Once described as “the idol of the gun-toting, abortion-fighting, IRS-hating hard right wing”, Barr wound up becoming a prominent “convert” to libertarianism. This interview explores his 2008 Libertarian Party presidential campaign, and his views on the financial crisis and on the Obama presidency.
TNI: I know you hoped to accomplish a great deal as last year’s presidential nominee for the Libertarian Party. Yet, you received only four-tenths of one percent of the popular vote—a lower percentage than three previous Libertarian Party candidates who ran for president. Why do you think you did so poorly?
Bob Barr: I think there were a number of factors. It certainly wasn’t for lack of having an excellent team in place. We had great campaign leadership and both paid and volunteer help.
Probably, though, Lance, the two most important factors that held us back from really reaching our true potential were the lack of money and the fact that the election very quickly turned on one factor only, Barack Obama. The election became completely about him, which is a tribute to his capabilities as a campaigner, I suppose. We had hoped very early on to be able to raise a significant amount of seed money, right after the Convention in Denver. We had some very realistic reasons for believing that money would be raised. Unfortunately, it turned out not to be the case. We just could never raise those several million dollars of initial seed money that you need early in a campaign to get people in place around the country, to be able to travel, to be able to do your polling, to be able to do advertising and so forth. And so we just never had the resources that we needed in order to meet our potential.
TNI: At that time I wrote an article in which I suggested that, given the strength, enthusiasm, and money that existed in Ron Paul’s stint for the Republican nomination, there existed the possibility that your campaign would capitalize on that. Obviously that didn’t happen. Did you also have that expectation for your campaign?
Bob Barr: Certainly there was potential. The large number of people out there that were very legitimately attracted to Ron Paul’s message of libertarianism with a small “L” was a tremendous potential resource for us. Unfortunately that support turned out not to be transferable. It was more support for Ron Paul personally, not for the libertarian message in a much broader context.
TNI: Ron Paul ended up endorsing the Constitution Party candidate, if I’m not mistaken?
Bob Barr: He did.
TNI: Wasn’t there supposed to be a meeting where he asked third party candidates to get together and have a forum? You were invited, and you did not show up?
Bob Barr: That is correct. It made no sense to us at the time, and it still doesn’t as we think back on it, for Ron to call a news conference for all third party candidates, while he’s a sitting Republican member of Congress, to simply say, “Here’s a bunch of third party candidates, they’re all great people.” It diluted rather than strengthened the Libertarian message. Certainly Cynthia McKinney’s message is not one of liberty and freedom in the sense that ours is. Ralph Nader’s is not either, even though there are some areas where we might agree with Mr. Nader.
TNI: Do you think that when you won the nomination, the Party was deeply divided? It took six ballots. Your margin of victory was fairly small. There was a large contingent within the Libertarian Party, that so-called hardcore wing, that didn’t support your candidacy. Do you think they sat it out and a lot of the boots on the ground were not there for you in that regard?
Bob Barr: I don’t think so. Certainly the Libertarian Party, as any political party, will have its naysayers who will not support the Party’s nominee, either because they’re peeved at something, or because they have a legitimate philosophical difference that prevents them from supporting that nominee. But I don’t sense that a lot of Libertarians sat out the election because of that. Certainly some of them may have.
But that wasn’t our primary focus. Our primary focus was to move beyond the convention, to move beyond the internal goings-on in the Libertarian Party and try to reach a much broader cross-section of America that believes in the libertarian message and is not connected with the Libertarian Party per se. And insofar as we did certainly maintain contact with Libertarians and Libertarian state organizations and so forth around the country, we found by and large very strong support.
Certainly you’re right; there were pockets of discontented Libertarians that, for one reason or another, decided they didn’t want to support the Libertarian ticket. But I don’t think that was a major factor in the campaign.
TNI: Given what happened in your campaign, should libertarians conclude that at least on the national level, running Libertarian Party candidates for president never has and never will be a successful strategy for achieving libertarian goals?
Steven Cox, editor of Liberty Magazine, argues, “It’s time for all Libertarians to interest themselves in the Republican Party, and in every caucus, think tank, petition drive, and political action group which can give it an impetus towards liberty.” What is your response to that approach?
Bob Barr: It flies in the face of history and common sense, and it certainly is belied by the current state of the Republican Party. The Republican Party of this early twenty-first century is not a party of liberty or freedom. It is a party that believes in the strong and broad use of government power to attain certain ends. That is reflected in the candidates that the Republican Party chooses. It is reflected, for example, in the way the Party has treated and continues to treat Ron Paul. And I see absolutely nothing that would lead me to conclude that that’s going to change. The Republican Party simply is not going to suddenly change its stripes and revert to being a party of freedom. It’s too entrenched. It is too much a part of the status quo. The status quo does not support liberty and freedom. You have to do it from the outside.
Conservative to Libertarian
TNI: It wasn’t long ago that you were known as a Republican conservative—a strong social conservative. For example, you were once opposed to what most people regard as a fairly moderate position on drug laws, namely the legalization of medical marijuana. What accounts for your transformation from conservative to libertarian?
Bob Barr: It was actually fairly easy because of what the federal government has done in recent years, especially since 9/11. I’m referring to the quantum leap in government power and the perception that the government can do whatever it believes is necessary in a whole range of areas. That mindset manifested itself in a whole range of government actions, such as the derogation of writ of habeas corpus, such as the systemic warrantless surveillance of American citizens, the tremendous growth in the federal government expenditures—which means a corresponding decrease in the freedom that the individuals have through the use of their resources.
These actions led me to question a whole series of things that government used to do that I was previously willing to accept or willing to turn a blind eye to. I concluded post-9/11 that we can’t afford to do these things. Since 9/11, the sphere of personal liberty has shrunk so dramatically that I concluded we have to do something to start turning back that tide. And that meant not just turning back those particular things that government is now doing, such as the abuses of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, the abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the abuses of habeas corpus and so forth. It meant working proactively to turn back the government’s usurpation of power apparent in the federal drug policy and in the overriding of the legitimate decisions that people of various states, such as California, have made.
Atlas Shrugged as Prophecy
TNI: As you know, Bob, most of the people who read The New Individualist are either libertarians or Objectivists and are strongly influenced by Ayn Rand’s political philosophy. You stated at the Libertarian Convention that Ayn Rand was one of your strongest influences. Do you see any parallels between America in 2008 and 2009, and the events in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged–starting with the initial bailout that was passed in the final months of the Bush presidency, and what the government is currently doing with regard to the economic crisis? Have we finally reached the point where Atlas is beginning to shrug?
Bob Barr: I think we certainly have. Whether or not a sufficient number of Americans realize that this is happening, will answer the question whether or not we can reclaim any meaningful degree of freedom. We’re now seeing the economic crisis provide the rationale for the government to, for example, essentially abrogate the right to contract. Eight years ago the terrorism crisis and 9/11 were used as the justification for a whole range of new privacy-invasive and freedom-diminishing actions by the government.
Do people even realize what’s happening to them? Where you have the federal government coming in and essentially saying, “Yes, we see that the Constitution requires equal protection of the law, but we’re going to ignore that and we’re going to start favoring one group or one institution over another and give them, but not other groups, taxpayer dollars. Yes, we see that these financial institutions have contracts, but we’re going to simply ignore those and, in effect, abrogate them.” Due process is being thrown out the window. In other words, the fundamental underpinnings of civil society and financial freedom in this country are being decimated in the name of protecting us from the fallout of this economic crisis, caused, of course, by the government in the first place. This greatly imperils the fundamental pillars of our society. Atlas indeed is shrugging, and I’m not sure that enough people even realize it. I hope they do.
TNI: I’ve heard that the sales of Atlas Shrugged have risen considerably since the beginning of this economic crisis. Don’t you find it rather eerie that the world Ayn Rand was describing in Atlas Shrugged is ominously similar to what the government seems to be doing today?
Bob Barr: It certainly is, and I do hope that trend continues; that is, the trend of people purchasing Atlas Shrugged and hopefully reading it, and recognizing the stark similarities between the novel and the reality of the world in 2009.
The Financial Crisis
TNI: If you were President, going back to the initial bailout [implemented by the Bush administration], what would you have done differently and why?
Bob Barr: I would have probably fired the Attorney General [Michael Mukasey], and other government officials.
TNI: [Treasury Secretary Henry] Paulson?
Bob Barr: Well, certainly Paulson. Probably the heads of some of the regulatory agencies, but particularly the Attorney General for being asleep at the switch. To me, what seems to have happened here is fraud on a massive scale.
Now, leaving aside for a moment the question of whether or not we need all these regulatory agencies or whether their creation was at all consistent with the principles of free market economics—it certainly wasn’t in many instances—we have laws in this country that are designed to protect the sanctity of contracts. Laws to provide transparency in public offerings, to assure the public and those participating, whether it’s simply a small shareholder or a corporate official. To protect people from being defrauded in the marketplace. We do have laws to guard against that—i.e., to punish fraud.
And we have agencies, ultimately the Department of Justice, that are supposed to be enforcing those laws to protect against the sort of fraud reflected in the creation of some of these ridiculous so-called monetary instruments that had virtually no known value at all or arbitrary values were assigned to them, which seems to me to be very clear fraud.
But nothing was done. Consider the case of Franklin Raines, for example—the former head of Fannie Mae, and a former Clinton Administration official. According to various newspaper articles, Raines had been very much involved in cooking the books at Fannie Mae to disguise the extent of the devaluation of the assets that they were underwriting. He was allowed to leave, and given, as I recall, huge bonuses, or they called them a “parachute package,” and nothing happened to him. Laws that were designed to protect the integrity and the transparency of the financial system in this country were not being enforced. And, as a matter of fact, in the case of the Securities and Exchange Commission, they were engaging in policy decisions that made matters even worse, that allowed this fraud to be exacerbated and to continue.
So that’s one thing that I, as president, certainly would have done. I would not have supported bailouts, and I would have very aggressively instructed the new Attorney General to start enforcing laws to protect the marketplace rather than to allow these laws to go unenforced, which gave rise to tremendous fraud. And to the extent that I could, I would put new people in other key positions,
TNI: Was it or was it not necessary for the federal government to come in and shore up the financial system to prevent total economic collapse?
Bob Barr: Shoring up the financial system according to the principles of big government economics is what both major party candidates supported during the campaign last year. That is not to say that there were not some things that government could’ve done. Shoring up the financial system can be done within the principles of the free market. First of all, the government should have been encouraging the marketplace to actually work, which it did to the limited extent that it was allowed to. For example, you had Wachovia in trouble. The government came in with a plan to provide direct taxpayer support for such troubled financial institutions, to just start arbitrarily buying out troubled assets.
Before that plan really got under way, however, the market was starting to operate. Investors were, in fact, seeing that some of these troubled financial institutions offered or represented a good market investment. Wells Fargo came in and bought Wachovia for that very reason. I know there were a number of other investors, both individual—Warren Buffet for example—and institutional, that were doing the same thing. In other words, the market was starting to address the problems and make corrections. But then that was completely stopped. The government threw cold water on the process by saying, “Don’t worry about it, we’re going to come in and solve it.” And they stopped the free market dead in its tracks, from starting to correct itself.
TNI: I’d like to ask your thoughts on President Obama’s stimulus package. Now when [President] Ronald Reagan was faced with a somewhat similar economic crisis—a serious recession—his strategy and approach was to cut tax rates and government spending. It seemed to have worked pretty well because by 1984 he was elected with a huge landslide, and the economy was back on track. Would you have taken that kind of approach? How would you address the budget issues and a stimulus package for the country at this time?
Bob Barr: The best stimulus package now would include and expand on those tactics that were employed by President Reagan a generation ago. So the answer is absolutely, yes, I would do that.
Cutting the rate of taxation on capital gains is one action that should be taken, even if President Obama would not have the votes to permanently do away with the capital gains tax. For at least three years, reduce capital gains to zero. That would have a tremendous effect. Say to the country, “We’re going to dramatically cut federal spending as opposed to increasing federal spending.” Say, “All of that money that is being sopped up by the government now, the hundreds of billions of dollars that were taken out of productive use in our economy simply to pay the annual interest on our national debt, we think that those resources can in fact be better and more immediately employed by the private sector in the economy, than by these arbitrary bureaucracy-laden federal initiatives using taxpayer money.”
The President could also have said, “This also points to the need for dramatic reform in our tax system.” Let’s move away from the heavily manipulated, completely untransparent tax system that we have now, towards, let’s say, a flat tax. That probably would be easier to sell to the American people and is a fair tax. There’s a tremendous opportunity to take bold steps in that direction, but, of course, neither the President nor the Republicans did that.
Obama’s foreign policy
TNI: Could you comment on President Obama’s foreign policy? How does his approach compare with that of his predecessor?
Bob Barr: He’s moving away from the approach of the previous administration, as we saw in his overture to Iran. He’s moving away from what I think was a simplistic, bellicose view of the world by the Bush administration. President Obama’s statement regarding Iran, for example, said we really do value, as all nations do, peaceful solutions and discourse among nations. Iran is a very proud country and the Iranians are a very strong people. Iran is a key player with regard to U.S.-Russia relations and geopolitics. Recognizing all of that, he said it is high time to see if we can start a dialogue here, commercial and political, diplomatic. And I think it’s very important and does indicate a much more sophisticated view of and approach to the world than that employed by the prior administration.
TNI: I believe he’s also proposed canceling putting missile sites in Eastern Europe in exchange for some give backs with Russia. Do you think that’s a step in the right direction?
Bob Barr: I never understood this strategy or tactic of putting missiles in Eastern Europe. I know the Bush administration said, oh, this was to –
TNI: Do you consider that the same sort of bellicose –
Bob Barr: Well, it certainly has that effect, and it ought not to surprise anybody in the prior Bush administration that it had that effect. And the explanation that this is necessary because Iran is developing missiles and whatnot was completely bogus. That made no sense whatsoever.
One can have a productive relationship with Russia at the same time as we protect our vital interests. But placing missiles in Eastern Europe—that clearly would be seen by Russia as an affront and challenge to them. Ultimately it served no purpose ultimately and, I think, dramatically harmed and limited our ability to look for areas of the world where we and the Russians might have commonality of interest, such as in preventing the spread of nuclear technology to certain other nations and regions. And one has to ask oneself, would we just sit back and allow the Russians to do that in the Western Hemisphere, for example. Clearly we wouldn’t. Why do we think Russia would just sit back and do nothing when we do the same thing in their backyard?
Turning Away from Statism
TNI: A century ago Great Britain was the most powerful country in the world, economically and militarily. Under Fabian socialism, it became an economic basket case. And then Margaret Thatcher came in and turned that country around. I was there in the 1980s to see the transformation, and it was truly inspiring. The same thing has happened in other countries—like New Zealand, Ireland—that were very heavily status-laden kind of welfare states, and they discovered the free market and the miracles of free market happened in those places. The problem is that they’re smaller countries than we are, so it’s a lot harder to shift the state in the United States around like they did, especially considering the structure of our government. Do you have any comments on that?
Bob Barr: There certainly are some parallels, but they are very different. I mean, it’s difficult to draw any direct parallels because the countries are somewhat smaller, as you mentioned. But they do provide some very clear, very real examples whereby a nation can indeed turn itself away from statism to economic freedom.
One thing that America has going for it that none of those other countries do is that we do have a very fundamental history of economic and individual freedom in this country. That’s been diminished greatly in recent decades certainly, tremendously, but it’s still there. And I suppose it is true, as someone said, that you can never completely extinguish the light of liberty; it’s always going to be there, however dim. So, yes, that is cause for optimism, and I think we do still inherently have some great strengths in this country. But whether or not we’ll be able to rekindle that depends on whether or not Americans can be reeducated as to the fundamental precepts of freedom, and how those are reflected in and supposedly furthered by our government through such notions as limited enumerated powers, separation of powers, rule of law, and so forth.
TNI: Isn’t part of the problem that there are more and more people who are receiving something for nothing, and that it’s becoming more and more of a burden on the base of people who are the wealth-producing citizens in this country?
Bob Barr: That is one of the fundamental problems that we face. The other is simply lack of understanding of freedom, lack of understanding of the Constitution. We’re not educating the citizenry to these problems. That perhaps is even more fundamental. But certainly you have far too many people in this country—and businesses, who, in many respects, are some of the most anti-freedom, pro-government entities out there—directly or indirectly leaving all the power of the government to take money from one person or group of people and give it to another.