What Gary Johnson Gets Wrong About Freedom

August 17th 2016

Kyle Jaeger

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson is hoping to capitalize on voter frustration over the Democratic and Republican nominees — in part by campaigning on his vision of freedom and personal choice. But his latest attempt to attract disaffected voters, an editorial published in Time on Tuesday, reflects an understanding of freedom that might not resonate with large portions of American voters.

Gary Johnson

The point of Johnson's editorial is to make the case for personal choice, which he says the federal government has criminalized.

"I’m a fierce defender of civil liberties, perhaps because individual freedom is very personal to me. I decided at a very early age that I wanted the freedom to do what I want with my life, to achieve whatever my talents and determination would allow without hindrance from the government or anyone else who might want to take my freedom away. For me, achieving that personal freedom meant achieving financial freedom: Earning and saving enough money to fulfill my goals."

To Johnson, "[f]reedom isn't complicated." Perhaps not — but it's a lot less simple than he makes it out to be. His definition of freedom presumes that Americans enter society on equal terms, limited only by their individual "talents and determination" as well as hostile, external forces such as the government. The problem is, not all Americans grow up with the same means to freedom — and some of the external forces that Johnson decries are the very same that have helped level the playing field for disadvantaged groups.


"When government grows and takes more of our money in taxes, we lose freedom," Johnson argues. "My vision for America is straightforward: I want more freedom, not less, so that my children and millions of Americans, young and old, have the same opportunity to achieve their dreams that I have had."

In order to achieve this goal, Johnson says we must take "financial responsibility," reduce government influence, expand individual freedom, and revise our foreign policy strategy. But as this 1969 study from the University of Maryland shows, government institutions have historically helped advance civil rights and create equal opportunity in the job market, enabling minorities, women and poor Americans to "achieve their dreams."

This disconnect could explain why libertarianism primarily appeals with white men.

While his platform calls for increased civil liberties and celebrates progressive social feats such as the legalization of same-sex marriage, only three percent of black Americans and seven percent of women identify as libertarian, according to a 2014 Pew poll.

The libertarian philosophy of limited government is "why as disillusioned as some African Americans, including myself, are with both Republicans and Democrats, we are unlikely to feel at home among libertarians," The Daily Beast's Keli Goss writes. "As long as leaving America’s most vulnerable unprotected remains a core piece of libertarianism, it is unlikely that the libertarian movement will find many allies in communities of color."


Fifty-six percent of those who identify as libertarian believe that government regulation does more harm than good, 57 percent say federal aid to poor Americans does more harm than good, and 42 percent agree that police should be allowed to stop and search anyone who "looks like a criminal suspect" (despite the fact that civil rights organizations consider such policing tactics discriminatory infringements on individual liberties.) Generally, the party's base —mostly white men — hasn't experienced the socioeconomic challenges that federal assistance programs are designed to mitigate, or racial injustices (i.e. profiling from law enforcement) that have prompted calls for criminal justice reform across the U.S.


The New Republic's Jeet Heer neatly summarizes this point.

"To a significant degree, libertarianism is a philosophy that exalts a world where white men enjoyed enormous freedom, but other groups were even more marginalized than they are now. How surprising is it, then, that politicians like [Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)], who voice libertarian ideas, have a fan base that is overwhelmingly made up of white men?"

Johnson says that "America was founded on the notion of individual freedom and civil liberties" and acknowledges that he's able to run for president because he "had the freedom to succeed and achieve." The same is not true for many Americans, and that nuance is politically significant.

RELATED: The Two Biggest Misconceptions About Freedom in America