If you thought Cliff Hyra was the only libertarian running for governor of Virginia this year, think again. There might be a second: Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam.
Up to now Northam has stuck about as close to the middle of the road as you can get without turning into a double stripe of yellow paint. Nominally a Democrat, he voted for George W. Bush twice—and at one point there was some talk that he might join the GOP (Northam says such rumors were false). Still, he holds the party line on issues such as Medicaid expansion, gun control, and abortion—areas where he and his Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie, differ.
Gillespie has said he would like to see abortion banned in most cases, and recently admitted he would sign legislation defunding Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood promptly endorsed Northam, and its political action committee plans to spend $3 million supporting his campaign.
Northam has been milking the endorsement. "As I always say," he insisted on Friday, "there is no room for a bunch of legislators, most of whom are men, to tell women what they should and shouldn't do with their own bodies." He repeated the point in a tweet: "There's no excuse for legislators to tell women what they can do with their bodies."
A commendably bold and unequivocal position. The question is: Does Northam actually mean it? Because it leads to all sorts of conclusions that qualify as provocative, if not radical.
If there is no excuse for legislators to tell women what they can do with their bodies, then Virginia should pass right-to-try legislation that lets terminally ill patients experiment with new and untested treatments. The U.S. Senate approved such a measure the very day Planned Parenthood endorsed Northam.
Laws like that apply to both men and women, but it's safe to assume that Northam thinks men and women have equal rights—and therefore that lawmakers have no excuse to tell men what they can do with their bodies, either.
If there is no excuse to tell people what they can do with their bodies, then there also is no excuse to require that motorcycle riders wear helmets, if they would prefer not to. And no excuse to make drivers wear seat belts.
Similarly, there is no excuse to prevent a woman from using drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Or to stop her from selling her organs.
There is no excuse for outlawing prostitution. There is no excuse for prohibiting someone from working for less than an arbitrarily determined minimum wage.
And so on.
This is libertarianism in its purest crystalline form: Every person owns his or her self, and has the absolute right to control his or her own body and what is done with it. You might think society has very good reasons for making people wear seat belts and outlawing heroin and so on. But as good as those reasons might be, libertarians argue, they do not trump the individual's right to bodily self-determination.
Moreover, it is a deontological argument, not a consequentialist one. In other words, the point is not simply that, on balance, things generally go better when the government lets people decide for themselves—but it may decide for them when the scales tip the other way. The point is that the government has no moral authority to order people around, period.
Candidates don't win general elections arguing for pure crystalline libertarianism like that, though. So when asked about some of the implications of his stance, a spokesman for Northam wisely dodged the question: "Theoretical discussions about political philosophy are stimulating, but the reality of governing is more complicated. Dr. Northam believes reproductive freedom leads to economic freedom. If the legislature were to limit it, they are controlling what women can and cannot do in the workforce."
A smart answer, but not a helpful one. Because either the government can tell a woman what to do with her body, or it can't.
For instance: If the government has the authority to force a woman to wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle—because, say, her physical safety has implications for aggregate social spending on medical care, on workplace productivity, on her family's well-being, and so on—then it also has the authority to make her childbearing decisions for her. Because (some would argue) her pregnancy has implications for aggregate spending on public education, consumer demand, the solvency of old-age pension programs in future years, and so forth. Just look at China, with its one-child policy, or the alarm over falling birthrates in Europe.
In the end, the government might decide such impositions are unjustified on a cost/benefit basis, and forbear from telling a woman what to do. But such a decision would be contingent on how the scales tip. No bright-line principle would prevent it from making such impositions in the future, if circumstances change. Enshrining such a principle is the only guarantee that it won't—but a bright-line principle opens Pandora's Box.
Northam's team is right: Questions about political philosophy are stimulating. Bet his answers would be even more so.