The ironic defense of Gary Johnson

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Gary Johnson, Non-Aggression Principle

Gary Johnson’s inability to answer a simple question about whether the Constitution was compatible with the Non-Aggression Principle has stirred debate among libertarians.  While plenty have been critical of him, there have been those who have come to his defense and have attempted to rationalize Johnson’s answer.  J. Wilson of the A Libertarian Future offered his take on it.  His case is that Gary Johnson’s argument about the Non-Aggression Principle is that “it’s [sic] theoretical application makes sense but that will never be grasped by ordinary Americans.”

The Non-Aggression Principle may not be something the non-libertarian explicitly understands, but it does fall in line with the ethical intuitionism that nearly every human has.  Most people understand that theft is wrong—the problem is convincing them that the agents of government have no more rights or privileges than anyone else.

I’m not sure it’s something that will never be accepted by and large, but it is something that certainly is not being accepted right now, so I agree that jumping to the theoretical application of the Non-Aggression Principle may not be the best way to win people over currently.  If that’s all that Gary Johnson said, then I don’t think that he would have raised much of a fuss among libertarians.  Here is the video again:

Johnson said that the question “goes over my head.”  He continued, “So the fact that government should not be engaged in force, how that’s relative to the Constitution, I really can’t answer the question.  I’m not smart enough to answer the question.”

When pushed to answer the question, he said, “I know I should, but I can’t.”

Wilson chooses to ignore all of this and continues using his sliced up version of Johnson’s answer:

The Non-Aggression Principle is irrelevant to the voting public and should not be as dogmatically revered as it is now. It’s merely one piece of the larger puzzle that is libertarianism. Furthermore, it’s not the piece that will get the Libertarian Party 5% of the vote. Libertarians need to do a better job of explaining why our ideas will benefit average Americans instead of trying to explain abstruse doctrine.

Wilson, and the others defending Johnson, are making it seem as though Johnson was speaking to a large group of “ordinary Americans” and was blindsided by a philosophical question about coercion.  They also seem to imply that anyone who disagrees with their version of what Johnson said believe that the Non-Aggression Principle is axiomatic.  It is not as though the criticism for Johnson is that he didn’t tout some libertarian platitude, it’s that he claimed to be unaware of it.  It’s like being a doctor and saying you don’t understand what Ibuprofen does.

I don’t understand why Johnson couldn’t have said something like, “Of course the taxation violates the Non-Aggression Principle, but when we’re out and about, let’s not get so technical with people; their eyes will glaze over if we do.”  Remember, Gary Johnson was speaking at a Libertarian Party presidential debate in a small room of probably less than 150 libertarians and this was one of a number of questions that were philosophical in nature.  “Ordinary Americans” would have had no idea this debate was even happening and there’s a good chance they wouldn’t even know who Gary Johnson is.  If Johnson doesn’t understand how the Non-Aggression Principle applies to taxation, he’s not a very good libertarian.  If he understands it but says he doesn’t, then he’s a liar.

From my perspective, there appears to be a rationalization of what Johnson said from some libertarians.  Just acknowledge what he said is silly, continue to support him if you choose, and move on.  But instead, since they support Johnson, there’s that pesky need to justify everything he says and does.  To do so makes them begin to become indistinguishable from the run of the mill Democrat or Republican.

The defense of Gary Johnson is that libertarians shouldn’t say anything that rocks the boat of the status quo too much if we want to be accepted by the general population.  What is ironic is that many of the Johnson defenders are also fawning over Judge Napolitano say “Taxation is theft!” on national television.  Even Wilson agreed with Napolitano’s philosophical approach to the issue, writing just the day before his piece on Johnson:

After being rebuffed by the other co-host, the Judge doubled down on his opposition to taxation. The mother of all anti-tax arguments was made when Judge Napolitano boisterously proclaimed “taxation is theft” on national television. It didn’t take long for the show’s hosts to realize what a firestorm that argument would stir up. They cut to commercial break immediately afterwards.

Although, before that happened the Judge also made one more interesting comment. When the other host proclaimed that Napolitano would lose the argument the Judge didn’t skip a beat. He admitted that was true but affirmed that he would continue to make the argument nonetheless. That relentless attitude is exactly what libertarians love most about Judge Napolitano.

So it’s not okay for a libertarian to make an ideological statement about taxes to a small room full of libertarians, but it’s okay for a libertarian to make an ideological statement about taxes on national television to a wide audience?

Which is it?