Robert Scheer And Libertarian Journalist Matt Welch Discuss Reason In America

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Matt Welch
reason.com

In this week's episode of KCRW's "Scheer Intelligence," Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer speaks with journalist and libertarian Matt Welch about what it means to be a libertarian, how the Libertarian Party has grown during the 2016 presidential campaign and where libertarian values and progressive values overlap.

Welch discusses why Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson continues to poll well as the election nears, a time when the popularity of third party candidates tends to recede, and how he believes the government continues to use any type of crisis to justify expanding its power.

Welch is the editor at-large of the monthly libertarian magazine Reason, co-author of "The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America" and author of "McCain: The Myth of the Maverick."

--Adapted from Truthdig.com

Robert Scheer: Hello, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of "Scheer Intelligence," where the intelligence comes from guests. In this case it's a fellow I still think of as a young guy, although you're getting [inaudible] Matt Welch, who I met when I spoke at his college, at the University of California, Santa Barbara many years ago, at the end of the '60s. He had a good adversarial mind, and then he went off to Prague where he teamed up with a bunch of editors from their very good school, [inaudible] and they formed an English language paper in Prague called Prognosis. Young guys and women out there. Putting out this paper was very successful, and then they came back and did all sorts of things in journalism and showed up in all sorts of interesting places on the internet.

In the case of Matt Welch, and the reason I wanted to have him on this show today, is because he defined himself as a young Libertarian and he ended up being the editor in chief of the leading Libertarian publication, Reason Magazine. He did that for a long time, 10 years. Prior to that, I should mention he was at the LA Times on the editorial page for a couple of years. From, I guess it was 2008 until quite recently he was the editor in chief, and he's now an editor at large. As everybody should know, except the mass media doesn't give it enough coverage, we have some independent candidates running aside from the Republican and the Democratic party of Trump and Clinton.

We have Jill Stein on the Green Party side and on the Libertarian side, we have others but the leading ones are these four. Gary Johnson who was the governor of New Mexico. Jill Stein is getting about five percent in the polls now, Gary Johnson is doing quite a bit better, in some polls he goes over ten percent but I gather he's averaging around seven percent. Not there yet at the fifteen percent needed to qualify for the presidential debates but nonetheless both these folks can be spoilers, can have an impact and so I thought it was time to turn to my favorite Libertarian. Matt Welch, I'd ask you first of all, why Libertarian? What's it all about in this day and age? How do you differ, and what do you think of your candidate?

Matt Welch: First of all, Bob, thank you for that generous introduction and I just want to point out that that newspaper in Prague would not have happened without you helping us all out and drumming up support for us, which all of us are forever eternally grateful for. Part of my Libertarianism with the weird and unusual path toward it, comes actually from Central Europe when we were out there. I was out there for eight years, mostly in Prague and Budapest. I presumed that, as the Cold War was finishing in America, Cold War politics would finish as well and people would break up their silly old blocks and rethink a lot of original assumptions.

I was under the thrall of people like [inaudible] ardent anti-Communists who thought that it made sense to not have the state hold the primary role in a factory and not to spend a lot of time telling people what they could and couldn't listen to or do and all this kind of stuff. At the same time you should be able to sit on Charles Bridge and swig wine from the bottle and maybe smoke hash and play guitar. That seemed to me like normal politics and when I came back home to America, I just sort of assumed that there'd be a place for that and I discovered ... I think I came back within a day of the Lewinsky scandal dropping back in 1998, and nothing like that existed.

It took a while [before] I was willing to have my weird politics defined as Libertarian but ... pretty much, that's where it is. The Libertarian party and sort of small-l libertarian wing are represented by reason and other people ... [who] all sort of proceed from the old tiny notion of that [what] governs best ... governs least and let's just decide on ... the minimum that we need to do, that we agree that government should or could do it isn't going to be done otherwise. But otherwise let's allow people to pursue happiness as they see fit, as spelt out in the Declaration of Independence.

In a modern context that's just crazy to half the people about half the time and [at] the same time it makes all the sense in the world to half the people about half the time depending on the audience. It's very interesting to know that Gary Johnson right now is actually pretty consistently at nine percent ... Usually third parties at this point in the race will have receded a great deal because people freak out and think about the Supreme Court and flock to their original tribes, but neither Jill Stein or Gary Johnson are seeing much erosion in support, which I think speaks to how deservedly unpopular in my view both major party candidates [are]. Just how decreasingly those political affiliations are holding sway among people, particularly young people, the millennials.

There's never been a generation that has been less interested in joining anything, let alone political parties. There's been some polls--IBD poll in particular--where Gary Johnson has occasionally topped both other candidates among eighteen to twenty-four year olds. He always gets really great support among the youngest voters out there,, which I think speaks to something interesting for the future of American politics.

RS: Well, with your help I'm hoping to get Gary Johnson for one of these podcasts, but let me broaden it to the question of why be a Libertarian? I want to confess my own prejudice here. I did a couple of shows with you and I'm probably the person on the left who's most open to Libertarian thinking because I do believe in the original vision of the founders, that the government that governs best is the one that governs least. I believe in a very strong notion of individual freedom and I am very worried about the overpowering federal state. My problem with the Libertarians is over the word, consistency.

I like the Libertarians when they condemn crony capitalism, when they actually argue for a fair tax structure, when they want to get money out of politics. I like the Libertarians when they don't want to go marching off to all of these wars that destroy citizen control with secrecy and foreign adventures and so forth. Then, I look at what passes for the Libertarian wing of the Republican party and all too many of the favor crony capitalism and favor foreign adventure. Does it make you uncomfortable?

MW: I'm not sure that I would agree with that characterization just in terms of people like Rand Paul and Justin Amash, the post Tea party wave of new Libertarianish Republicans. Thomas Massie is another one, Mike Lee is another one, although he's maybe ... less hardcore than other guys. Those guys are pretty anti-interventionist, pretty pro-civil liberties, anti-NSA. During the run up to what was supposed to the US intervention into Syria in August of 2013, that opposition was led or co-led by that wing, by Rand Paul and those lots.

I do agree that the usual traditional Republican talking point, that is when they don't hold power and don't hold the White House, of being limited government among people who are more just sort of conservative has been suffused with that exact same hypocrisy. That's one of the reasons why reason has long existed because we're infuriated by that. There's a precious few people who've called that out and some of those people are some of the biggest critics of Donald Trump, people like Jeff Flake, senator from Arizona, who was tangling with him over the weekend.

I think what is more interesting in terms of the characteristics of the Republican version of Libertarians is that if you're an elected Republican and a Libertarian, that means you're anti-abortion and pro-life. Rand Paul introduced the Life Begins At Conception Act. The Libertarian party in stark contrast has from its inception been pro-choice. They fight about it every year, every four years at the Libertarian party convention and the pro-choice side always wins. Gary Johnson and William Weld were both pro-choice blue state Republican moderate governors.

RS: You're ... [saying] the presidential candidate and vice presidential candidate of the Libertarian party, are pro-choice.

MW: Correct. That is the dominant strain within certainly the Libertarian party and among people who self identify as libertarians in general, that is true. If you're an elected Republican Libertarian you're going to be against abortion, if you're just a Libertarian regardless of politics, chances are you're going to [be] pro-choice. It's one of the [oddities] of the tribal politics that we have. You can't get elected if you don't act in the major two parties, which is again another reason why people I think gravitate more toward third parties--or just being independent of it all, anyway.

RS: Meaning you couldn't win a Republican primary in most places if you're not against choice.

MW: Yeah, and the same is true now of Democrats. The Democrats retook the House in 2006 in part by broadening their tent to include some pro-life members but that's over. As far as I know, there really aren't any anti-abortion Democrats in Congress anymore. It's just part of the thing. The [slotting] of us into these ideological blocks means that the litmus tests are stronger [than] ever ... if you're going to hold on to these identities.

However the dominant trend in American politics and the subject of a book Nick Gillespie and I wrote back in 2011, is that forty five percent [inaudible] of Americans now, if you ask them, "How do you self identify? A Democrat, Republican, Independent? What is it?" Forty five percent say independent. Back in 1970 that number was like nineteen percent. It is growing and it's ineffable and once people self identify that way they're much more open to any number of ideas and enthusiasms and coalitions than they we're before. They're much more hostile toward these weird amalgamations, these rituals that you have to agree with in order to remain part of those tribes.

RS: The book you're referring to is called, "The Declaration Of Independence, How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America." It's by Reason TV editor Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch, it was in 2011. Actually you wrote quite a provocative book in 2008 called "McCain, The Myth of A Maverick." You called him out and had some real problems over that one or initiated a lot of debate. [inaudible] because we're going to run out of time, but I happen to think the Libertarian message is very important in this election on two points. Those points are either going to go green or are going to go Libertarian. We're not going to get progress from the Republicans or Democrats and that has to do with regime change and foreign intervention. I think Hillary Clinton and Donald [Trump] are arguing over words rather than real meaning.

They both have a very tough idea of foreign intervention and American exceptionalism. The other is the issue that Bernie Sanders raised so effectively on the Democratic side, which is been long forgotten now by the Democrats, which is the question of what you would call crony capitalism and he would probably call economic justice and fairness. That has to do with a rigged economic system, in which the rich get richer and everybody else gets hurt. I do want to say something in favor of Ron Paul and his son Rand Paul that they have been very consistent.

Ron Paul was one of only four votes in the Congress and the House against The Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which I thought was great. Not the act but his vote against it because that's the one that enabled all these junk schemes to be sold and he was against doing away with Glass-Steagall [Act], and Rand Paul has been very good. They also in terms of foreign policy were very good on privacy and against the National Security State and the heavy classification. Is that the kind of candidate Gary Johnson is?

MW: Yes, he's running explicitly to be against foreign interventionism--he brings it up on every single occasion that he talks. He believes that even if everybody's morals or heart was in the right place on X intervention but it did not make us safer, it added to a sense of blowback out there, complicated the world, created instability. That as you rightly point out is a viewpoint that is not being represented in this election. Hillary Clinton is the most hawkish Democrat we have for the most part at this point. Now that Joe Lieberman has floated off into independent heaven or whatever the hell he is. That is something. Imagine this ... In 2006, '07, '08 remember ... the runaway executive branch of government and all of the Bushes' wars. You brought a book about the five lies. "Five Biggest Lies About Iraq."

That was what the left was talking about broadly speaking in '06, '07 and '08 and we're about now ready to elect someone who wants to throw Edward Snowden in jail, who still describes Libya as smart power at its best. It's really kind of out of [step] with American public opinion if you look at it. Trump is a weirder character, there're some anti-war Libertarians who've decided to see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear about his foreign policy ... . He won South Carolina while criticizing the Bush family on war, which is a very interesting political development. At the same time, he tells just crazy stories about dipping bullets into pigs' blood to shoot Muslims and let's just take their oil in Iraq and just nonsense like that.

The intervention skepticism, the realism as we used to call it in foreign policy circles, which really doesn't have a home anymore is only being championed at this point by Libertarian Andy Green, Jill Stein and Gary Johnson. You're right to point that out and it's interesting to know that I think they are much more aligned with where American public opinion is. It's only so long, that's one of the results of having this rising independence, you can no longer get [by] with, for decades being completely out of [step] with the dominant opinions held by the base of your political party.

They will rise up and find a way to smite you and always surprise the political pundits in that process. At this point it happens very two years. Bernie Sanders came out of nowhere. "What is all this talk? [inaudible] they call it. My God, where did that come from? He's a socialist." It surprises people but that's because we now have tools to work around the system. That's all heartening, what's disheartening is that we have two major party candidates who are pretty bad. Bad to terrible on foreign policy and it doesn't seem like it's going to get better.

RS: Before we drop the foreign policy, let's not give Trump a bye on ... Not that you were but you can't be for a more rational non-interventionist foreign policy when you want to go to war with Mexico, which he's basically talking about. When you demonize foreign workers, after all, it used to be a mainstay of the Republican party to believe that people being able to come here and work and get a pass to the citizenship, that was actually a Republican plank and the Democrats opposed it because they had an old-fashion view of closed society. I think again, if the big issue in terms of foreign policy is the government that governs best is the governs least, you can't have this wild interventionism of any kind, with picking fights with people, but let me switch because we're running out of time, to the question of crony capitalism.

That one I think is a little stickier for you because in terms of ... Let's go back to the origins of Libertarian thought. I remember when I was a college student, at City College in New York, we had all kinds of Marxist enclaves but we had Libertarian, we had followers of Ayn Rand and Mises and Von Hayek and so forth. The idea basically was some kind of Adam Smith's notion of a free economy. We don't live in anything like that, that you will agree on, right?

MW: Yeah, we live broadly speaking in West-adopted rules and notions two hundred and fifty years ago that worked out pretty well for everybody but no, we don't live in any kind of free market Valhalla and no one ever really has.

RS: Well, no but the basic idea of a free market is one in which no one can control pricing and in which there's real competition and so forth. Then instead we have concentration of wealth of an extraordinary degree and concentration of power and particularly political power. Just the story as we're recording this today that came out of the Washington Post about how Bill Clinton gets, and it's just one of the many funds he tipped into, got eighteen million dollars from some private college network that he was consulting with and this crossover and both parties of money and power and the irony for the Democrats [inaudible] united but for the last couple of election cycles they've had candidates that are more effective in getting money from the fat cats and so forth. People have a right to ask, are the libertarians going to be consistent on calling for a free market, a free society and one that controls this concentrated power?

MW: Well the question becomes, how? The crony capitalism as a line of Libertarian critique has been a robust one. It was Libertarians and their allies including many people on the left who went after the Export-Import bank, for a long, long [time] and continue to do so, [inaudible], the bank of Boeing so that we can spend our taxpayer money subsidizing Boeing's loans so that countries in Africa can buy their jets. It is the worst of this kind of behavior. The Libertarians and the progressive left depart, and it's an ongoing conversation, is that the Libertarian insight is that, the more you regulate industry acts, the more you will actually get crony capitalism because the people who are highest profile, the most powerful companies in industry ... will say, "Sweet, I can just now write the rules of competition or influence rules of competition in a way that new entrants cannot."

People of the left often times say, "Well, you just want the rich people to get richer." It's actually no, I want them to go bankrupt when they lose. I don't want to subsidize their losses. Let's not forget that both the Tea party movement and Occupy Wall Street, had some commonalities. Those commonalities and some common enemies and many of those had to do with the bailouts that began in the fall of 2008 under George Bush and continued under Barack Obama, where we socialized private sector gambles. That's just the wrong way to do it. We have bankruptcy for a reason, we have failure for a reason and we shouldn't lose our nerve in moments of crisis like that. There're some genuine disagreements there, I can just tell you that in sort of the broader Libertarian network that I belong to and am fluent with. I know, I've met David Koch twice. I know of the work of Charles Koch. David Koch sits in the board of the Reason Foundation.

They will tell you that they were turned around about crony capitalism by a book by Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner about this, and they wrote, Charles Koch one of those guys [who] wrote a piece for the Washington Post in March saying, "Here is where I agree with Bernie Sanders." It was all about that. The real disagreement is, do you go for solutions that involve equality of outcomes or equality of opportunities and then what is the role here of ... Where do you say the government should get out and where do you say it should get in?

RS: I'm going to answer this question for you now as your old teacher that you never listened to, the issue is not ensuring an equal outcome, the issue is stopping the mafia from robbing money from the rest of us. It's to stop people who can use the government and the laws to benefit them so they can steal from everyone else. The reason why Ron Paul was wise and one of the great figures of recent Libertarian politics, the reason why Ron Paul was wise to vote against The Commodity Futures Modernization Act that Bill Clinton signed into law as a lame duck president and unfortunately Bernie Sanders voted for it because it was part of an omnibus bill and a lot of people voted for it. Four people who voted against it, they were generally Libertarians led by Ron Paul and if though that meant regulation of Commodity Futures, that's what it was.

The Commodity Futures Modernization Act said that these newfangled gimmicks, these collateralized data obligations and credit to force swaps and everything would have to be regulated by the old rules and Clinton wiped away that regulation and that's how we got the big banking meltdown. We're talking about honest rules of the road, transparency, accountability. If somebody believes in the Adam Smith's notion of a free market, you don't want any plays to be able to rig the rules. That was Adams Smith's wisdom, right? You don't want a few giant political entities, corporations to be able to rig the rules so some people can steal with impunity. The great banking meltdown that happened in this country, was Wall Street was allowed to legally steal and destroy the savings of so many people.

MW: I think that we're in broad agreement here Bob. Think about the symbol of the tax code, who benefits from complexity in the tax code out there besides accountants and lawyers? It's people who can afford accountants and lawyers. If the rules are simple and fair and understandable and there isn't a curve out for X and a curve out for Y and a subsidy for this and a pull away from that, suddenly you don't have to have all of this firepower and you can't rig the game so that you don't ever pay taxes, whereas someone who can't afford your lawyer and can't afford your accountant is paying at a much higher rate. It's the complexity of the system which is the enemy and it's one reason why Washington loves to add complexity and that's a bipartisan thing and it always has been.

That is the enemy ... and I believe in Libertarian thought and certainly on this particular Libertarian party ticket, Gary Johnson and Bill Weld, they get that and write about that all of the time. Gary Johnson is always talking about how he scores a seventy three or a seventy four on [inaudible] when he plugs in Bernie Sanders' name and a lot of that has to do with saying, yes the system is rigged by the powerful at the expense of the powerless so let's go after that together in a consistent way. I think Washington Republicans ... have too often interpreted that as, "We're the party of business." Instead of, "We're the party of free markets." There is a difference. The party of free markets lets businesses fail and doesn't bend over backwards to give billions of dollars away to the owners of sports franchises to build their stadiums and all these kind of things.

RS: Well, you're absolutely correct and ... if in fact instead of the Bush bailout, which is by the way is exactly what Obama did when came in. Obama had blasted the Bush bailout and then when he became president he instituted the same thing, save the too-big-to-fail banks, pass money onto Goldman Sachs though the AIG bailout. One after another and the reality is, there was no consequence, they didn't suffer. At this point however people who listen this podcast are probably saying, "Scheer you've given this guy, the editor Matt Welch of Reason Magazine, this Libertarian. You're giving him a pass here, you should take the Koch brothers and wrap it around his neck and strangle him." Let me disappoint people even further by saying something in defense of the Koch brothers now. There was a conference, not that long ago where the Koch brothers, one of them anyway, put on a conference and one of them gave a speech specifically attacking crony capitalism and calling for consistency on this. I don't know if you recall this?

MW: I'm aware of that and I would add to it that at that same conference, which I'm never invited to these things but I know people are. A friend of mine put on a presentation and heavy Republican donors were at this conference, put on a presentation about how American militarism and military spending and foreign intervention [are some] of the biggest problems in American public life.

RS: Well, it's the most extreme form of crony capitalism because if you're in bed with Boeing, I remember Old "Scoop" Jackson, the great Democrat, they call him the senator from Boeing from the State of Washington and ...

MW: One of your best ... I'm going to interrupt you because your listeners deserve to know one of the best of the many great Bob Scheer profiles over the years was his profile of "Scoop" Jackson in which he took incredible and accurate extrapolation from the fact that "Scoop" Jackson ate the same type of sandwich everyday. Bob that's [inaudible].

RS: Okay. I do want to make a point here and I going to have to wrap this up. I want people to think about this, the need for independent politics because my view is, the Republicans and the Democrats and I'm not telling you anything that shouldn't be obvious to everybody, are going to sell out. It doesn't matter whether they claim to be for small government, whether they claim to be for small people or the little people, they're going to sell out. They're going to sell out to the same big money interest and it's an irony in this election that we're getting clarity on the issues that Bernie Sanders tried to raise, we're getting it from Jill Stein and we're getting it from Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Candidate.

We're getting it from the Green Party and we're getting it from the Libertarian party. The fact is for all of the great drama, the great difference between Trump and Hillary, the great talk about the lesser evil, the great fear mongering, the fact of the matter is part of it, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are going to serve the same fat cat crony capitalists interests. They're going to engage in the same kind of belligerent foreign policy that feeds the military industrial complex. Is that too harsh a view for you to accept?

MW: No. That is sadly become the reality and all you have to do is just look at, even Trump [inaudible] blank slide in foreign policy, he doesn't really know what's going on, he doesn't speak about it with any fluency. That was also true to a lesser extent of George W. Bush but at the same time he was promising a more humble foreign policy and all that, but what happened? There was a crisis and there always is a crisis, that's the thing. In foreign policy, in domestic policy there's always a crisis. When that crisis comes, Washington is ready to step in and reassert itself and say, "Hey look. Well we've been looking on this problem for a long time and here's what you need to do." What you need to do at every step is always to give the government power and give those insiders more of their usual leverage. That's what happened to Bush's foreign policy after 9/11.

It's what happened to Obama's economic policy after '08. It's just the thing that happens and there's nothing in the character of either of these two candidates to suggest that they would break from that tradition. Right now Washington is scrambling around on the very low chance that Donald Trump wins to make sure that for every kind of weird random person that he pulls into his cabinet, that there's a Sen. Tom Cotton from Arkansas [inaudible]. ... He's Bill Crystal's protégé, he spoke at the convention, they're going to make sure in case Trump wins that their people are still near all of that and it is our job as independent citizens to be skeptical of their claims and to call them out on it from any and every direction and not just listen to [inaudible] tribalist thinking.

RS: Well, thank you Matt Welch. That's got to have to do it for this edition of "Scheer Intelligence." My producers have been Joshua Scheer and Rebecca Moonie. Mario [inaudible] and Katt [inaudible] are the technicians. Sebastian [inaudible] right here at USC where they've kindly given us a studio to do these discussions here, and see you next week with another edition, and maybe, Matt, you'll help us get Gary Johnson on so we can [hear] right from the candidate himself.

MW: I will see him tomorrow, make the ask.

RS: Okay, take care.

MW: Thanks, Bob.