Monday, November 02, 2009

Book Review: The Conscience of a Libertarian


A few months ago, I stated that I wouldn't be reviewing Wayne Allyn Root's The Conscience of a Libertarian: Empowering the Citizen Revolution with God, Guns, Gambling & Tax Cuts unless someone wanted to purchase a copy for me. That, I thought, should settle that ... who'd buy a book just to have me review it? But Jeremy Young decided he wanted to see the review, and shortly a fresh, new copy of the thing arrived in the mail.

I could say that I've been taking my time reading it, but that would be a lie -- I finished my first read within a couple of days, then spent a week or so going back over it in pieces. The simple fact of the matter is that I've been putting off reviewing it, because there's little I like less than slagging a book. My agreements with authors whom I've asked for review copies have generally been along the lines of "if I don't have something nice to say about it, I'll say nothing at all."

But, a deal is a deal. Jeremy sent the book, and I owe him a review.

The Conscience of a Libertarian is a particular kind of book -- a "campaign book." I'm not going to slag it for not being a philosophical or ideological treatise. It's not supposed to be one. Its purpose is to promote its author as a presidential candidate, not to prove that some particular number of Ayn Rands can dance on the head of a pin. It's a given that the ideas in the book will be presented in the most simple, accessible language possible, and that's fine.

So, I'm going to critique it as a campaign book, not as anything else, and I'll give you the short version up-front: It's bad. Really bad.

As for the long version, there are three main problems with the book.

First, to put it as bluntly as possible, there's just no way to turn Wayne Allyn Root into a credible candidate for public office. Not in 370 pages, not in 3,700 pages. The usual arc of a politician's career is that he starts off as an idealistic type with strong values and laudable goals; over time he becomes cynical and manipulative and corrupt. Root's career is running in the opposite direction ... maybe. He started off as a cynical manipulator, making his money by suckering gullible sports bettors with an infomercial/boiler-room telemarketing operation selling "picks," and is now seemingly in a state of metamorphosis that's frankly just not very believable.

When he launched his first campaign (for the Libertarian Party's 2008 presidential nomination), Root sold himself as Mr. "Millionaire Republican," a business mogul, a tycoon. That claim quickly lost credibility as his company circled the drain, in default on debt far in excess of its market cap and with its own auditor reporting to the SEC that it was unlikely that the firm could continue to operate.

So, he shed the "mogul" rhetoric and started calling himself a "small businessman" ... without belaboring precisely what his "small business" was. Summary of his business strategy, given to the New York Times magazine: "I want high rollers who can afford to lose. ... I think zero about why things are. I just accept what they are and find a way to take advantage of them." The Libertarian Party appears to be his latest "high roller" mark.

In The Conscience of a Libertarian, you'll look in vain for anything resembling a detailed description of what Wayne Allyn Root actually does for a living these days (he appears to be flogging a couple of multi-level marketing schemes while continuing the sports handicapping hustle).

He continues to represent himself as a "small businessman" on nearly every page ... but that self-characterization just doesn't come off as honest or believable, and if he ever gains any traction as a presidential candidate, it won't hold up under scrutiny. When most people think of "small businessmen," they think of the guy who owns an auto repair shop or runs a lawn service or operates a family farm, not the guy hectoring them to join Amway® or put $20 down on the table for a hand of Three-Card Monte. And when he claims to be "the only small businessman on a modern presidential ticket," it just gets silly. Jimmy Carter was a peanut farmer. Barry Goldwater was a department store owner. Harry Truman was a haberdasher.

Secondly, Root seems fixated on a weird concept: The "citizen politician." He never really defines the term, but it seems to be self-defined primarily by contrast with its opposite: Those who make long-term careers of politics aren't "citizen politicians." Wayne Root, however, is one.

Strange claim coming from a guy who's been running for office since 2007 and has already announced plans to continue doing so through 2020, after which he presumably expects to spend eight years in office.

This "citizen politician's" idols?

Barry Goldwater, who served five terms -- 30 years -- in the US Senate, taking four years off after his first two terms to run for president.

Ronald Reagan, who served two terms as Governor of California, then spent five years and two campaigns seeking the presidency, in which he served for eight years.

Ron Paul, now serving his 10th (non-consecutive) term in the US House of Representatives, who's also run for US Senate once and President twice.

"Citizen politician" seems to be a convenient label for a non-existent phenomenon. Root attempts to position the "Founding Fathers" in support of the concept, but most of them started in politics long before the Revolution, and practiced it at least intermittently until their life-end retirements after. George Washington spent 17 years in Virginia's House of Burgesses prior to the Revolution. Thomas Jefferson was only 26 when he secured election to that same body, from which he ascended through the Continental Congress to the state legislature to the governorship of Virginia to the US Congress to the ambassadorship to France, to the positions of Secretary of State, Vice-President and President over the course of 30 years. Sure, they had business interests outside of politics ... does Root think that Barney Frank doesn't?

Both of these first two problems are failures of Root to sell himself, which any candidate of course must do. He's just not believable as "small businessman" or as "citizen politician" (whatever that may be). Not in the book, and especially not when he goes into Ronco®-infomercial-like seizures on television.

The third problem is with the ideas.

Like I said, I didn't expect a philosophical treatise or some weighty intellectual argument for a Randian or Rothbardian approach to politics. That's not what a campaign book is for.

But the ideas need to hold up under scrutiny, and many of Root's don't.

He advocates a "flat tax" ... with two rates.

He promises to bring back the practice of "impoundment" on page 162 (apparently he hasn't noticed that he can't, under the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974); then on page 209 he admits that "corrupt big-government big-spending politicians" probably won't let that happen.

As an alternative to "impoundment," he proposes a "simple" alternative plan ... so "simple" that it requires 14 separate planks that take up 17 pages, most of which would require the cooperation of the same politicians he already admits won't stand for impoundment, and at least one of which appears to have crept in from an alternate universe in which the word "earmark" means something completely different from what it means in this one.

On the "idea" level, most of the stuff in The Conscience of a Libertarian that isn't reality-challenged or just plain weird is 15-year-old cheesecake -- well past its "sell by" date -- with its "Contract With America" label covered over by a "WAR 2012" sticker. Its obvious target is conservative Republicans who are open to the possibility of defecting to the Libertarian Party for the right candidate. That's not a majority, or even a plurality, of the voters ... and pandering to that tiny sliver of the electorate with such zeal is not only unlikely to be successful, it's likely to alienate the vast bulk of other types of voters who will necessarily constitute any future Libertarian plurality. And, of course, Root isn't that right candidate in any case.

To give credit where credit is due, Root does make what seems like a sincere plea to his conservative audience for "tolerance" of same-sex marriage, gambling, marijuana, etc., on the reasonable suggestion that in order to get the freedom they want, they have to respect the freedom of others ... but then, just as it looks like he's speaking truth to social conservative power, he turns right around and punts social issues to "states rights" doctrine instead of coming out full-bore for freedom.

Note: I somehow inadvertently omitted the following two paragraphs from the initial posting of this review. I apologize for the omission, and have restored them. Thanks to Thane Eichenauer for the catch!

He's also evolved in a big way on foreign policy issues since 2007, from supporting the US war on Iraq, to proclaiming it "the wrong war" and war on Iran "the right war," to, in The Conscience of a Libertarian, a fairly solid non-interventionist position. He denounces "nation-building" in the form of military interventions in the affairs of other countries, and calls for folding up the US "defense umbrella" now covering (at the expense of American taxpayers, naturally) western Europe and the Pacific Rim and letting them figure out how to keep themselves dry. He also zeroes in on fact that "defense" spending is all too often just an excuse for moving money from taxpayer pockets into the bank accounts of politically connected contractors.

Unfortunately, Root's evolution on foreign policy is more or less balanced out by his attempts to straddle the fence on immigration. He dances gracelessly back and forth between appeasing the conservative movement's Know-Nothing faction on the one hand -- he calls for using those troops we bring home from overseas to "secure the borders," and misdiagnoses the economic impact of "illegal immigration" (for example, he claims Social Security is being "overwhelmed" by illegal immigrants, when in fact they subsidize it with the payroll taxes they pay under fake names while never collecting the benefits) -- and trying to come off as mildly "pro-immigration" on the other hand by suggesting either "allowing" people to settle in the US if they buy $250k homes or lifting immigration quotas for industries and occupations that can "prove" labor "shortages." It's a hot mess.

The best that can be said for The Conscience of a Libertarian is that, like most campaign books, it will hopefully be long forgotten three years after its initial publication. It's a god-awful waste of paper -- there's really no other way to put it -- and I'd hate to see any Libertarian presidential candidate, even the one who wrote it, stuck having to defend it in the fall of 2012.

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