Monday, March 27, 2017

Interview: Libertarian leader Nicholas Sarwark says "the two old parties have no coherent policy message"

This is the third of five articles spanning my discussion with Nicholas Sarwark. The first and second pieces are available. 
Story by Joseph Ford Cotto
Libertarianism has seen better days.
A few years ago, certain political forecasters claimed that the future of America's center-right belongs to libertarians. Since the 2012 presidential election, however, protectionism surged -- not only in the GOP, but among Democratic ranks as well. Now, amid the age of Donald Trump, libertarianism's once-ascendant nature seems a distant memory.
"I fear that the classical liberal/libertarian idea and ideal will be seriously tarnished by the policies and politics of the Trump Administration," Dr. Richard Ebeling, one of our time's greatest Austrian School thinkers, recently told me.
He continued: "Virtually all of Trump’s proposed policies involve a continuation or an intensification of government involvement in social and economic life. He acts as the all-knowing government central planner when he calls in business executives and tells them where to invest and what products they should make to 'create jobs.' He undermines respect for and protection of essential civil liberties when he ridicules the freedom of the press and their way of reporting on his administration’s actions and his words."

Ebeling went on to state his worry "that with the assistance of the mainstream media the Trump Administration’s anti-freedom policies will tarnish the real case for a free society and a free market. That is, people who want lower taxes and fewer regulations on business will be identified as the people who also believe in torture, discrimination against immigrants, violations of civil liberties, and the instigation of trade wars because of aggressive nationalist attitudes." 
Perhaps we should hear more about libertarianism's brass tacks -- namely how it functions real-time in American politics. Few people can better explain this than Nicholas Sarwark, chairman of the Libertarian Party's national committee. 
According to his LNC biography, Sarwark "is an unabashed, second generation Libertarian" who "has been an active member of the Libertarian Party since 1999" in which he "served as chair of the Libertarian Party of Maryland and as vice chair of the Libertarian Party of Colorado where he .... supported the passage of Colorado’s historic marijuana legalization initiative in 2012.
"Professionally, Nicholas Sarwark has been a criminal defense attorney and has worked over ten years in the private sector. He served as a deputy public defender in Colorado, trying more than 30 cases before a jury and arguing in front of the Colorado Supreme Court. He also has more than a decade of experience in computer consulting and sales. In 2014 he moved to Arizona with his wife and two children to join in the operations of a family business, the oldest independent auto dealership in Phoenix, founded in 1942."
Sarwark recently spoke with me about libertarianism's role amid the American landscape. Some of our conversation is included below.

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Joseph Ford Cotto: It is fair to say that most Americans are dissatisfied with our partisan duopoly. At the same time, third party votes are often castigated as electoral throwaways. Not only does this mentality prevent new parties from gaining serious traction, but it entrenches the established way of politicking. In the future, beyond any other act, what does the Libertarian Party plan to do so this situation is changed?

Nicholas Sarwark: The wasted vote argument has been used against Libertarian candidates for as long as the Libertarian Party has existed and with good reason. When the two old parties have no coherent policy message and the policies they have implemented have resulted in less prosperity and less freedom, the only response they have is to frighten voters about "throwing away" their vote. Coke and Pepsi fight bitterly over the soda market, but the bigger threat to their business is not each other, it's people realizing that drinking water instead of soda is healthier.

Gary Johnson, our presidential candidate in 2016, tripled the previous Libertarian vote record. That he did this in spite of both old party candidates pushing the wasted vote message is a good sign that the  argument is losing its power and allowing us to get traction.

Cotto: On the right, libertarianism is facing opposition from an upswing of protectionist sentiment. What would you say to rightish voters who, in a more mundane time, would be open to supporting libertarian policies?


Sarwark: The good arguments that economic conservatives have made don't become false just because the President has an 'R' after his name. Free trade is still the best long-term policy for the country. Protectionism is still like smoking crack; it's going to feel good for a little bit, but negative long-term effects.

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Editor's note: In early 2014, while a columnist at Communities Digital News, I interviewed former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, the Libertarian presidential nominee in both 2012 and 2016. We spoke about the idea of replacing America's income tax system with a consumption-based policy called the 'fair tax.' Our discussion remains timely, both in terms of understanding libertarian fiscal philosophy and the more general movement for substantial tax reform across our country. Some of this conversation is included below. 


Cotto: Many have heard about the fair tax, but fewer know much about it. In a summary sense, how would you describe the concept?


Gov. Gary Johnson: Simply put, the Fair Tax is a consumption tax, rather than a tax on income. The basic idea, embraced by many economists, is to eliminate virtually all federal taxes, from income taxes to payroll taxes, and replace them with a single tax on purchases.  In the most widely accepted version of this consumption tax, the rate paid on purchases would be 23%, which roughly equates to the lowest current income tax rate of 15% plus payroll taxes.  Key to the concept is a “prebate” that would provide every household with an advance tax refund each month that would have the effect of exempting purchases of necessities from the tax.


Cotto: Some say that a national sales tax would eliminate the prospect of economic growth. What do you think about this idea?


Johnson: To the contrary, I am convinced replacing taxes on income and productivity with a consumption tax would provide a tremendous boost to growth.  Workers would actually receive their entire paychecks, without the federal government taking a huge cut.  Then, their tax burden would be determined by their purchases, not their incomes. Likewise, if, as even President Obama has said, reducing the business tax rate by a few percentage points would create jobs and growth, just imagine the job creation that would result from eliminating income taxes on businesses entirely.  I firmly believe that change alone would create millions of jobs.


Cotto: How might a national sales tax be of benefit to consumers?


Johnson: Consumers would gain control of their tax burden.  They would receive their full pay without federal deductions, and their purchases of necessities would be exempt from taxation by way of the “prebate”.  Then, they would only be paying federal taxes when they choose to spend.  Savings and investment would not be taxed.  With regard to the cost of consumer goods, most people don’t realize how much federal tax is embedded in prices they pay today.  The Fair Tax would eliminate those embedded taxes and replace them with a transparent single sales tax.

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