Last December, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis was one of the few Democratic governors willing to talk sensibly about pandemic policy after more than 18 months of blue-state lockdowns, mask mandates, school closures, and business-capacity restrictions.
"Public health [officials] don't get to tell people what to wear; that's just not their job," Polis told a Colorado public radio station, declaring that the "medical emergency" phase of the pandemic had passed. Even when the omicron variant spiked this winter, Polis refused to reinstate mandates. His message was clear: Coloradans had had the opportunity to get vaccinated. They could decide their own risk tolerance.
The 46-year-old governor and former five-term congressman is presiding over one of the fastest-growing states in the country, a place that has one of the lowest death rates during the pandemic. Last fall, at a conference held by the conservative Steamboat Institute, he declared that the state income tax rate "should be zero" and he has supported ballot initiatives to reduce the rate. The gay father of two recently signed a free-range parenting bill that effectively re-legalizes the sort of Colorado childhood he recalls as the son of two ex-hippie parents. He has pushed occupational licensing reform and, as conservative states pass laws strictly limiting abortion, he signed legislation guaranteeing a woman's right to choose. The founder of two charter schools, he is an outspoken advocate of school choice.
A serial tech entrepreneur who amassed a fortune estimated by ProPublica to be "in the hundreds of millions," Polis was an early champion of bitcoin and is steadfast against limiting speech rights or treating social media platforms as utilities that can't moderate content or bounce users for transgressing terms of service.
To be sure, Polis is no minarchist and, while critical of President Joe Biden on immigration and free trade, stands by his argument, made in the pages of Reason in 2014, that libertarians should vote for Democratic candidates because they are "supportive of individual liberty and freedom." He's called for carbon taxes (while recognizing their potential to become slush funds for expansive new government programs) and in April, he signed the largest budget in Colorado history. Yet he has displayed unmistakable libertarian tendencies, including being the only Democratic member of the now-defunct House Liberty Caucus.
Polis, who is up for reelection in the fall, appeared on The Reason Interview With Nick Gillespie in April. He spoke about guns, drugs, tax policy, and whether Colorado is bringing back a tolerant ethos reminiscent of 1970s America.
Reason: You recently signed the "Reasonable Independence for Children" bill, saying, "Just because a child is playing alone outside doesn't mean they're in danger."
Polis: This has to do with the broad area of parental rights. It's very reasonable to raise your child in different ways. Some parents are helicopter parents; they watch their kid every moment at the playground. People can argue that's good [or] that's bad. Other parents want their kid to go two blocks, play on the playground, and return home by dinner. Those are all acceptable ways to parent. I mean, the government shouldn't be telling you how to parent.
There's a legitimate government interest forbidding child abuse, but letting your kid play on the playground [is] not child abuse.
You're 46. People of our rough age were not just allowed to play outside by our parents—we were forced to. What happened to American childhood?
Parents would get caught up in Child Protective Services [CPS] just because somebody saw their 8-year-old playing on a playground two blocks from where they live. And inevitably the parents would not lose custody and it would be fine, but, like, who wants to get caught up in CPS? So we wanted to be clear that yes, your kids can play alone. It's reasonably safe. That's how kids learn. They explore. I used to hike in the mountains near my home when I was 10, with a friend, without parents.
We're not saying the government should put our foot on the scale either way. If parents want to be helicopter parents, that's their prerogative too.
You signed a law saying that a woman has a right to an abortion. Are there any limits on that? What was pressing you to say that?
What's pressing us to do this and other states is what's happening nationally, which is very scary, in that Roe v. Wade effectively will be overturned. Nationally, this protected a woman's right to bodily autonomy. We simply put Roe v. Wade into Colorado law. So no matter what happens nationally, the government should not be at that table in deciding whether you complete a pregnancy.
Does the state have any interest more broadly in restricting or regulating abortion as a woman comes closer to carrying a baby to term?
Neither me nor you, since we're not women, would ever be in the shoes of a woman who's eight months pregnant [who] found out their child has a major brain defect and will be stillborn. What a horrible choice for a woman to have. But of course the government should not say, "we're forcing you to carry this nonviable fetus to term." That is reprehensible. There is no shame on the woman either way. Some women might decide, because of their faith, to go ahead and do that, and that's gut-wrenching for the woman. Some women might decide to terminate their pregnancy. That's also gut-wrenching. But it is their decision, not yours and not mine.
How are conservatives in Colorado responding to this?
As I've said to many folks that consider themselves pro-life, when you make something illegal, it doesn't mean it goes away.
In Colorado, we were one of the first states to eliminate the failed marijuana prohibition policy. Did marijuana use go up? No, it didn't, especially among young people. Prohibition doesn't work. So let's meet people where they're at. There were many on the conservative side that do believe that we should have government overreach here and [that] the government should be making these decisions, not women, not in consultation with their faith or with doctors, but that [the] decision should be made for them.
You are not against gun rights in a way that a kind of stereotypical coastal Democrat might be. But you recently signed bipartisan legislation that said people guilty of 110 different felonies are banned from owning guns.
First of all, I support the Second Amendment, our right to bear arms. It's in our Constitution. It's a question of: How far does that go? I'll get to the [law] you talked about in a second. Let me talk about one other one first: red flag laws.
There's a very high bar, as there should be, for somebody being involuntarily committed because they're an immediate danger to themselves or others. The question is whether there is a slightly lower bar where they would temporarily lose access to their guns and then they get it back a few months later, but it still goes before a judge. So that's what we did there. If somebody's in a dangerous mental state, not quite at the level where they're committed, is there something short of commitment where a loved one can intervene and a parent can say to a 19-year-old, "For three months, your guns are going to go away"?
For gun-related crimes, you lose your rights for a period of life. For other violent crimes, it's a reasonable discussion either way.
People do that for voting rights, too. They say, "What level of crime do you lose your voting rights for? What level of crime do you lose your right to bear arms for?" There's no right or wrong answer.
I've done the highest number of pardons [in Colorado] for people who have lost their right to bear arms because of something 20 or 30 years ago that they did when they were young. They've lived an exemplary life since, but they can't go hunting with their kids [or] have a gun for home defense. I have given probably a dozen or two pardons, but that's a very cumbersome process for somebody to request that.
Are you channeling the 1970s, a time in Colorado and America when a lot of personal liberties were really expanded: gay rights, women's rights, abortion rights, gun rights, children's rights?
Culturally, my parents were legit hippies. That's who they were in the '70s. They were anti-war demonstrators. They considered joining a commune, but didn't because the commune was sexist and anti-women. That's the milieu that I grew up in.
I respect freedom. I think that it's great that Colorado has people that are deeply religious and conservative, as long as they don't force their values on others. We [also] have people that are very hedonistic.
It's great because you're free to be the way you want. That's the way it should be. We were the first state to legalize [recreational] marijuana. I'm very proud of that. I don't use marijuana; that's just a choice. I don't really drink either, but that's totally somebody's choice. And in Colorado you don't risk getting in trouble with the law just because you want to smoke marijuana.
You have a couple cities that are also expanding the use of entheogenic plants, magic mushrooms, and things like that. Is that the next state-level legalization that you see coming in Colorado?
It may be on the ballot this year. It's a people's initiative process. I don't know whether they're going to gather the signatures, but yeah, Denver already did.
I generally don't think that things like that should be dealt with through a criminal setting. In fact, what you're talking about in particular might have some therapeutic uses around people that are trying to get off of opioids or people that have major issues with depression or anxiety. There's some clinical studies that have been done. Frankly, the clinical studies are inhibited by the illegality of some of the substances. We had that with marijuana as well, where it was very difficult to even do research on what the benefits might be because it couldn't be done with federally funded research.
We're taping this on Monday, April 18: Tax Day. You have stated that your preferred state income tax rate is zero. How do you approach that?
We've cut the income tax twice since I've been in office. When I came in it was 4.63 percent, now it's 4.55 percent. We also cut property taxes for two years. We'll need to renew some of that. I think the secret sauce is very simple. It's one that neither somebody whose inherent objective is to shrink government or somebody whose inherent objective is to grow government will necessarily like. It's to say: Let's take those arguments off the table, because we don't have a majority for those. Let's [make the changes] revenue-neutral. This is not a backdoor plot to increase the size of government, not a backdoor plot to decrease the size of government. Let's just say: How do we fund government?
But in this particular discussion, income is not a good thing to tax, because it taxes productivity. As a society, we like income. We want people to make income. Find something that is a negative externality or a bad thing and instead tax that. I often talk about pollution or carbon as the basis of taxation instead of income.
How do you do that in a way where the externality tax doesn't just become a way to punish more things or activities you don't like?
You're absolutely right. Another tenet would be [that] a broad-based tax is much better because it creates less distortions than a narrowly focused tax that's much higher for the same amount of revenue.
Consumption [is] reasonable to tax. There's issues around how you make sure it's not regressive because somebody who makes $10 million simply can't consume and spend a higher percentage of income as somebody who makes $50,000.
In practice, I'm happy to reduce the income tax if we can't eliminate it—and we've done that twice. I think that there's a discussion to be had about how [to] find a broad-based tax that punishes externalities rather than income and value creation.
Your COVID-19 response has gotten generally high marks. You got rid of mask mandates when they were no longer necessary or recognized as not effective. How much blowback did you get from your own party?
First, I think the key thing that every governor should have done is to say, "What is the state interest here? What are we doing?" Is the state interest to save every life? Look at what China's doing. That's not working very well. We defined the state interest very early on: We do not want to overwhelm our hospital capacity.
What that would mean is not only would more COVID people die, but you could have a heart attack, a stroke, [or] not be able to get cancer treatment. We said we will not overwhelm our hospital capacity, and we succeeded in doing that.
Some Republican governors were channeling a message: "I don't like mask wearing." I was very clear during the heights of the pandemic. I wore a mask. It didn't mean I wanted to force it on people, but as a model, absolutely it would reduce your risk. Not eliminate your risk, but reduce your risk.
Vaccination, same thing. It reduces your risk. I got it. I encourage everybody to get it. I think there was some mismanagement on both sides. There were certainly some [governors] that kept too tight controls in for too long, but there were also some that catered to misinformation and disinformation that had a human toll and a toll on the economy.
What are your thoughts on state versus federal control? Former President Donald Trump gave the states a lot of freedom to pursue their own courses of action. Do you think that was a good discovery process? Or do you think the power to set COVID policy and related issues should emanate from Washington?
Here in Colorado, we actually took it a step further and really devolved to local authority. We had a very different approach in some of our big blue cities and some of our rural areas—and we actually have conservative cities too. Colorado Springs went away from mask wearing very early.
We left it in local hands. Why? Because these are real trade-offs. It was very clear there's not a right answer. It's about how you weigh the additional risks with the importance of everyday activities and freedom that people have. Who best to make that decision but the level of government closest to the people? More people had buy-in, because it was a level of government closest to the people that was weighing those trade-offs.
Your past as a businessman is in the tech industry, which is the most demonized business sector currently. What do you think about attempts to regulate social media platforms as a public utility? Laws in the Colorado legislature have been floated to identify hate speech, ban it, and punish platforms. Is that a good way forward?
The government needs to tread very, very lightly when it comes to any speech-based regulation of tech or any other industry. I would say federally, there is a role for antitrust law. You don't want to overdo that. That's when there's a competitive advantage that protects the entrenched incumbent and it can block others from getting in.
I would argue it's a very competitive space, when you talk about social media in general. If somebody has a better search than Google, there's nothing to stop people from using that.
In the early 2000s, tech seemed like our savior. It was bringing us a lot of shiny things at great prices. Now it's in the doghouse. What is behind the ongoing vilification of the tech industry?
If you want to see a great sociopolitical commentary on that, look up [comedian] Bo Burnham's Inside. I think that we all had this very aspirational view of what this new communication technology can bring, but like anything, it revealed more of ourselves to one another—the good, the bad, and the ugly. As a student of human nature, I don't think it's inherently evil or inherently good. I think all those facets are reflected in each and every one of us.
Certainly the advances in technology have magnified all of that. It's amazing to see the acts of goodwill from strangers, the GoFundMes that help people get the medical care they need. But also the ugly: misinformation, disinformation, neo-Nazism, far-right conspiracies.
It doesn't change who we are, it just magnifies it.
What's your sense of state-level educational gag orders that dictate what is allowable speech in a K-12 classroom or a K-3 classroom about sexual orientation or identity? Public education is going to reflect the attitudes of people, but at what level should that be hammered out?
The level of government closest to the people. We have locally elected school boards [and] charter schools that are self-governing with their own board; they handle these issues in the best way that their parents want. It's an extension of parental rights.
We have school choice in Colorado, public school choice. You can go to any school you want: charter, public, your district, other district. If you don't like what's in your neighborhood school, there's alternatives.
These statewide gag orders are indefensible. To say you can't talk about something is absurd. I'm a gay parent with my husband and we have two kids in school. What does that mean? My kid can't say "my two dads." It's just a bizarre incursion not only on free speech but on our rights as parents.
Again, these are state-funded schools. The key public interest in this is: Every kid should be welcomed as a learner. No kid should ever be turned away because of their race, their gender, who their parents are, who they are.
Are you happy with the Biden presidency so far?
I'm happy he restored rationality to government.
I'm going to take that as a no.
I'm thrilled that Donald Trump is no longer president. Absolutely. I'm thrilled that Donald Trump is no longer president.
But what about the way Biden is governing now? I mean, is he causing inflation or abetting it?
Inflation's interesting. Government spending has the small effect that causes inflation, [and] yes, the monetary policy does. But I really believe that [fixing] tariffs and immigration would solve inflation. It really would. It would wipe it out. And neither party is very good on that right now.
Trump took a hard turn against TPP [the Trans-Pacific Partnership] and trade deals and free trade, instituted tons of tariffs. Biden has slowly unwound a few but hasn't really committed to it. On immigration, Trump was awful, the worst. Biden is a little better, but I wish [he was] much better.
And comprehensive reform still seems elusive no matter who controls Congress, Democrats or Republicans. I mean, it's hopeless with Republicans. Don't get me wrong. But even with Democrats in charge of Congress, I don't see a lot of movement on comprehensive immigration reform.
We're in a moment where we seem not to have a ruling narrative of who we are as Americans. At various points, America defined itself as a nation of immigrants or a credal nation in which individuals could actualize themselves. What's a model for an America which would be inclusive and positive in terms of growing what we're all able to do?
I wish I had the answers to that. Our experiment as a republic will be 250 years old in just a couple more years. It's time for our awkward adolescence. The left is right on coming to terms with legacies of slavery and racism.
Then, of course, on the right, understanding that there's not some collective guilt today for what might have happened 100 or 200 years ago. It's important to be honest about it, but just by being honest about what your great-grandfather might have done doesn't mean that you have culpability. We don't believe in blood guilt in our country.
I think gradually there'll be a higher level of understanding as we emerge from adolescence into our hopefully wise adult years, where we preserve the tenets of liberal democracy and our rights and free enterprise.
This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity. For a podcast version, subscribe to The Reason Interview With Nick Gillespie.