Gary Johnson

'I'm probably the person on the left who's most open to libertarian thinking'—Robert Scheer in Conversation With Matt Welch

New Left stalwart talks with libertarian journalist about Gary Johnson, crony capitalism, the Koch brothers, and war

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Robert Scheer is a celebrated and still-vibrant elder statesman of West Coast progressivism. The former Ramparts editor, Playboy civil-liberties columnist, L.A. Times essayist and Left, Right, and Center co-host now hangs his main editorial hat over at Truthdig, and at his new podcast, called Scheer Intelligence. It's at that latter venue that Scheer—a journalism educator who was one of the biggest benefactors of my early career—interviewed me in a piece that went up Friday.

It's a wide-ranging conversation that explores commonalities and friction points between libertarianism and the progressive left, in the context of the 2016 presidential election. Scheer, an early defender of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), is quite open to Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson and libertarian ideas writ large, saying at one point: "I'm probably the person on the left who's most open to libertarian thinking because I do believe in the original vision of the founders, that the government that governs best is the one that governs least. I believe in a very strong notion of individual freedom and I am very worried about the overpowering federal state."

You can read rush transcripts of the conversation here and here (my favorite transliteration is "He's Bill Crystal's protégé"), or just listen to the conversation below:

Thaddeus Russell interviewed Scheer for Reason TV back in 2013:

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  1. Is Scheer still an ardent admirer of Kim Il Sung?

    1. He’s definitely an admirer of bad haircuts.

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  2. Progressives are Dodo birds.

  3. “I’m probably the person on the left who’s most open to libertarian thinking because I do believe in the original vision of the founders, that the government that governs best is the one that governs least. I believe in a very strong notion of individual freedom and I am very worried about the overpowering federal state.”

    That sounds very nice. If Scheer means that in any meaningful way, then he is not a leftist. You can’t reconcile being part of the “New Left” and that statement.

    When you read everything else Scheer has written, you can only conclude he is either lying or very confused and that Welch will basically believe anything a fellow journalist in good standing tells him.

    1. I pretty much popped in to say the same thing. If you are, holistically, a leftist, then your worldview is simply incompatible with libertarianism, full stop.

      To have an honest conversation with a leftist, everyone needs to start by acknowledging that they are starting off with different principles/axioms, such as believing (or not believing) in inalienable individual rights, the position of the individual vs. society vs. the Greater Good, etc. I can’t stand it when they try to cloak the Total State agenda in the trappings of liberty. Just be up front about what you believe.

      1. Exactly to both.

        It’s like they don’t connect dots.

        1. I remember a couple of years ago having one of these conversations w/ a school teacher who was buddies with a friend of mine. He just started off the conversation by stating that he didn’t believe in the concept of inalienable individual rights.

          Ok, great. I may vehemently disagree with you, but at least we’re not bullshitting each other, and not talking past each other.

          1. So his reason for living was…?

            Was he a neo-serf?

          2. “So you won’t mind if I help myself to your wallet…”

        2. It’s like some people are ok with not being consistent and are full of contradictions. I would say the majority of people are like this.

      2. I’d say that the difference is that the fundamental political axiom of libertarianism is that government is inherently evil, and that it should therefore be reduced to the minimum practical level. Different libertarians disagree on what that minimum practical level is, but they all agree on the concept of minimizing government evil by minimizing government.

        But the fundamental political axiom of progressives/modern leftists/modern American-style liberals is that government is inherently good. That it only does evil when hijacked by evil anti-government types, and that most of the evil it does is via sins of omission rather than sins of commission – that government mostly does evil (when it does) by allowing private actors to do evil. In this view, government needs to be big and strong, the better to do good and prevent evil.

        I agree that the two worldviews are incompatible.

        1. I think that the belief that bad people are responsible for bad governments is an inherent progressive view.

          The idea that good people with good intentions could do harm seems beyond them. That’s why they are drawn to socialists saying nice things. Socialism failed because “even though Lenin, Mao, Castro, Chavez, etc. said nice thinks they were lying and did bad things.”

          Those guys did exactly what they said, it’s just that nice sounding policies can create hell holes.

        2. the fundamental political axiom of libertarianism is that government is inherently evil

          I’m pretty sure most libertarians would disagree with you on this. Government isn’t what’s evil, non-retaliatory use of force is. It just so happens that currently most of what the government does is non-retaliatory use of force.

          Government is a necessary good, so long as it is limited to retaliatory use of force.

          The divide between libertarians and progressives is that progressives think it’s sometimes justifiable to coerce other people either for “their own good” or for “the greater good”*.

          * Such as eliminating dog muck, thievin’ kids, and crusty jugglers.

          1. Pssh, all government force is retaliatory. They’re retaliating to you not doing what you’re told, plebe.

            (But yes, good clarification, I’m all for a government that retaliates against those who violate other’s rights.)

      3. I think libertarians have some common ground with ‘old leftists’ who disdain all the SJW nonsense and are anti postmodern. On can’t deny that some of them, like Orwell, had a strong respect for individual rights outside of the economic realm, and there are still a few left today (I think George Lukanioff may be one) have lefty leanings on taxation and redistribution, but are staunch defenders of individual liberties.

        Those seem to be a dying breed though. Debating Keynesianism or even socialism often comes down to a dispute about practicality. Ironically though, as pure economic issues have become less important to leftists, they’ve gotten a lot worse I think.

    2. In Thaddeus’ interview he mentions that he’s against inherited privilege and then later claims he wants kids to all have the same opportunity to x,y,z. Of course, x, y and z must be paid for. He’s certainly a redistributionist and claiming he’s worried about and overpowering state is blatantly contradictory. The state will have all this money flowing through it, but it won’t become overbearing?

      1. TOP. PEOPLE.
        BETTER. RULES.

      2. Iron Law #2.

    3. When you read everything else Scheer has written, you can only conclude he is either lying or very confused and that Welch will basically believe anything a fellow journalist in good standing tells him.

      Why not both?

      Scheer says some things that, while true, miss greater points and/or arrive at the right conclusion for the wrong reasons.

      Also, *is* Thad Russell a journalist in good standing? His interviewing skills are absolutely atrocious. He make Jay Leno’s, now-ubiquitous ‘Man off the street’, ambush- interview look well-refined and balanced.

      1. *is* Thad Russell a journalist in good standing?

        I thought he was an academic?

        1. I thought he was an academic?

          Right and I thought even that was being generous.

          Apparently his revisionist history teachings were so bad Columbia University took offense which, I assume, is like writing a revisionist version of the Civil War where The South wins and offending David Duke.

          1. If you read the piece you linked to, he sounds like he was simply ‘off message’ from the victim-classes narrative that lefty institutions have been pumping for the last ~….. since before Allan Bloom at least.

            1. But, considering the way he talks about his upbringing and the fact that he thinks a hundred students supporting him is in some way significant, I have no reason to believe his brand of being ‘off message’ is, in any way, a more accurate, worthwhile, libertarian, etc. message.

              Listening to him here, he sounds like one of those libertarians who worries that if Conservative Christians win the race to libertopia, only the adherents to the Puritan Work Ethic will have jobs and be happy and everyone else will just be left alone to work at jobs they hate to pay for their vices/indulgences.

              1. I can’t say i’ve ever thought about his book-thesis that hard. I recall his being on the independents, and giving good gab, and the pieces i’ve read here have generally been good.

                my perspective = I far prefer a guy who is maybe a little kooky, has a different angle on libertarian ideas, than some of the, shall we say, ‘better coiffed’, writers here who maintain libertarian ideas *in theory*, but seem to be perpetually watering them down to meaninglessness, articulating them so poorly as to be unrecognizable, or constantly pandering to sentiments that virtually none of the readership actually have.

        2. I thought he was an academic?

          Derp! So, apparently, my keyboard enjoys putting misspellings into Reason’s search engine and I’ve never read a single article by Thad here. Hopefully, he isn’t as consistently bad as Dalmia.

          1. I knew he wrote here extensively; he caught a lot of shit for his “hating on macklemore/lorde” article
            (*which i quite liked – or at least defended; they seem to have deleted all the OG comments)

    4. When you read everything else Scheer has written, you can only conclude he is either lying or very confused

      Not entirely. I think a better formulation for what Scheer is saying is that he differs from the current line-up of progs because he still has some pangs of recognition that he’s still a human being and has some pangs of conscience that it might not be right to line up all wrongthinkers against a wall and put a bullet in their heads.

      It doesn’t mean he won’t be lined up with the rest of us.

  4. Scheer has been wrong for so long about so much that I no longer listen. Move on already.

  5. When I hear someone talk about equality, I reach for my gun.

    1. If you’re going to do this, at least do it right:

      “When I hear the word “culture”, that’s when I cock my Browning”

      1. and, in any case, it was always (mis)attributed to Goering, not Hitler. It was actually a line from a Nazi stage play.

      2. “Cock my Browning…”
        Ok there’s definitely a gay joke in there somewhere.

    2. When I hear someone talk about Hitlers, I reach for my Sit-Down Gun. ?_?

  6. Well, at least this strategy makes more sense as an attempt to convince people than the “Vote for Hillary, you libertarian losers, you have to” strategy the left was trying the last few months. Of course, those last few months make this attempt sound completely insincere.

    1. I liked Carl Bernstein’s totally not condescending, “ok guys stop kidding around with all this libertarian nonsense and get on board already, seriously, the jokes over and it’s not funny anymore…” approach. Really got me sold.

  7. “I’m probably the person on the left who’s most open to libertarian thinking”

    Sounds like a threat.

  8. The intervention skepticism, the realism as we used to call it in foreign policy circles, which really doesn’t have a home anymore is only being championed at this point by Libertarian Andy Green, Jill Stein and Gary Johnson.

    My favorite transcription error. I spent ten seconds trying to think why I haven’t yet heard of this sensible fellow Andy Green.

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