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An Interview with Governor Gary Johnson on What He Would Do as President

From The Objective Standard, Vol. 6, No. 3.

Gary Johnson currently campaigns as a candidate for U.S. president with the same outspoken fidelity to free markets, limited government, and fiscal responsibility that guided his two terms as governor of New Mexico. Aside from making headlines earlier this year with his strong opposition to an antihomosexual Republican-circulated marriage pledge, which he called “offensive” and “un-American,” he has been neglected by the mainstream press and has been excluded from several televised debates. He presses on in a struggle from which higher-polling candidates have already dropped out.

Johnson started a one-man handyman company in 1976 and over the next two decades developed it to employing one thousand people. Against the odds, he launched his campaign for governor in 1994 and carried his win to a second term, a governorship marked by his stand for “freedom across the board.” During his eight years in office, his main focus was responsible management of the government pocketbook, and he earned the nickname “Governor Veto” by vetoing more bills than the other forty-nine governors combined. He cut twelve hundred state job positions, cut taxes, reformed Medicaid, promoted school vouchers, privatized prisons, and helped eliminate the state’s budget deficit. An unconventional Republican, he supports the right to abortion, the legalization of marijuana, and legal equality for homosexuals. Today he retains popularity among New Mexico’s voters.

Goal-driven, independent, and with a zest for life, he has competed in multiple Ironman Triathlons, summited Mt. Everest, and personally built his current home in Taos, New Mexico. He’s a divorced father of two and lives with his fiancée.

I spoke with him just before his strong campaign push in New Hampshire at the end of August.  —David Baucom

David Baucom: Thank you for speaking with me, Governor Johnson.

Gary Johnson: Absolutely.

DB: With the decline of the U.S. economy and the emergence of the Tea Party movement, people in America are finally asking questions to the effect of, What is the proper role of government? As a candidate for president of the United States, what do you regard as the proper purpose of government?

GJ: The proper purpose of government would be to protect you and me against individuals, groups, corporations that would do us harm, whether that’s from a property perspective or physical harm. And that would also apply to other countries.

DB: Relating to that, how would you define “rights,” and where would you draw the line for what individuals can properly claim as a right?

GJ: You know, my definition of it, I guess, is the whole notion that we have too many laws. And that when it comes to rights, that they really have a basis in common sense, that they really have a basis in natural law, if you will. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. That government gets way, way, way too involved in trying to define that, as opposed to you and me working that out.

DB: President Obama calls for “sacrifice” from everyone, but especially from “rich” individuals and corporations, whose taxes he wants to raise. You’ve said you don’t think raising taxes on the rich is the way to deal with the financial crisis. As president, what would be your solution to the crisis?

GJ: Well, I’m advocating the FairTax. I think we should scrap the entire tax system that we have and replace it with the FairTax. I’m talking about FairTax.org, for those who aren’t aware of this proposal that I think has been around now for about ten years. By all free market economists’ reckoning, it is what it is: it’s fair, and it simplifies the existing tax system. So, by “simplify [the] existing tax system,” it abolishes the IRS and does away with all existing federal taxes: income tax, Social Security withholding, Medicare withholding, unemployment insurance, business-to-business tax, corporate tax. Replacing the current system would be a one-time federal consumption tax of 23 percent, which is meant to be revenue neutral, so we would still need to cut our spending by 43 percent, believing that part of revitalizing this country is balancing the federal budget and replacing it with the FairTax.

DB: You say that as president, you’d seek to cut spending by 43 percent. What specifically would you aim to cut to achieve that goal?

GJ: There are a couple of agencies that I’m advocating the elimination of—there may be more, but right now I have two. One is the Department of Education. One is Housing and Urban Development. And I always like to say that if we’re going to talk about reducing spending by 43 percent, we need to talk about the big-ticket items, which are Medicaid, Medicare, and military spending. It would not include cutting Social Security; Social Security very simply is a system that needs to take in more money than it pays out. So under a FairTax, it wouldn’t be paying in any more than the FairTax. It needs to take in more money than what it pays out, so you could raise the retirement age, at which point you’d become eligible. You could have a means testing, which would not be relevant if you enacted the FairTax; there would not be a means testing. Or it could actually still come into play, and then you could change the escalator that’s built into Social Security from the wage index to the inflation rate.

DB: You advocate legalizing marijuana, and have called it “taking giant steps forward to rational drug policy.” Incidentally, it’s refreshing to hear a politician advocate “rationality”; we don’t often hear that. Why do you think marijuana should be legal?

GJ: Let’s control it, let’s regulate it, let’s tax it. I don’t smoke marijuana. I don’t drink alcohol. But I’ve smoked marijuana, and I’ve drunk alcohol. And I will tell you that the big difference between the two is that marijuana is a lot safer than alcohol. The citizens of Denver agreed with me on that one. The city of Denver voted to decriminalize marijuana on a campaign based on marijuana being safer than alcohol. Why should we legalize marijuana? I think it’s staggering when you consider that half of what we spend on law enforcement, the courts, and the prisons is drug related. Half of all those statistics are marijuana related. And that we now have 2.3 million people behind bars in this country. What I would say is we have the right in this country to be stupid! So if you want to place the act of smoking marijuana in the “stupid” category, I think that we have a right to be stupid in this country, as long as we don’t do harm to others . . . and that government does have a responsibility to protect me against individuals who would do me harm. So it’s never going to be legal to smoke pot, become impaired, get behind the wheel of a car, or do harm to others. And it’s never going to be legal for kids to smoke pot or buy pot. And under which scenario is it going to be easier for kids to smoke pot and buy pot? The situation that exists today where it’s virtually available everywhere or a situation where a kid has to produce an ID in a controlled environment like alcohol to be able to buy marijuana? I think you could make the case that it would be more difficult to buy in a controlled environment.

DB: Do you think this reasoning holds true for other drugs?

GJ: I am just advocating the legalization of marijuana. But I think this country takes giant steps toward rational drug policy by legalizing marijuana and by “rational,” [I mean] looking at the drug problem first as a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue. Understanding that Portugal, ten years ago, decriminalized all drug use because of a heroin epidemic that they had, and over the past ten years, they’ve actually documented a 50 percent reduction in heroin use in Portugal. Understanding that prohibition is 90 percent of the drug problem, not using. And that’s not to discount the problems with use and abuse, but that ought to be the focus.

DB: You’ve called for the federal government to “get out of the marriage business,” and advocate returning it to the discretion of the states. But in the states, it’s still going to be voted on, either legislatively or by popular vote, like in California and Maine. How do you reply to the argument that if people have a right to contract, then it’s not a matter for the federal government or for states to regulate? If homosexuals in fact have a right to get married, then by what right could a state preclude them from doing so?

GJ: I’m open to that argument. I haven’t really delved into it. But—and I’m not misreading your question—but the notion [is] that this is a civil rights issue and that it’s not really subject to a state-by-state analysis of whether it should or shouldn’t happen—much like civil rights in the ’60s. Would slavery still exist in a state if it weren’t for federal legislation? The notion [is] that this is bigger than the states.

DB: So your general opinion is that states should get out of the marriage business as well.

GJ: Yes. Government should get out of the marriage business.

DB: The state of education in the United States is dismal. In some of America’s largest cities, less than half of students receive a high school diploma. One million kids drop out of school every year. Forty-five million Americans are borderline illiterate, and almost half of those can’t read at all. Government keeps throwing more money at the problem only to see it get worse. What do you think is the fundamental cause of the problem and, as president, how would you address it?

GJ: Well, I think the fundamental cause of it is that we don’t have competition when it comes to public education. So as governor of New Mexico I advocated bringing competition to public education. School vouchers: I was more outspoken than any other governor in the country in my support of school vouchers, bringing competition to public education. As president of the United States, I think that the best thing that the federal government could do when it comes to improving education K–12 nationally would be to abolish the federal Department of Education. And I say that knowing that the federal government gives each state about eleven cents out of every school dollar that every state spends, but it comes with about sixteen cents worth of strings attached. So what I don’t think people recognize is that it actually costs money to take federal school dollars. Why not give education completely to the states? Fifty laboratories of innovation. Fifty laboratories of best practice. And I think that’s exactly what you would see. Because we’re so competitive, I think we would emulate the success. I think there would be some spectacular failure. We’re all pretty competitive—we would avoid that spectacular failure. But the notion that Washington knows best, the notion that top-down works . . . it doesn’t.

DB: You identify yourself as a “classical liberal,” a phrase that typically refers to the ideas of men such as the Founding Fathers and Enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Paine and John Locke. What in essence is classical liberalism? And how is it different from conservatism?

GJ: Well, classical liberalism—and this is coming right out of Wikipedia—is the notion that less government is the best government, the notion that you and I as individuals, you and I should be making choices in our own lives that only you and I can make—and not the government. And that I think you cross the line when, if your decisions are potentially going to put another in harm’s way or do harm to others, that’s the part where government should be involved. Leave me to the decisions that only I should make, only I can make, and maybe some would classify those decisions as stupid, but that is liberty and freedom. And as long as I’m not doing any harm to anyone else, I have the right to be stupid if I want to be.

I think the conservative agenda would criminalize behavior that a lot of individuals engage in, and I’m now talking about “bedroom crimes,” I’m talking about how gay individuals should be able to enjoy freedoms and liberties extended to heterosexual couples. And smoking marijuana in the confines of your own home, doing no harm to anyone, arguably other than yourself—that shouldn’t be a crime. Should it be a crime if poker players in this country play poker online? That was Republican conservative legislation that got passed. Ten million Americans who were playing poker online can no longer play poker online. I would argue government has no place in that equation, other than the rule of law, and contract law, and that the site is providing me with an honest product, and I assume risks and liabilities.

DB: Which thinkers and books have most influenced your political and philosophical views? And how has your political philosophy evolved over the years?

GJ: Well, I remember—it might go back to the fifth grade when I picked up a book on what it is to be a libertarian. I thought that that accurately described my political philosophy at the time—now, again, we’re talking about being in the fifth grade . . . And then, Milton Friedman of late, certainly. Ayn Rand—I just found The Fountainhead. That is my favorite book, The Fountainhead. Obviously, I read Atlas Shrugged. The notion that the best thing that I can do for society, the best thing I can do for my fellow human beings, is to be the best that I can be. And that by doing that and by leading by example that’s how I positively affect other people’s lives. I believe that. I believe that’s fundamental.

DB: You’re strong on gun rights. It’s been said that the Second Amendment is a good litmus test of politicians in general, that if they can ignore the very clear language of the Second Amendment, they can’t be trusted to uphold other rights. Would you agree with that view of the Second Amendment as a litmus test, and if so, why?

GJ: I completely agree with that. I always get a kick out of—and I say “kick”—I always find it ironic that someone would ask, “What do you think about the Second Amendment to the Constitution?” The first thing I think is: Could there be a clearer amendment? And: “Do you support the Constitution or don’t you support the Constitution?” Well, I support the Constitution! So, it’s not even a “What do you think . . . ?” I do think it’s a good litmus test.

DB: You advocate a policy of open immigration, which you say would help the economy. How would this help the economy? And is there a rights component to your call for open immigration, or do you regard this solely as an economic matter?

GJ: Well, first of all, by “open immigration” I mean: Make it easy to get a work visa. Put the government in charge of issuing work visas, which, in my opinion, should entail a background check. If we enact a FairTax, we won’t have to worry about tax withholding because everybody will end up paying taxes with a FairTax. I don’t believe that building a fence across two thousand miles of border or putting the national guard across two thousand miles of border would be money well spent at all. I think it would be a waste of money. And then talking about drug policy and legalizing marijuana: I think that 75 percent of the border violence with Mexico could go away given the legalization of marijuana. But don’t discount the border problems we have that are drug related, and how that would drastically change with legalizing marijuana. So to control the border, make it easy to document who’s here. And for the eleven million who are here right now in this country illegally, understand that the main reason they’re here illegally is because the government has made it impossible to get a work visa. And because it’s impossible to get a work visa—and by the way, a work visa is not citizenship, not a green card: it’s just a work visa—they could document the eleven million who are here, and that’s how you secure borders.

DB: What about the common argument that immigrants take American jobs?

GJ: I don’t buy it at all. First of all, what you’re touching on is a fundamental problem that we have in this country, which is welfare. Are Mexicans coming across the border and taking entry-level jobs from Americans? Absolutely not, because you and I as Americans can sit at home and collect a welfare check that’s just a little bit less money or the same amount of money for doing nothing. So we need to reform welfare in this country. No, immigrants are not coming across the border and taking entry-level jobs from Americans. And for those, enact the FairTax—no more corporate tax. For those companies in this country that would need to rely on very low-cost labor, there would be, I think, those businesses [that] would be able to fill those needs with legal, card-carrying work-visa immigrants.

DB: You’ve said that the Environmental Protection Agency has a legitimate role in government because there are “bad actors” out there who pollute, and the EPA is necessary to protect our rights in this sphere. How do you respond to the argument that the EPA is unnecessary because market mechanisms and the protection of property rights through the police and courts would be sufficient to keep rights-violating polluters in check?

GJ: I cite an example in New Mexico where a mine in northern New Mexico had been metal-contaminating a river there for decades, and when I took office they refused to acknowledge it. And nothing had happened over a twenty-year period. And yet the metal contamination started right at their mine site. It’s my belief that without those standards to begin with, they would have metal-contaminated that river, and without the EPA that pollution would continue to be taking place to this day to the detriment of everyone living in that area. That is my contention. I don’t know if the EPA does come under that heading of protecting me against individuals, groups, corporations that would do me harm, and harm in this case would be the pollution that goes along with what it is they do. You talk about how this could be worked out in the courts and the laws—yes, I think that philosophically that sounds great, but the reality, at least from what I saw was: the EPA had a role. That protecting role.

DB: So you don’t think if the EPA were done away with, that the marketplace would rise up, that you’d have watchdog groups and all sorts of consumer . . .

GJ: No, I don’t discount that that is very possible, and that would be great. That would be, in my opinion, the best scenario—that that would actually do. What do we have lawyers for? I mean, better mechanism. I’m just not willing to scrap the EPA, believing that, in my particular experience, EPA had a role.

DB: Staying on environment: Americans need an abundance of energy to fuel their industrial and high-tech lives. But the U.S. government is increasingly thwarting the production of energy by regulating the coal, oil, and nuclear industries. What, in your view, is the road to a future of abundant energy? And, as president, what will you do to put America on that road?

GJ: Well, the key being free market approaches to energy, period. And the government could in fact very much accommodate that free market road to energy. So in this case, removing the uncertainty when it comes to cap and trade, carbon emissions, when it comes to coal, a free market approach to nuclear energy. I don’t know [that] any new nuclear plant gets built, given [that] no one’s going to underwrite the liability. A free market approach to oil, allowing us to responsibly drill for oil in our own geographic boundaries. You know, in a fifteen-year period, it’s possible we would be able to produce 50 percent of what we consume. That’s significant. But we should be pursuing that. And when it comes to wind and solar and biofuel (and I don’t include ethanol in biofuel), there’s a lot of exciting possibility out there. Government has stepped in; it’s subsidized that production. We’ve made a big bet when it comes to this “green space,” I call it. But the assumption, or the presumption, of our investment in the green space is that every five years, the green space becomes 100 percent more efficient. That’s not happening. But if it were to happen, in fifteen years we could be looking at the green space providing 15 percent of our energy needs, which is not insignificant. But, obviously, it needs to be a balanced approach when it comes to energy, and, in my opinion, free-market-based.

DB: So where do you stand on the subsidizing of such “green energies”?

GJ: I think that we’ve made a big bet to this point, so I would; I don’t include ethanol in the subsidy of green energy. But I think that you can’t walk away from the bet. And I call it a bet that we’ve established. But I would be very vocal, I would use the bully pulpit to point out the true economics of the green space and how it’s just not working out as was presumed.

DB: What about ethanol?

GJ: I think it takes more energy to produce ethanol than what it produces. So I would not be in favor of continuing ethanol subsidies.

DB: Turning to foreign policy, what principles do you think should guide U.S. foreign policy?

GJ: As to government’s role, government has a role, I think, to protect you and me as citizens. I think government has a role to protect us against any foreign governments that are going to raise arms against the United States. So the criterion is: raising arms against the United States. I was opposed to Iraq before we went into Iraq. First off, I did not see a military threat from Iraq. I know there was a lot of focus on weapons of mass destruction. I thought that if they had weapons of mass destruction that we could have gone in and dealt with that if it were to have shown itself. I thought we had the military surveillance capability to see that happen. I thought if we went into Iraq we would have found ourselves in a civil war to which there would be no end. I think that’s where we are. Afghanistan—initially, I thought that was totally warranted. We were attacked, we attacked back, and after having been in Afghanistan for six months, I think we wiped out Al-Qaeda. But that was ten years ago. So we’re building roads, schools, bridges, highways, and hospitals in Iraq and Afghanistan and other parts of the world, and don’t we have those same needs here in this country? So stop nation building. And Libya—when we went into Libya I issued a paper the next day saying: I’m opposed to this A through Z. Where was the military threat? Where in the Constitution does it say that because we don’t like a foreign leader that we should go in and topple that foreign leader?—which also applies to Iraq. Haven’t we injected ourselves in a civil war in Libya that five other countries qualify for? There just doesn’t seem to be an end to our military involvement. I advocate a 43 percent reduction in military spending to balance the federal budget.

DB: Specifically what would you cut in military spending to achieve that 43 percent?

GJ: Well, specifically, and I do not want to misspeak, but getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya immediately. I think it’s safe to say that we don’t need 100,000 troops on the ground in Europe. That maybe 57,000 would do? And you know what? I have a hard time thinking that we need any there. But let’s, just for purposes of discussion, say that we can reduce those levels by 43 percent. When it comes to Japan, when it comes to South Korea—30,000 troops in both of those countries. I have a sense that that same number could apply when it comes to bases around the world. I have a sense that those same numbers could apply.

DB: Why are you advocating cutting the same amount from military spending as from entitlement programs? Do you think they’re equally wasteful?

GJ: I have that sense. That’s just my own personal sense of it.

DB: How do you reply to the argument that withdrawing from these two countries without putting down the Islamist threat in the Middle East, primarily from Iran, would appear to our enemies in the Muslim world as a retreat, which would then rouse their morale to attack the West?

GJ: First of all, I would acknowledge that that argument is probably very, very well-founded, and we could argue about that all day long with good points on both sides. I just suggest to you that we will have that same argument and debate twenty-five years from now if that’s when we finally decide to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m arguing: let’s do that tomorrow.

DB: You’ve recently said: “There is no military threat from Iran. We should be vigilant to that military threat, but I don’t see it.”

GJ: Right.

DB: How do you respond to the argument that the Iranian regime sponsors Hezbollah and Hamas, gives aid to Al-Qaeda, condones parades and gatherings where crowds shout “Death to America!,” openly seeks to destroy Israel, has long been the wellspring for the ideas of Islamic jihad against Western civilization, and is actively working to acquire nuclear weapons? How does this not amount to a threat?

GJ: Well, if you take the amount of money that the United States spends on the military—out of a dollar that’s spent worldwide on military spending, we spend fifty-two cents of that dollar. We spend more money than all the other countries in the world combined, and we’re 5 percent of the world’s population. Comparing that to China, China spends nine cents out of that worldwide military dollar. We spend fifty-two cents. I don’t know what the numbers are for Iran, but let me just guess. Let me guess that it’s a penny. That’s just a guess. I don’t know how that penny is a military threat against our fifty-two cents. And I’m saying we should remain vigilant to what could be a nuclear threat from Iran, which does not exist today. That isn’t to say that it won’t exist in the future. But that’s what we should have a military for. And that’s what we should be vigilant against.

DB: I don’t think anybody who’s worried about the threat from Iran is worried about their army. I think people are concerned about Iran’s complicity in the militant religious movement of Islamic jihad against the West, a worldwide movement for terrorism.

GJ: And that’s the vigilance that we should have. Look, it’s my belief that there are unintended consequences for all our military actions. When we took out Saddam Hussein in Iraq, that was the check when it came to Iran. Iran had one threat to its existence and that was Iraq. We took that threat away, and that’s the reason why it’s rearing its head at all.

DB: How about the argument that this has been going on for thirty years, since the Iranian revolution in ’79, and that we’ve seen a series of terrorist attacks: the bombings of the Khobar towers, the American embassies, and marine barracks, the USS Cole, and 9/11? That was all before our war with Iraq.

GJ: Right. And I’m not discounting any of these issues, but this ought to be our focus. And we’re not in Iran now. It would not be my intention to invade Iran. That would not be my intention. I don’t see a military threat coming from Iran.

DB: What’s your view of the importance of Israel to American security? What do you think our relationship with Israel should be?

GJ: Well, I am opposed to foreign aid. I think the fact that we borrow forty-three cents of every dollar and then we turn around and give it away to other countries, that’s something, to me, that’s not right. I, though, distinguish between foreign aid and military alliances. I think military alliances are very key to our being able to reduce military expenditures by 43 percent and still have a worldwide vigilance against what I’ll call the terrorist threat. Which means, other countries have to pick up the tab. Europe—I think that these vaunted transportation infrastructure projects in Europe have been subsidized by you and me, because they haven’t had to spend money on defense, and they’ve been able to spend money on themselves. Israel is a military ally, has been, and should be into the future. And I don’t see Iran so much of a threat because of Israel and the military alliance that we would have with Israel, and the fact that Israel is not going to stand by and watch Iran develop nuclear weapons that could be used against it. So, Israel: important military ally—past, present, future.

DB: You’ve said that your first priority as president would be cutting spending. What would be your second and third priorities?

GJ: Well, cutting spending, getting the economy back on track, so that’s enacting the FairTax. So: cutting spending by 43 percent and enacting a FairTax, which in my opinion reboots the American economy with tens of millions of jobs, going forward from the point of enacting the FairTax.

DB: And your third priority?

GJ: The whole notion of government. The government has a role, and in my opinion that role is to provide a level playing field [so] that you and I have equal access to the American dream, that we can go from having nothing in this country to having everything in this country if we’re willing to work hard and innovate to make that happen. I think this government favors individuals, groups, corporations—I saw it as governor of New Mexico. I think our government really shows favoritism as opposed to the whole notion of [a] level playing field. So: the role of government: level playing field, cut the spending, enact the FairTax, and then get this fundamental idea: What is this country about? It’s about liberty, it’s about freedom, and it’s about the personal responsibility that goes along with those two, with liberty and freedom.

DB: What would you like Americans to know about Gary Johnson that they probably don’t yet know?

GJ: I’ve been a success my entire life. There’s nothing in my résumé, nothing, to suggest that everything that you and I have talked about, that I am not going to pursue. I have every intention to pursue everything it is that I’m talking about, and my résumé would back that. And that résumé would be: having grown a one-man handyman business in Albuquerque to more than one thousand employees. I’ve run for two political offices in my life: governor of New Mexico and reelection as governor of New Mexico. And I’ve also been an athlete my entire life, which I think is important: I think it speaks to the discipline and the hard work and the notion that life, that there’s a wellness that in my opinion needs to go along with life, and that’s exercise and that’s diet, and I kind of epitomize all of that, with the fact that I’ve done a lot of things in my life, and included in that was having climbed Mt. Everest. I’ve led a full life, and we talked earlier about: What’s the best thing you and I can do for our fellow human beings? Well, the best thing you and I can do for our fellow human beings is to be the best that we can be, and if we’re that, that’s how we positively impact people’s lives.

DB: You’ve unfortunately been left out of some of the debates so far. What can Americans who want to hear your views in these debates do to ensure that you’re included in future debates?

GJ: Well, getting online: GaryJohnson2012.com. I don’t want to be disappointed about this process. There are 184 declared candidates for president, and in this last debate, I was the one on the bubble—I was the next one who would have come in. So when you consider that maybe I’m number 9 right now out of 184, I just can’t complain about that and I live under the delusion that it’s all going to work out, that people are smart and they’re going to seek out the opinions of everybody involved. And I just feel like before this is all over with, I’ll get my fair shake at it.

DB: Thank you very much, Governor Johnson. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. I wish the best to you and to your campaign.

GJ: Thank you very much.

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