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How Elected Libertarians Are Making the World More Free

From occupational licensing reform to legalizing beer-drinking on stage, elected Libertarians are doing some pretty interesting things

Brandon Phinney. ||| Brandon PhinneyBrandon PhinneyWhat exactly do Libertarians do?

Wait — don't answer that. As someone who edited a small-l libertarian magazine for eight years, I know all your jokes: Libertarians are the people who lose (or spoil!) elections. They perform aesthetically challenging stripteases on CSPAN, conduct unfortunate personal experiments with colloidal silver. I GET IT.

But at least 169 of these exotic creatures also hold elected office across the country, from a broke, 19-year-old college student who sits on the Board of Assessment Appeals in tiny Cromwell, Conn., to the land commissioner for the state of New Mexico. And what these critics of government power are doing once they acquire it may provide a flicker of whimsical hope in these dark and fractious times.

Brandon Phinney, a 30-year-old Army vet who found libertarianism through Ron Paul, was elected to the 400-member New Hampshire House of Representatives in 2016 as a Republican. He then switched parties after discovering to his horror that elected GOP officials did not mean what they said about cutting the state budget.

"I didn't appreciate, and I'm sure my constituents wouldn't appreciate, that I would vote in favor of a bill that was contrary to what I ran on," Phinney told me last week at the biennial Libertarian Party National Convention, in New Orleans. Ah, youth!

Phinney in New Hampshire does something I wish we'd see more of in California: He pores through the ever-expanding state code, looking for laws that are anachronistic, impossible to enforce, and/or just plain wrong. The he tries to remove them.

For instance, the Live Free or Die State had on its books for more than a century a prohibition against reusing glass milk-delivery bottles for any other substance besides milk. This bit of dairy industry protectionism wasn't exactly high on inspectors' things-to-fine list, but as Phinney explains, "Anything in a statute that has a financial penalty or a chance to get charged for a crime, it's something that I care about."

One of the country's few elected atheists, Phinney has played in a bunch of bands (including one called Godcrusher, because Libertarian), and that experience led to another discovery of legislative arcana: New Hampshire is one of the few states in the union where performers are barred from drinking alcohol on stage. Or I should say were, until Phinney tackled the problem.

"It may not be a big, sexy policy change," he said. "But to me, it actually helps the entertainment industry tremendously from not having that enforcement over their heads, not having to worry about the state coming in and screwing with their property."

Phinney faces his first reelection with an "L" next to his name this November, which will be an important early indication of whether the L.P. is able to protect, and thus lure more of, its recent converts from the two older parties.

Another key party switcher facing electoral challenge this year is Nebraska state Sen. Laura Ebke. Ebke, who transferred from the GOP to the L.P. two years ago over issues of civil liberties, achieved something this spring that libertarians have been talking about forever: occupational licensing reform.

Going forward, it won't be so easy for the Cornhusker State to strip business licenses from ex-convicts, impose onerous training requirements instead of periodic inspections, or add new professions to the 172 occupations that currently require the state government's blessing. Like Phinney's bills, Ebke's passed with overwhelming bipartisan — nay, tripartisan — support.

"Most of the co-sponsors are Republicans," she told Reason in April, but "the fact that I'm not a Republican allows some of the more liberal members of the body to come and talk to me."

Having Libertarians play the honest, respected brokers between Dems and Repubs may seem far-fetched, depending on your operating caricature of libertarians' interpersonal skills. But that's just what Mayor Jeff Hewitt has done in Calimesa.

The swing vote on a split city council, Hewitt, a garrulous former swimming pool digger, convinced his small town to tackle one of California's biggest problems: The unsustainability of public sector pensions. Instead of contracting fire services from unwieldy Riverside County, with its top-down engine-staffing rules and defined-benefit pensions, Calimesa under Hewitt's tutelage opted out and created its own tiny fire department, saving taxpayers a bundle.

Now Hewitt is running for a spot on the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. He's running neck and neck with Russ Bogh heading into November.

The Libertarian Party needs, and is finally getting, some demonstration projects about how to govern better. Getting more Jeff Hewitts in more important positions could transform the little party that couldn't into not just the country's leading third party (which it is already), but also a bloc that can at long last change the behavior of the top two.

"The Libertarian Party doesn't need any more principle, doesn't need any more platform — it's got great ideas," Hewitt said. "Now, how do you implement them? We obviously elect officials."

This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Photo Credit: Brandon Phinney

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  • AlmightyJB||

    Mexicans, pot, Ass sex. Duh.

  • AlmightyJB||

    Cut spending. Incrementally if you must, but cut spending. We can't even slow the rate of growth. You cut spending you reduce government. Less government means more freedom.

  • DajjaI||

    +1

    The kids these days are told the greatest threat to them is lax gun laws. In fact, the greatest threat to their health and safety is the national debt. Because eventually they will have to pay it back - slave labor. They should be marching in the street.

  • Sevo||

    "The kids these days are told the greatest threat to them is lax gun laws."

    Or an "unhealthy earth!!!!!!!!!!!", whatever that is supposed to mean.

  • Teddy Pump||

    There is no debt.....It is an digital entry in a cyberspace ledger & as long as the USA owns the Global Printing Press , there is nothing to worry about!....Now, if that changes, the crap will hit the fan for everyone!

  • Rock Lobster||

    It's a small start, but it's greater than zero.

    Chip away at Leviathan when and where you can. Increase freedom when and wherever the opportunity presents itself. Understand that compassion cannot be compelled, and spread the word.

  • Rockabilly||

    Dance this mess around...

  • Rock Lobster||

    Like, they do all sixteen, man.

  • sparkstable||

    While I certainly appreciate these gains... I'm always skeptical that some libertarian elected officials end up being the libertarian version of Ds and Rs. By that I mean Rs promise key fundamental things, never deliver on the fundamentals, and end up showcasing all the low hanging fruit to say "See! I'm effective so re-elect me!"

    As long as these things are done in "spare time" when not working towards the heavy lift of fundamentally changing our governmental system I'm cool. And as long as this "brokering" is done on principle and not outcome (you don't side with progs and push for state sanctioned gay marriage simply because you think gays should be allowed to marry... you fight to end ALL govt restrictions on who can do what voluntarily... the former is more govt and future danger despite the immediate outcome looking like what we want) then we are OK.

  • Qsl||

    The difficulty being systemic change only really happens in times of crisis or revolution. I think you could even argue government lags behind cultural change by about a decade or so. And short of starting a new government from scratch, these are the cards you've been dealt.

    And for most issues, like spending, they end up political footballs to be punted around (a few points lower this year, a few points higher the next) depending on the political winds. And the sheer inertia of the system ends up being its greatest defense regardless of who is in the reins of power.

    There was a talk at the Hoover Institution where the gent was discussing the best way to reduce taxes (and spending) is to limit the appropriate targets for taxation. Reduce it to say about 10 and then argue what the appropriate rate for those should be.

    But to get libertarians in their cacophony of presentations to focus on a pressure point like that (or even agree what the 10 should be) is so much like herding cats, you are left with piecemeal libertarian moments and a never ending list of new taxes and spending to follow.

  • Sevo||

    "But to get libertarians in their cacophony of presentations to focus on a pressure point like that (or even agree what the 10 should be) is so much like herding cats, you are left with piecemeal libertarian moments and a never ending list of new taxes and spending to follow."
    "...herding cats...": It's sort of proverbial that libertarians are not 'joiners' or 'group actors'; they tend to be individualists. Which leaves the problem of getting a bunch of individualists to gang up for a single purpose even *IF* they do agree on the particular issue and solution.

  • Teddy Pump||

    The true Conservatives make the best Libertarians....A very wise man said this a long time ago:

    "The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types -- the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob. This is called the balance, or mutual check, in our Constitution."

    ― G.K. Chesterton

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    They perform aesthetically challenging stripteases on CSPAN, conduct unfortunate personal experiments with colloidal silver.

    We judge all the other parties by the worst of their members. Why should Libertarians expect a pass?

  • Fk_Censorship||

    I don't know, I think "what is Aleppo?" or "libertarians are fiscally conservative and socially liberal" were a lot worse to the libertarian brand than that striptease.
    Speaking of brearded men on stage, it might even bring the Libertarian Party positive coverage. Are you familiar with Europe's beloved Conchita Wurst?

  • Eddy||

    Not going to look, not going to look, not going to look...

    I looked.

    You know what other Austrian had facial hair?

  • Fk_Censorship||

    Johann Strauss the younger?

  • Echospinner||

    Sigmund Freud?

  • perlchpr||

    "libertarians are fiscally conservative and socially liberal"

    Wait, what's wrong with this? It seems fairly accurate, given the popular definitions of "conservative" and "liberal".

  • Eddy||

    Nowadays "socially liberal" tends to boil down to gun control, mandatory cakes, and funding for Planned Parenthood.

  • Robert||

    That's the trouble: As the ground shifted, the side people were on changed. 50 yrs. ago the "social" issues were ones libertarians were "liberal" on: narcotics, porn, sex, gambling, due criminal process. Now that most porn's legal, lots of gambling's legal, gays aren't getting beaten up, and there's even been a lot of progress on pot, "socially liberal" is about different things that aren't necessarily libertarian.

  • Fk_Censorship||

    That's a terrible characterization of libertarianism. We are not socially liberal, not socially conservative, nor socially anything because we don't try to impose our various cultural values via the law. Whereas we are trying to impose our economic policies (or lack thereof) via the law.
    Second, giving the same weight to economic policy (where laws have real, important effects on people's lives) and social policy (which is mainly virtue signaling one way or another) is also a big mistake and really detracts from explaining libertarianism to those who don't understand it.

  • 1234||

    ** Second, giving the same weight to economic policy (where laws have real, important effects on people's lives) and social policy (which is mainly virtue signaling one way or another) **

    Yeah because mass incarceration, the war on drugs, police brutality, and SWAT kicking down the door to shoot the family dog, definitely don't have "real, important effects on people's lives."

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Right-wingers do not like it when people point out the unconvincing, even silly drag with which defensive conservatives attempt to masquerade as libertarians.

  • Fk_Censorship||

    Ok I give you that. I was thinking more on the culture wars, and signaling that you are socially liberal is a mistake in defining libertarianism (we don't take part in the culture wars, politically).
    However, to those social issues you mention, being liberal doesn't mean advocating for less government interference in people's lives - it's just that they'd prefer the state interfered with the same ferocity, but less so on select ethnic groups. Again, libertarians are not socially liberal, in the sense understood today, since they don't generally care (from a political standpoint) who is being hurt by that government overreach. Socially liberal people only care when it affects certain ethnic groups, libertarians care about every individual.

  • Deconstructed Potato||

    I like this article. Positive and hopeful.

  • Aloysious||

    Yeah, it was a nice change of pace.

  • Hank Phillips||

    It overlooked the proliferation of libertarian parties elsewhere. Vera Kichanova was elected at age 20 in Russia. Yet in U.S. dominated fascist Brazil there is an absolute ban on libertarian parties. They have 16 communist parties and 16 fascist parties, all subsidized by taxes... take your pick. The result is blank ballots taking first place in many cities.

  • Fk_Censorship||

    In Brazil you will see graffiti with "mais Mises menos Marx" which means "more of Mises less of Marx", which doesn't really end up in American street art all that often.

  • Eddy||

    OT - Bastille Day

    And (two days late) happy Boyne-iversary to Northern Ireland.

    "Parades to commemorate the 228th anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne concluded peacefully throughout Northern Ireland on Thursday evening following some sporadic Eleventh Night trouble....

    "The PSNI (cops) condemned what it described as the "sporadic disorder" that occurred on the Eleventh night in areas of Belfast, Newtownards and Derry. This was triggered by action taken to reduce the size of what were deemed dangerously large bonfires.

    ""The general levels of calls for assistance last night were similar to what we have seen in recent years. However, we did deal with disorder and disruption which saw 13 vehicles burnt out in Belfast and Newtownards and petrol bombs thrown at my officers in Derry/Londonderry," said assistant chief constable Alan Todd."

  • Anastasia Beaverhausen||

    Well yeah - they're elected and they're Libertarians, but as far as I know, none of them were elected AS a Libertarian. They were either elected in non-partisan positions, or elected as a Republican and changed parties once in office, giving the middle finger to those who voted for them.

    Let's see some folks elected with a (L) next to their name - then let's talk.

  • gormadoc||

    You should probably talk about them prior to getting reelected. It's important in getting them reelected.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Anastasia screams in vain. The whole point of casting LP spoiler votes is to force the Kleptocracy to repeal bad laws. Every frustrated Bible bigot or People's statist who notices the LP got more than the difference between THEIR getting on the payroll or not will question the wisdom of the planks that drove voters to prefer integrity and clarity. The reason this works so well is that the looter parties are so nearly identical that the margins deciding elections tend to be small. Our votes therefore pack an inordinately leveraged amount of law-changing clout. All we need is real candidates.

  • 1234||

    There are plenty of Libertarians who were elected in partisan elections as Libertarians.

  • Anastasia Beaverhausen||

    The article discusses *current* elected officials. How many of them were elected in a partisan election on the Libertarian line? None.

  • 1234||

    That's simply not true. Matt linked the page that has the count of 169 elected officials, and that list notes whether the election was partisan or nonpartisan.

    https://www.lp.org/elected-officials-2/

  • 1234||

    It mainly depends on whether or not local offices are partisan or nonpartisan in a state, and that varies a lot. But the states where e.g. city councils and the like are partisan do include some with Libertarians elected as such.

  • Rockabilly||

    Once in a while I'd like to buy some psilocybin mushroom, maybe some LSD, or even MDMA.

    Really end the drug war, just don't say - ok man, you now have permission to smoke marijuana.

    People have the right to explore their mind so fully end the drug war so we can find reliable sources of MDMA.

  • Eddy||

    Please contact a reliable supplier at Definitely Not A DEA Operative dot com, and give your address and other contact information.

    /sarc

  • Eddy||

    Though the safer course will be to contact that witch doctor who sometimes advertises on H&R. He'll get your girlfriend back, he'll get your dog back, he'll get your truck back, and for a small bonus, you can throw a curse on a person of your choosing.

  • Hank Phillips||

    You could vote Legalize Psylocybin, Legalize Peyote or Legalize Psychedelics dot com: LP.com
    THAT sends an unequivocal message all defeated looters can easily grasp. They then grasp their platform committeemembers by the throat and... change happens.

  • Incomprehensible Bitching||

    Freedom is all an illusion, because everything is connected.

    Unless you're talking about freedom to healthcare access; that's real.

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    I really do think more people should run for office in their local areas. There are so many elected offices everywhere and it doesn't really take all that many votes to be elected to a lot of them.

  • Fancylad||

    Woah, what's an article on libertarianism doing on Reason?
    Isn't this the place for scribes to virtue signal about the latest bien pensant issues being advanced by their progressive betters?

  • soldiermedic76||

    Not a bad article, but I am not certain why it was necessary to mention that Mr. phinney is an atheist, since it had no bearing on anything else within the story.

  • Sevo||

    "Not a bad article, but I am not certain why it was necessary to mention that Mr. phinney is an atheist, since it had no bearing on anything else within the story."

    Disagreed. It makes him doubly 'unelectable'; very relevant.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Lots of things had no bearing on anything related to the story. Why did YOU think atheism was the one to complain about?

    "broke, 19-year-old college student"

    "a 30-year-old Army vet"

    "Hewitt, a garrulous former swimming pool digger"

  • Eddy||

    I ain't saying he's a swimming pool digger
    But he can take a pool and make it bigger

  • Sevo||

    "Lots of things had no bearing on anything related to the story. Why did YOU think atheism was the one to complain about?"
    Disagree regarding the "atheist" lable, but pretty sure you called soldiermedic76 on BS for the rest of it.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Looters on the Wikipedia avidly insert the "atheist" label in articles on Ayn Rand, Tara Smith and anyone else advocating freedom. Try to find such a designation in their listing of Karl Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin et alii... Much effort goes into convincing looter progressives that the LP is another misbranded pack of coathanger abortion pushers. That's politics as she is.

  • Cy||

    "Looters on the Wikipedia avidly insert the "atheist" label in articles on Ayn Rand, Tara Smith and anyone else advocating freedom."

    The "Christians" openly attack anything not "Christian" in their eyes. Then they have the balls to claim that they believe in Freedom and that they themselves are "under attack." People who point out what someone's religious beliefs are know it and do it often. It's like character assassination for something we all know isn't supposed to be wrong.

    The bible is not about freedom, quite the contrary actually. Christianity is not about freedom. Anyone claiming otherwise has a serious case of cognitive dissonance.

  • Eddy||

    "You can't rely on the authenticity of every quote attributed to me on the Internet." /Abraham Lincoln

  • Hank Phillips||

    It is refreshing to see Matt remembering how to write a good, pro-LP article. It will be interesting to see how many of these "defectors" turn out to be plants--Trojan horses sent solely to overturn the good work wrought by the 1972 LP Overpopulation plank, as amended by the Supreme Court shortly after that election.

  • SusanM||

    OT: How do I become a libertarian even while not actually being one? Short, that is, of being a LP candidate? I believe, in principle, that the value of public works and institutions justifies the impositions required.

    Unfortunately, most who share these views are also relentlessly humorless, militant, minge-gurgling guttercunts whose arrogant smug elitism would cause cancer in small animals if it got any stronger.

    So, how about it? Is there any wiggle room or am I stuck with the Shithustler Brigade forever?

  • Eddy||

    Well, there are certain initiation ceremonies, but I'm not really supposed to talk about those.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Ooooh, you just lost three levels!

  • Eddy||

    You mean I have to do the Wedgie Ordeal all over again?

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Four!

  • Cy||

    Gryffindor Wins the House cup!

  • SusanM||

    Eeeerrr...maybe I should just be a Party of One - a Susantarian, if you will.

    Besides, I'm not sure where I can get a large tub of sealing wax, a copy of Cosell and a live ostrich on short notice.

  • IceTrey||

    You understand the imposition is the initiatory use of force right?

  • SusanM||

    Well, I kinda figured that would be a sticking point.

    Seriously, my position on that is that, while I do not by any means hold them sacred or absolutely indispensable, they do a okay kinda job. Obviously, bringing practicality to a philosophy fight doesn't make much sense. But, that's a definite "no-no", is it?

  • Sevo||

    SusanM|7.15.18 @ 12:35AM|#
    "Well, I kinda figured that would be a sticking point.
    Seriously, my position on that is that, while I do not by any means hold them sacred or absolutely indispensable, they do a okay kinda job. Obviously, bringing practicality to a philosophy fight doesn't make much sense. But, that's a definite "no-no", is it?"

    So you are hoping that a 'ends justifies means' approach is just fine, since you'd like to claim to be libertarian?
    Hoping for special dispensation from the pope of libertarianism?

  • SusanM||

    Do you have his number?

  • Sevo||

    SusanM|7.15.18 @ 12:07AM|#
    "So, how about it? Is there any wiggle room or am I stuck with the Shithustler Brigade forever?"

    I appreciate that you'd love to find a way to do something without the need of doing something else in order that some people would accept your concern about something.
    We have, for example, Hihn claiming to be libertarian but in love with government restrictions on gun ownership. IMO, you can claim to be libertarian and hold a lot of views, but Hihn, by promoting those sorts of restrictions, makes it clear he is not libertarian.
    I will state this as an absolute: You cannot propose the government limit the ownership of pretty much anything and claim you are libertarian.
    Maybe that sort of comparison is unfair, but how 'bout some specifics? Why do you think you might be 'stuck' with anything?

  • SusanM||

    I'm just finding that Progressives today have all the Joie de vivre of a clown hanging from a lampost.

    You know what pushed me over the edge? It was a PZ Myers post with him finding more shit for white people to feel guilty over. I got away from religion to reject Original Sin and I'm getting that shit from an atheist? Whether it's pissing around over whether the LGBT Rainbow flag is "inclusive" enough or who should play Trans* people in movies (Hint: NO ONE WHO MATTERS FUCKING CARES!) it's the endless rush to see who can chase their tails the hardest

    I have this problem with all three major philosophies going on. I agree with the progressives on broad matters but ultimately find them to be fussy nannies who put politics before people's well-being (and don't get me started on that one) and couldn't find a sense of humor if it laid eggs in their stomach.

    I find conservatism culturally appealing. I think I could fit pretty well into Mayberry, for the most part. Unfortunately, half of conservatives think I'm an agent of Satan and the other half think I'm an Illuminati reptoid. So, that's out.

    "Libertarian" (quotes are just to indicate that that is a rather broad label, currently)...well...I will say that it's not the worst philosophy but I've come to the conclusion that it lacks the breadth to be a useful weltanschaung. YMMV obviously. But you all do know how to have a good time.

    If nothing else, thanks for letting me vent!

  • Get To Da Chippah||

    "I will state this as an absolute: You cannot propose the government limit the ownership of pretty much anything and claim you are libertarian."

    I'd have "other people against their will" on a list of things the government can forbid you from owning, but that's about it. I might even go so far as to just have that item read "other people".

  • Qsl||

    Georgist. Or even geolibertarian (if you want to go fringe of the fringe)

    There are lots of derivations of left libertarianism that at least share much of the suppositions of libertarianism, but interpret them in wildly different ways that cause the bog-standard libertarians to scream "Infidel"!

    Or you could do like most libertarians and freelance it in what makes the most amount of sense for you.

  • SusanM||

    Okay. There may be blackjack and hookers if I do freelance. Will that work?

  • Qsl||

    Only in Vegas.

  • Eddy||

    I miss the witch doctor ads.

  • NoVaNick||

    A guy ran as a Libertarian for city council where I live a few years back. Unsurprisingly, he was not among the top vote getters here in DC's backyard. SO I have given up on ever being well represented, and instead just always ask for plastic straws, vape freely and openly, and set off fireworks at every opportunity. If my voting doesn't speak for my politics, my actions will.

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