fetus or in a pregnancy for the first trimester. You would say that that is an error. How far back to the moment of conception should it go?
Amash: It's a tricky question, but I think that where we have it now is not correct. It should be closer to the point of conception. Whether it's instantly or the first three days, I think that's more sensible and that's what I think would be correct.
reason: You're an Orthodox Christian. Talk a little bit about how that informed your upbringing and how it informs your legislative profile, if it does.
Amash: There's a strong emphasis in our church on free will and on the mystery of the order of the world. I think that really fits in well with my views. I'm not sure that my political views were necessarily shaped by that, but they definitely do mesh together very well. I believe strongly in an idea of free will. People can make up their own mind about how they live their lives, and they will be judged accordingly.
reason: What are the most important issues that America has to grapple with in this next congressional term?
Amash: It's got to be debt, and civil liberties as well. Debt is number one. You have to get the debt under control.
reason: Does that mean not raising the debt limit at the end of March? Or brokering a tough deal to say, "We will have a short term increase but it's got to start coming down"?
Amash: I don't think you raise the debt limit unless you get major reforms to major programs. You've got to get the laws changed now. Some of those mandatory programs, it does take a while for the cost savings to kick in because of the way they work, but you've got to make the changes immediately.
reason: Talk a little bit about how your votes against things like the National Defense Reauthorization Act played out in your party and how you will continue to push for broader civil liberties going forward.
Amash: I think it's important that we do have someone who is pushing on this issue, because we haven't had good protection for civil liberties in either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party for many years. You have a few members, but not that many who are outspoken about it.
I think the Republican Party is actually coming along in the direction of my way of thinking, and of many young Republicans. Protecting civil liberties is one of the most important things our government should do. It's really the reason for the Founding, to protect civil liberties of Americans. So when you look at various issues like drones—I'm not against drones as an object. I don't object to the idea that there'd be drones. I think drones can be a useful weapon in war. But any use of drones should be authorized by Congress. It shouldn't just be an open-ended use of force against anyone that the president sees as a threat without any approval from Congress.
The same with the National Defense Authorization Act. There may be reasons to detain people, but it should be in the context of war. It can't be so broad that you can actually come into a home in the United States and grab an American citizen out of his home and detain him, not tell his family anything, and say, "Well, we think he might be associated with terrorists." That's the current law, and that's frightening. That's not what our Founders intended.
reason: Final question. You're the parent of three children. What would you say the odds are that they will come of age in a richer and freer America?
Amash: I have to say the odds are pretty high. It's still 90 percent odds, because I really do believe in the American people. My dad and mom came here as immigrants. They came here with nothing. There is a spirit here that is independent. It's libertarian in many ways, and it's in pretty much everyone I run into, regardless of their political affiliation. I think that it's still strong. And when I go to town halls I get a good reception. I think we can turn this thing around, but not with the current Congress or the current president. It's going to take some changes and some time.