It’s said that there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and Paul Gagnon, member of the Democratic Freedom Caucus (DFC) National Committee, would agree. He and his colleagues on the DFC have been working from within to inject libertarian ideas into the Democratic Party. The DFC “is a progressive, pro-freedom caucus, which promotes the values which the Democratic Party was founded upon: individual liberty, constitutional democracy, and social responsibility.”
The Free Liberal’s contributing editor Robert Capozzi conducted this interview in March, 2005.
For more information on the DFC, check out their website: www.progress.org/dfc
FL: Please tell us about the DFC. When were you founded? What are your organization’s primary goals?
PG: The DFC was formed in 1996 by three gentlemen: Andrew Spark, Hanno Beck, and Mike O’Mara. [I] and two others joined shortly thereafter. It became a place for libertarians who couldn’t live with some of the ideological strictness of the Libertarian Party, but, at the same time, were a little unhappy with how the Democratic Party had gone. Now we see that the Democratic Party is open to change…it knows it has to change its identity. It was thoroughly whipped. The so-called liberal ideology no longer serves the Democratic Party; it put it out of touch with the nation. The Democrats have become more adept at appealing to the mainstream.
FL: Why not the Republican Party?
PG: The Democratic Party expresses a certain compassion; it realizes that the average guy is more important than corporate interests are. The Libertarian Party (LP) was started by Democrats. But, over time, the Libertarians became more rigid, and we started seeing Republicans who were dissatisfied with the Republican Party moving into the LP. For instance, the LP has always been pro-choice. But, over the years, we watched Republicans move in and try to make a case for the pro-life movement. And we’ve seen the gun issue become more and more rabid [in the LP], to the point where they will say in public if a guy wants a Howitzer or a bazooka, he should have the right to own that. The NRA [National Rifle Association] doesn’t even say that, and I’m an NRA member.
There was a time when a number of Libertarians that were saying the first thing we should cut is corporate welfare, and to reduce the military. So it was a very left-wing tinge to the LP, which has slowly faded out. [We] still feel that, when we’re going to cut government, we should first talk about how we’re going to cut subsidies to the wealthy and to the corporations. And then we can talk about kicking out the so-called ‘welfare queens,’ which tend to be the poor. I like to think that the DFC is putting a real human concern – a real human face – on libertarian philosophy. And we admit that the libertarian philosophy doesn’t have all the answers. We know we have to be pragmatic, and we realize that we’re not going to create “libertopia” overnight. Over time, I believe we can bring people to what I call a progressive libertarian philosophy.
FL: Why a DFC? Why not join the Democratic Leadership Caucus, which was home for Bill Clinton? Do you aim to make the DFC as influential as the DLC?
PG: [The DLC] has held themselves hostage to corporate interests. Frankly, we’ve never tried the free market in this country. We’ve always had government working hand in hand with the wealthy to secure their interests, whether it was the original land developers, and then the commercial interests, and then of course the Civil War, which led to one of the biggest boons in the corporate/state nexus. I think we fit in nicely between the DLC and the ‘progressive’ wing of the Democratic Party. We’re very much in favor of free markets, but we are opposed to government giveaways, protections, and subsidies of corporations.
FL: Historically, Democrats have been associated with “Big Government,” especially on economic issues. What makes you think that a “classical liberal” approach will be effective in the Democratic Party?
PG: Yes, as chairman of the Lee District Land Use Commission [a politically appointed position], we make all the development decisions for southern Fairfax County [in Virginia]. The Republicans have now totally switched sides. They’ve become anti-business, anti-development, and anti-free markets. Whereas, here I am -- a Democrat -- supporting the free market. I’m incredibly impressed how many Democrats understand how the free market works.
What I see now is the Democrats are a party that can change. The Republicans are in the grips of a certain ideology…it’s not free market. It should be called corporate socialism. The economic rights of corporations are recognized, but not the rights of the average person. My Republican colleagues on the Land Use Committee continue to talk about eminent domain.
FL: Who do you support? The DFC endorsed John Kerry in 2004. Any regrets?
PG: We realize we are not going to get the “perfect” candidate to support. A number of us on the DFC respect Russ Feingold [Democratic Senator from Wisconsin], as the only senator who stood up against the [Iraq] war. That took a lot of courage. We have not, however, worked out which and how many candidates we will support as an entire caucus.
To be honest with you, we had a major disagreement on John Kerry. Obviously John Kerry isn’t libertarian. But it was coming down to “anybody but Bush.” The fear of what Bush could do to this country is what drove us to support John Kerry.
Our current focus is to increase membership, and to establish state chairs. One of the best ways to do this is to join in at the local level. So, many of us have joined our local [Democratic] county committee. In fact, in my committee, I’m known as “the libertarian.” I may be seen as an ACLU kind of person, but I think they are impressed that you can hold libertarian beliefs and still be as good a Democrat as anyone else.
FL: Your platform states that taxing land is the “least harmful” tax. It sounds a bit like you are influenced by Henry George, the 19th century political economist. Are all DFCers neo-Georgists? Is the DFC open to other tax reform ideas?
PG: One of the good things about the DFC is that we’re open to a lot of new ideas. Many of us are Georgist. The quote you read is actually from Milton Friedman. Most economists would agree that a land-value tax is the least harmful to the economy. People have trouble separating out a tax that’s put on land and a tax that’s put on buildings. Georgists would say that the human body is owned by the individual; and our labor belongs to us. That’s pretty much standard libertarian philosophy. We point out that the land – which includes airwaves, air, water, soil, minerals, all of that, plus the site value itself – was not created by man. It comes from nature, it belongs to nature, and it does not come from human labor or the human mind. The land itself is for everyone. George called for a single tax on the land.
DFCers go one step further. We say, "Take the unearned revenues from land value – which would be roughly half of your real estate tax – and that money would be divided up as a citizen’s dividend." Every year, [every citizen] would get a check for your ownership in the land. Some might call the “socialism,” but we don’t think so. It’s simply giving each person their due.
FL: Are you finding support among rank-and-file Democrats for the DFC’s foreign policy view that the US should not be “world policeman”? Does this extend into foreign aid?
PG: Most Democrats at the local level not only don’t want the US to be “world policeman,” but we don’t want the US to be involved in “empire building.” I do know some higher level centrist Democrats who do claim we need to take a more activist role.
As far as foreign aid goes, we as libertarians would be against it, except where it was absolutely essential, which I can’t think anything that’s absolutely essential at this point. The problem with foreign aid is that most of it goes to subsidize military action and intelligence operations overseas. As Democrats and DFCers, we want to see that end.
FL: Your platform says that marijuana usage is a “victimless” crime. But aren’t cocaine and heroin victimless also?
PG: That depends on what you call victimless. The problem with cocaine and heroin is, because of their addictive nature, it forces people to lie, cheat and steal to maintain their habit. I think it’s possible to have a program where we treat cocaine and heroin users as a medical and psychiatric problem and perhaps it’s provided to them in controlled doses, with the idea that we will eventually wean them off cocaine and heroin. I don’t think you can say that cocaine and heroin are in the same category as marijuana.
FL: You take a strong stand and interpretation of the Second Amendment. You single out pistols and rifles. Would the DFC take the position, though, that people have the right to tote machine guns in Manhattan?
PG: We have never gotten a complete agreement to put forth a declaration on that. I think most of us have no problem with people having firearms to protect their homes, loved ones, and themselves. But, for example, a 50-caliber machine gun would not be a hunting weapon, it would not be a self-defense weapon, it’s actually a military weapon. Clearly, it’s not for defense. To own a Thompson sub machine gun, you have to have a federal license. We don’t have a problem with that, because most people who have one of those are collectors, that’s perfectly legitimate. Hunting is perfectly legitimate. Self-defense is perfectly legitimate. Trying to organize your own terrorist group? That’s not legitimate. I think it’s reasonable for the government to restrict something like that, because you’re violating other people’s rights.
FL: Your platform on free trade seems highly qualified. You note concerns about trade with other nation’s using “slave labor,” for example. And that the obstacles to economic freedom at home is required before trade restrictions are lifted. Can you elaborate on why the DFC takes this view?
PG: Normally, it’s been accepted that free trade is good for everyone, by the law of comparative advantage. Unfortunately, that was applicable in the days before capital become trans-national. Now, capital can move quite rapidly to places like China, where the labor is outrageously low because of the poverty of the people, because the government keeps it that way. And that gives China, for example, a distinct advantage, a government-supplied advantage. That seems to negate the advantage that comes from free trade.
That’s where we’re coming from. Until there’s a more equal playing field, we have get agreements with countries that are true free traders. And not agreements like NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement]. The problem was that people who had favors with the government – some of the biggest corporations, some of the wealthiest people – wrote in clauses that would be favorable to their particular enterprise. When a government puts out almost 2,000 pages in a treaty, you just know there are shenanigans going on.
FL: Any parting thoughts for Free Liberal readers?
PG: The DFC is a home for people who support personal freedom, who want real free trade, but are willing to be compassionate about it. They’re not willing to toss out the weakest and most vulnerable people in our society. We want to bring about justice, in the form of getting corporations off the government teat…try that first. See how that goes. I think that makes us different from Libertarians and Republicans in general.
We’re also more open to free-market solutions to environmental problems. We’re more concerned than the Libertarians and Republicans about that.
FL: Thank you, Mr. Gagnon.