Did you hear the one about how Jared Polis is a libertarian? I heard that, again, right after I struggled to get my groceries home because of the bag fees that Polis signed into law, and right before I paid the Polis-approved “retail delivery fee” on an online order. The Coloradans harmed by Polis’s taxes, fees, and controls are not laughing.
My paper last year, “The Tax and Regulate Reality Behind Governor Polis’s Libertarian Image,” detailed many of Polis’ anti-liberty policies to that point. This year, Polis supported the deceptive Proposition HH, which promises to cut property taxes but actually allows huge net increases in property taxes while also costing us TABOR refunds. He forced some people to subsidize others’ abortions through insurance premiums. He imposed waiting periods and age restrictions on gun buyers in clear violation of Colorado’s Constitutional protections. He imposed new controls on property owners in the rental market. This is just a taste.
Nevertheless, Nick Gillespie from the libertarian Reason magazine previously said that “Polis might be the most libertarian governor in America.” I concede he’s one of the more liberty-oriented governors. Yet, as I wrote in my paper, “Saying Polis is the most libertarian governor in America is a bit like saying he’s the most sober person at a Grateful Dead concert. It’s not like he faces much competition.”
Stossel gushes over Polis
John Stossel is the latest libertarian-friendly commentator to gush about Polis. He begins his new video, “Is there a Democratic governor who actually stands up for economic freedom? Yes!” (See also Stossel’s related article.)
Stossel rightly praises Polis for his entrepreneurial past, something that surely gives Polis some respect for productive business leaders and for free markets. When Stossel describes how hard government often makes it to do something as simple as open a lemonade stand, Polis concedes, “Government in general does a lot of things that aren’t necessary.” Stossel mentions a CPR article about the Polis-signed 2019 Senate Bill 103, which, as CPR summarizes, “prohibits local government or any agency of local government from requiring a minor to have a license or permit to run a small and occasional business.”
“You hate the income tax,” Stossel says to Polis. But, as I explained in an article a couple years ago, Polis doesn’t have any realistic proposal to eliminate that tax. Instead, the Independence Institute (which publishes Complete Colorado) and others took the lead in reducing tax rates. As usual, Polis attempts to take the credit, telling Stossel, “We’ve reduced the income tax twice in Colorado since I’ve been there.”
Polis wants freer immigration and freer global trade, Stossel points out. True! However, these federal issues are not relevant to Polis’s work as governor. (Polis did sign a bill restricting police cooperation with federal immigration officers.) Polis does use his “bully pulpit” to publicly advocate for freer immigration, and I appreciate that. We have the opportunity in America to benefit from bringing in more of the smartest, hardest-working people in the world to kick our economic engine into overdrive, but our national leaders foolishly severely limit our ability to do so.
Polis says, “Tariffs in particular penalize trade. I think trade’s a good thing. If two people, willing partners, both have something, and they both want what the other has, and they make an exchange, they’re both better off. We should not penalize trade.” Preach it, brother.
Yes, Polis shut down businesses during the pandemic, Stossel grants. And, I’ll add, he did so in a way that showed extraordinary political favoritism. Yet, Stossel rightly points out, Polis lifted Colorado’s restrictions relatively quickly.
Stossel also points out that Colorado now has legal marijuana and psychedelics. This is another issue where conservatives complain but libertarians cheer. Yet again, these were citizen-led ballot issues, not ones initiated by Polis. Yet Polis voices the standard libertarian line on such matters, telling Stossel: “I think it’s ultimately a matter of personal responsibility. If you want to use marijuana, if you want to drink, if you want to smoke, that’s your prerogative. The government shouldn’t be deciding that for you.” Obviously we need to take seriously things like age restrictions and protection of public spaces for public use.
An issue that Stossel neglects, but that is very important for (actual) libertarians (as opposed to libertarian poseurs who don’t understand property rights), is the liberation of the housing market. Generally, within some broad guardrails, people should be free to develop their property as they see fit. As Jerusalem Demsas points out for the Atlantic, “Homelessness is primarily a function of the broader housing-unaffordability crisis, which in turn is primarily a function of how difficult local governments have made building new housing in the places that need it the most.” Although Polis’s major reform bill failed this year, he helped set the stage for future reforms.
In his short August 1 video, Stossel promises to be more critical of Polis in their longer interview. One issue is Polis’s actions to restrict Colorado’s oil-and-gas industry. Of course that issue is complicated by the problem of “externalities” of carbon dioxide emissions driving global warming. Polis takes the stance that such problems require government intervention.
So is Polis a libertarian? These days, many people who claim to be libertarians aren’t even libertarian, and the term always has been ambiguous. I wouldn’t call myself a libertarian without tightly qualifying the meaning. If we mean roughly someone who advocates personal and economic liberty, then I’m a libertarian, and so is Polis—sometimes. We should evaluate Polis’ policies on a case-by-case basis.
Polis certainly cares more about liberty than do most American politicians, and he’s probably as libertarian as someone can be and still be elected to statewide office in Colorado. We could do far worse in picking a governor. And, sadly, we probably will.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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