The Mero Moment: Jonathan Johnson – September 3, 2015

Now that libertarian businessman Jonathan Johnson has formally announced his intention to run for governor in 2016, it’s fair to take a look at the candidate, compare him to his competition, match him against mainstream Utah values and address his competency as a political leader.

by Paul Mero
by Paul Mero

Johnson is up against a tough act. Governor Gary Herbert is leading this state exceptionally well. Working effectively in tandem with the state Legislature, Governor Herbert has had a prudent hand on the helm of state. The Utah economy continues to boom – meaning, with his leadership, state government has stepped aside and not tried to micromanage businesses. And the people are generally united in spirit and purpose – a very communitarian view of life, society and the role of limited government.

While there remain 15 months until the 2016 election, Jonathan Johnson announced his decision to run for governor on a pretty sparse platform. Admittedly, his accomplishments in political leadership are few – he’s brand new to politics. But he has made some of his views known. Nine of them, so far.

Like most Republican candidates in Utah, Johnson says he supports limited government, better jobs, gun rights, local control of education, taking back federal lands inside the state, he likes clean air and lots of water and, I suppose as a Latter-day Saint, he talks about self-reliance and marriage.

As a libertarian, he says he will judge all public policy on four grounds. First, is it constitutional? Second, could someone outside of government do it better? Third, does it interfere with fundamental personal liberties? And, fourth, is the policy affordable and sustainable?

All of that sounds pretty good. But let’s break it down a bit.

Most Utah Republicans sustain both the U.S. Constitution and our state constitution. The United States Supreme Court just ruled that gay marriage is a fundamental constitutional right. Mr. Johnson also believes, as he states in his third criterion for sound public policy, that he would not interfere with the “fundamental personal liberties” of anyone. And yet, he states in his support for marriage that not only does he support traditional marriage but, implicitly, would violate the “fundamental personal liberties” of gay people in Utah by supporting a state’s right to decide the issue.

Jonathan Johnson has a consistency problem from the start. His company, Overstock.com, was a huge supporter of gay marriage in Utah and some of its principals even helped to overturn Utah’s marriage law. Given the sequence of events that played out in the courts, we could easily say that Johnson’s business colleagues were a wellspring for the legalization of gay marriage across the nation – while Johnson, as chairman of the board, sat on his hands. That’s also a leadership issue.

His second criterion for sound public policy is to determine if someone in the private sector could run a program better or in place of state or local governments. I think every reasonable person would agree – unless what Johnson is talking about has to do with central government functions, which isn’t always easy to discern. Many libertarians like Johnson think prisons should be privatized – and many across the nation have been. Justifiably vague is his thinking about privatizing public schools. Many libertarians also think public parks should be privatized. And, in fact, Utah is full of public/private partnerships to accomplish public needs more efficiently.

At the heart of this point is how Jonathan Johnson would define the common good and how well he would be able to balance his libertarianism with it.

One of Johnson’s biggest challenges will be the divisive nature of revolutionary change embodied in his libertarianism. Forget the ideology for a second, how will huge scale changes to Utah law and culture play in Logan, or even Utah County? And to set himself apart from the most conservative Utah governor in recent memory, Johnson will have to embrace radical changes for Utah. Otherwise voters will choose the most trusted and conservative governor in recent history over an unproven wannabe.

While I don’t know Jonathan Johnson well, when I have met him he seems cordial, intelligent and well intentioned. Over my years in Utah politics, I’ve only asked him for two things, that I can recall anyway. I asked him years and years ago for a corporate gift to Sutherland Institute and he declined. More recently I asked him to personally support a religious liberty project and he declined. It’s a free country, of course, and he could have had a million good reasons for his lack of involvement.

But he now faces a sitting conservative governor who has been involved in every faith, family and freedom issue this state has seen in the past six years or longer. Gary Herbert is Utah – he is an unfailingly gut conservative, he is both principled and prudent, he is loved by those who know him best and supported by over three-fourths of the people of this state. He is both a good manager and great leader. Everyone knows Gary Herbert loves Utah first and foremost.

At least for now, few people know that, let alone anything, about Jonathan Johnson. Here are the things Johnson will have to prove to Utah voters to even be viable. First, he will have to prove that he loves Utah more than himself. Second, he will have to prove that he loves traditional Utah values and policies more than he loves his libertarian ideals. Third, he will have to prove to voters that he can overcome inconsistencies between his stated support for limited government and his stated support for even greater government regulation of air and water. And, lastly, though I’m confident he will avoid this choice at every turn, he will have to prove to voters that his policies, his political core and his understanding of freedom rest upon something more than selfish individualism.

From what I know, he’s a good man and if anyone can do it he can – but his climb is uphill. Right now his campaign amounts to a solution looking for a problem.


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