Does Gary Johnson understand Libertarianism?

Gary Johnson’s odd, unlibertarian approach to Burqas leaves some libertarians confused

I’ve been really excited for Gary Johnson to get in this race, but his highly anticipated campaign got off to bit of a weird start.

From Johnson’s interview with Nick Gillepsie at Reason:

Surprisingly for a libertarian, Johnson, who recently resigned as the CEO of Cannabis Sativa, a marijuana marketing form, said that he would sign a bill banning the wearing of burqas in America. Sharia, he insisted, was not an expression of religion but of “politics” and hence many of its practices could be banned or limited without running afoul of the Constitution.

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I’m not sure where Gary Johnson’s head was when he made that statement. Speaking out and against governments that force women to wear burqas makes sense. If Johnson said he’d sign a law prohibiting states from forcing women to wear burqas, maybe I could see people getting behind it. But that’s not what he said and not what’s happening in the United States.

He’s conflating a religious act and coercive political control.  There are a lot of good reasons to find full face coverings for women problematic, but it’s odd for a small government Libertarian Party candidate to advocate for a federal clothing ban. Does he know what it would take to enforce that?

Enough libertarians ended up having the same reaction I did, so the Johnson campaign released a clarifying statement:

However, having had time to consider, my response was wrong. As with many well-intentioned ideas, a government-imposed ban on full-face coverings would have unintended consequences and likely result in government overreach. As governor, I vetoed many such well-intended laws, and on reflection, would in fact veto a government ban on full face burqas. While the law must provide protection for women from abuse, it is clear that banning face veils wouldn’t work, and would be impossible to enforce without infringing on basic rights.

Sharia law is incompatible with the freedoms upon which America is founded, and it must not be overlooked that, under Sharia ideology, women have no rights, and are certainly not free to dress as they wish. Imposing such a system on women under some guise of freedom of religion or expression is not acceptable under any notion of liberty. On that point I am firm. But a government ban on an item of clothing might well have the consequence of restricting, not protecting, freedom.

not sure if confused or statist
Maybe cynical?

Okay, that’s closer. I guess. But it seems like he’s missing the point. It’s almost like Johnson issued a clarifying statement to assuage a vague slippery slope fear that a federal ban on burqas might eventually restrict freedom.  No, a federal clothing ban would be a restriction on freedom, no matter how well-intentioned.

Johnson could be making a positive liberty argument that restricting liberty in certain situations enhances freedom for some, in this case by protecting women from abuse. But the same argument is used for prohibitions on sex work and drugs. Most libertarians would argue that the level of government force and intrusion necessary to restrict voluntary behavior creates even greater injustice.

This isn’t the first time Johnson’s given a bizarre response on important policy issue.

In 2012, Johnson did an interview with the Daily Caller where he left many of us wondering how he stood on foreign policy. This article from sums it up pretty well:

He says he supports U.S. military intervention in Uganda to root out the Lords Resistance Army and kill its leader, Joseph Kony. He thinks the drone war in Pakistan and Yemen creates more enemies than it eliminates, but doesn’t want to take drone strikes off the proverbial “table.” He wants to “completely withdraw our military presence” from Afghanistan, but wants to keep our military bases there. In fact, U.S. military bases should be maintained throughout the Middle East, he says, even though America faces “no military threats.” He supports “humanitarian intervention.” He wants to cut military and defense budgets by 43 percent, but only reduce national security spending to 2003 levels, “and just wring out the excess.”

Brian Doherty at Reason wasn’t sure how to peg him either:

But he [Gary Johnson] seems to lack either the systematic thinking or moral fervor that makes me trust him to reliably come to truly libertarian conclusions on many issues. While his conclusions are frequently, even mostly, libertarian, I’m not quite sure his natural instincts are.

After Johnson’s 2016 campaign kickoff, I can’t help but feel the same way.

I still voted for Johnson in 2012 and I’ll probably vote for him again if he wins the LP nomination. Johnson’s a sharp, top-tier contender with professional governing experience that exceeds many of the candidates seeking the Republican and Democratic nominations. Even if his ideological instincts give me pause, his policy positions are usually sound and in line with values of the American people. We need a strong Libertarian Party candidate this year and Johnson may be our best bet.

But Gary Johnson has to compete for the hearts and minds of the LP faithful at the national nominating convention in May first. Johnson came into 2016 with some leftover 2012 baggage and this year’s slate of Libertarian hopefuls has some solid contenders. Statements calling for an intrusive big government policy aren’t doing him any favors in a party that’s serious about beating 2012’s 1% showing and dedicated to ideological purity.

Don’t worry, there’s still plenty of time to recover from a rocky start.

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