A Libertarian Critique of Mike Pence

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With the upcoming inauguration of Mike Pence as the 48th Vice President of the United States of America on January 20th 2017, I have increasingly been reflecting on Pence’s views – not least because, given the GOP landslide and his conservative pedigree, he will be one of the most influential vice presidents in recent history.

Firstly, I agree with Mike Pence on a range of issues. His fight against abortion is most welcome, as was his opposition to the automotive industry bailout (though he betrayed this move with his support for President-Elect Donald Trump’s crony deal with Carrier, as I will show) and an increase in the federal minimum wage in 2007. However, libertarians should be wary of Pence in some respects. On more than one occasion, Pence has proven he is no supporter of libertarian ideals. I want to share 5 examples of this.

1. The Patriot Act

Pence is one of America’s fiercest defenders of the Patriot Act of 2001. Addressing the House of Representatives prior to the vote, he boldly declared that the Patriot Act was about trusting in “the governing authorities.” In 2005 and 2011, he voted to extend the Patriot Act’s scope and power. The Patriot Act is a prime example of individual liberty being infringed upon, in a way wholly unacceptable to libertarians, in the name of national security. The Act, under section 213, allowed the government to enter you home without your consent to do a covert search and not inform you until afterwards.

Moreover, under the Act, especially sections 206 and 218, the government was given extensive wiretapping powers, so much so that it could legally wiretap any person or organization “whom the FISA Court [finds] probable cause to believe is a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power.” This allows tremendous scope for abuse despite Mike Pence’s insistence one should just trust the government, especially since the FISA Court has a questionable reputation. Russell Tice, a global name in intelligence analysis, called it a “kangaroo court,” and whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked documents that allegedly show the US government engaging in global surveillance which, in journalist Barton Gellman’s words, “empowered the NSA [National Security Agency] to sweep in the telephone, Internet and location records of whole populations.”

I am not going to speculate on if the government did or did not abuse its new powers, but these are powers and authorities the state should not have. The Patriot Act, whatever its merits, gave the US government immense capacities of intrusion, arguably in breach of the 4th Amendment, and Pence’s support for that is anathema to libertarian philosophy.

2. Anti-LGBT+ Measures

Among other anti-LGBT+ equality measures, Pence has opposed the legalization of same-sex marriage, and stated, “Congress should oppose any effort to put gay and lesbian relationships on an equal legal status with heterosexual marriage.” Whatever a libertarian’s personal view of marriage (some, like libertarian icon Ron Paul, believe marriage is between one man and one woman), they should support the removal of a state-imposed ban on same-sex couples marrying. What consenting adults do, provided they are not violating anyone else’s rights, is none of the state’s business. The state should have the authority neither to legitimize nor delegitimize marriage.

Ron Paul stated, “I don’t know why we should register our marriage to the federal government.” However, let me take his argument further: Paul wants to throw the question of same-sex marriage to the states but I would advocate the removal of all government from marriage, including state governments. Pence’s belief in a state-imposed morality is contrary to the libertarian ideal of ‘live and let live.’ If Pence wants religious people to be able to live as they wish, without same-sex marriage thrust upon them (e.g., Christian bakers refusing to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple), he needs to extend LGBT+ persons the same courtesy of living as they wish without having unwanted ideals thrust upon them. One can be personally disgusted with homosexuality and same-sex marriage, but that does not permit them to use the state’s monopoly on force to impose that opinion on society.

3. The War on Drugs

Pence is also one of the foremost advocates of the War on Drugs. While I agree that drug use and dealing should be a criminal offense for minors (especially given the dangers of drugs), Pence’s policy is to employ harsh judicial reprimands for adults. Recently, Pence opposed reducing criminal penalties for smoking marijuana, despite marijuana being comparatively harmless. As libertarian political philosopher and Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman observed, as with the war on alcohol during Prohibition in the 1920s and early 1930s, the War on Drugs does more harm than good. It results in greater expense to the taxpayer, adding to the expansion of government tax and spending, and legislates on what one can do to their own body. Increased taxation (and therefore theft) to fund bigger government in order to incarcerate individuals for what they do to their own body (while not infringing on others’ rights) is a paradigm case of statist overreach.

If Pence does not want to partake in drug use, then he is free to abstain; that does not mean he should ban others from doing so, especially when that results in the extension of government powers, more spending, and higher taxes. Despite many disagreements with 2016 Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson, I cannot disagree with his observation that the continuation of the War on Drugs means that, contrary to being allowed a life of liberty, “too many Americans are still being victimized by militarized police and heavy-handed laws.”

4. Gambling

Despite being bankrolled by the gambling industry, Pence (who prides himself on having never bought a lottery ticket) has unequivocally opposed the expansion of gambling. Of particular note, he co-sponsored the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006, which “prohibits gambling businesses from knowingly accepting payments in connection with the participation of another person in a bet or wager that involves the use of the Internet and that is unlawful under any federal or state law.” The punishment for breaking this law is up to 5 years imprisonment. From a libertarian perspective, this is an unacceptable instance of the state interfering on how people use their money.

Pence believes the state ought to have substantial control over not only whom you can marry, what privacy you can get, and what you can do to your own body, but also how you spend your money. According to Gerd Alexander, this widely criticized statist intervention was also costly. He writes that following the passing of the act, the “[s]tock prices of publicly-traded e-casinos plummeted, wiping out over approximately seven billion dollars of market value.” Partypoker.com lost up to 90% of its revenue almost overnight. If choosing the lesser of two evils, many libertarians will prefer the GOP over the Democrats because of the former’s free market stance. However, the next GOP vice-president cares not for libertarianism; he opposes being free to spend your money as you wish, and unlike libertarians, he cares little for the free market. It was Pence who recently said, “The free market has been sorting it [industry] out and America’s been losing.”

5. The Carrier Deal

On the topic of Pence opposing a libertarian free market attitude, one must discuss the recent Carrier deal. Pence lauded President-elect Trump (a lifelong donor to many big government politicians, like Hillary Clinton) for enticing Carrier, an air-conditioning firm, to retain jobs in the US (the exact amount of jobs saved varies in media reports).  He called it “the beginning of many good days.” The deal, however, is nothing more than crony capitalist statist interventionism. While the incoming administration, of which Pence is the second most senior member, is to be praised for its pledge to lower taxes and cut regulation to make the economy freer, any such move has to be across the board to be fair. When the government intervenes in specific instances to issue threats or incentives, the free market ceases to be free; the government is using its weight to give certain businesses commercial advantages, thus rigging the economy. The Washington Examiner’s comment that the deal “rhetorically demolishes the crucial distinction between free-market policy on one hand, which benefits all businesses and thus the whole economy, and corporatism on the other, which benefits the big and well-connected” is well worth heeding. The deal, in Pence’s own state of Indiana, effectively takes the heavy boot of government and places it onto Carrier’s competitors. The sad irony, as noted, is that when Obama engaged in such cronyism, Pence was vocal in his criticism of the outgoing president.  Once again, Pence’s solution is not economic freedom and small government, but interventions and an abandonment of the free market principles that libertarians hold dear.

In these five examples, we’ve seen that Pence has supported the government’s power to intervene in whom you can marry, what privacy you can get, what you can do to your own body, how you spend your own money, and which businesses receive special treatment. All these things are not to be embraced by libertarians. In his landmark 1859 essay “On Liberty” John Stuart Mill wrote, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.” From a libertarian perspective, Pence would do well to take Mill’s point to heart and let it guide him over the next four years of his vice-presidency.

* Freedom Commentary is a libertarian opinion outlet, expressing the views of Matthew James Norris. Matthew is currently applying for MA programmes in history and philosophy.

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