Gov. Polis Wants You…To Be in Charge of Your Own Life

The libertarianish Colorado Democrat is devolving decision-making to parents and trying to lower the income tax to zero.


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"Here in Colorado we actually took it a step further and really devolved [decisions] to local authority. And so we had a very different approach in some of our big blue cities [than] in some of our rural areas. We left it in local hands. Why? Because these are real trade-offs."

That's Jared Polis, the Democratic governor of Colorado, talking to me two weeks ago about his approach to mask mandates. In December, he told a Colorado public radio station that "public health [officials] don't get to tell people what to wear; that's just not their job," and he withstood pressure to impose mandates during the omicron spike. Polis' approach of devolving decision-making seems to be working: Colorado has one of the lowest COVID death rates in the country.

And its population is growing, while California and New York shrink. Florida is also ascendant, but Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is becoming a culture warrior in ways that are likely to backfire. Polis, on the other hand, is bringing an unmistakably libertarian flavoring to the Centennial State. His embrace of letting people decide extends to other areas, too, such as child rearing.

"It's very reasonable to raise your child in different ways. Some parents are helicopter parents, right? Where they watch your kid every moment at the playground," he tells me. "Other parents want their kid to go two blocks [away from] their home, play on the playground, and return home by dinner. The government shouldn't be telling you how to parent."

Polis championed and signed the Reasonable Independence For Children bill, a free-range parenting law designed to stop state overreach when it comes to things like letting your kids play outside. He says the law will allow Child Protective Services to focus instead on serious cases of harm. "We wanted to be clear that in fact, yes, your kids can play alone. 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."

The 46-year-old Polis, who is openly gay, married, and a father of two, says he got his laissez faire sensibility from being raised by ex-hippies. "I respect freedom. I think that it's great that Colorado has people who are deeply religious and conservative, as long as they don't force their values on others. We have people that are very hedonistic. You name it. It's great because you're free to be the way you want."

Polis started two charter schools, recently signed a law guaranteeing a woman's right to choose in Colorado, and he's relaxed laws on occupational licensing. Back in 2014, as a member of Congress, he was accepting bitcoin for campaign contributions while his congressional colleagues were calling for it to be banned. A serial tech entrepreneur who amassed a fortune estimated by ProPublica to be "in the hundreds of millions" before entering politics, Polis is committed to a strong economy and says the proper state income tax rate should be zero.

"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," he says. "We've cut a number of other taxes and fees. Income is not a good thing to tax because it taxes productivity as a society. We like income, we want people to make income."

He's a strong supporter of free speech and wants to keep the government from regulating social media as a public utility, an increasingly popular cause among progressives and conservatives.

"The government needs to tread very, very lightly when it comes to any speech-based regulation of tech or any other industry," Polis says. "I would say federally there is a role for anti-trust law. Now we can have a whole discussion on that. You don't want to overdo that. I would argue it's a very competitive space when you're talking about social media in general. If somebody offers a better service, they'll get there. There's a number of viable different services. If somebody has a better search than Google, there's nothing to stop people from going over and using that."

What are the limits of online speech? Polis says "the only real actionable items should be the same as a direct threat, right? I mean: I will kill so-and-so. That is actionable, is illegal. But other speech…should be refuted if it's misinformation or disinformation. There's not a government role in that."

While happy that the election of Joe Biden "restored rationality to government," Polis feels like not enough policy has changed, especially when it comes to immigration and free trade. "I really believe that tariffs and immigration would solve inflation," he says. "It really would. It would wipe it out, [but] neither party is very good on that right now. Trump took a hard turn against TPP [the Trans-Pacific Partnership] and trade deals. He instituted tons of tariffs. Biden has slowly unwound a few but hasn't committed to it. On immigration, Trump was awful—the worst. Biden is a little better, but I wish [he was much] better."

To be sure, Polis is no minarchist. While critical of President Biden on immigration and free trade, he 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 in a highly polarized country, he is succeeding by governing mostly from the middle and is hopeful that polarization will recede in the years to come. The country will be 250 years old in a few years, he observes, which he likens to reaching an "awkward adolescence."

"I think it's a time for rediscovering who we are," he says. "The left is right [about] coming to terms with legacies of slavery and racism that absolutely existed; pretending that they didn't doesn't serve anybody. And the right [is correct in] understanding that there's not some collective guilt today for what might've happened 100 or 200 years ago. It's important to be honest about it, but being honest about what your great-grandfather might've done doesn't mean that you have culpability…. We don't believe in blood guilt in our country."

Polis thinks that the conversations we're currently having—however divisive, "hurtful," and ugly at times—will yield "a higher level of understanding," one in which "we preserve the tenants of liberal democracy and our rights and free enterprise."

For the longer conversation with Polis from which the above is taken, go here.

Photo Credits: PJ Heller/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; BOB STRONG/UPI/Newscom; Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Michael Reynolds/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/Newscom; Raquel Natalicchio/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Mykhaylo Palinchak/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Tyler Tomasello/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Sebastian Gollnow/dpa/picture-alliance/Newscom; PJ Heller/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom

Music Credits: "I.O.U." by D.A.H.-Trump via Artlist; "Driving Cars Onto Mars," by Milano via Artist.

Written and narrated by Nick Gillespie. Edited by Regan Taylor.