Is Virginia Gubernatorial Candidate Robert Sarvis a Libertarian-In-Name-Only?

Is Virginia Gubernatorial Candidate Robert Sarvis a Libertarian-In-Name-Only?
October 28, 2013

Benjamin Domenech

Benjamin Domenech (bdomenech@heartland.org) is a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute. Domenech... (read full bio)

The final debate in Virginia last night between Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli didn’t feature Robert Sarvis, the libertarian candidate who has frequently brushed double digits in polling. George Will does his best to make up for this, writing that Cuccinelli is far from the best choice for Virginia, and effectively endorsing Sarvis.

Hours before Gallup reported record nationwide support — 60 percent — for a third party to leaven politics, Sarvis was declared ineligible for the final debate for gubernatorial candidates because he fell a tad short of a 10 percent average in recent polls. None of this disturbed his leisurely enjoyment of a tuna-burger lunch before sauntering off in search of free media, about the only kind he can afford… “Like you, I can’t vote for Ken Cuccinelli’s narrow-minded social agenda. I want a Virginia that’s open-minded and welcoming to all. And like you, I don’t want Terry McAuliffe’s cronyism either, where government picks winners and losers.

He joins Jennifer Rubin in gushing over the candidate without really getting into any of Sarvis’s policy positions.

While I certainly wish the debate had included Sarvis – it certainly seems justified given the polling, even if it turns out that his support is a reflection of soft “none of the above” frustrations – there’s simply no way I can be as accepting of his viewpoint as Will is, for a number of reasons. While I’m closer to Sarvis’s viewpoint than Cuccinelli’s on marriage, marijuana, and I am sure other policy issues as well, there have been a number of concerning red flags about Sarvis’s positions.

Take tax policy, for instance, where Sarvis just doesn’t sound like a libertarian at all to me. Virginia is around the middle of the pack when it comes to tax climate, and could desperately use additional reforms in a time when the state economy is doing so well to lighten the burden on workers. Yet Sarvis told Chuck Todd he didn’t actually favor more tax cuts, but finding savings through more “efficiency”. In that interview, he also endorsed expanding the Medicaid program in the state under Obamacare – which most libertarians in Virginia have been fighting tooth and nail (even Chuck Todd seemed mildly surprised at Sarvis’s willingness to trade vaguely defined “flexibility” for expansion, which the candidate described as “ideal”).

Despite going through George Mason’s program, he doesn’t sound like he shares their views, telling Reason: “I’m not into the whole Austrian type, strongly libertarian economics, I like more mainstream economics and would have been happy to go elsewhere.” That makes sense, given that he’s endorsed more transportation taxes, too – including higher gas taxes and instituting a vehicle-miles driven tax in the state.

That last position is particularly nonsensical to me: a VMT, which generally requires a government GPS to be installed in your car to track your miles driven, is about the most anti-libertarian transportation tax you can think of – even those radical libertarians at Brookings think it’s a bad idea, and it was one of the potential bad ideas in McDonnell’s transportation plan that got killed over it:  “The biggest concern may be privacy. Eighty-six percent of area commuters would oppose having a GPS device installed in their car to track their miles, according to a study by the Council of Governments Transportation Planning Board released last week.” Big government technocrats may like such steps, but I cannot think of a single coherent libertarian case for such an invasion of individual privacy. [Note: In response to Twitter queries following this piece, Sarvis's staff-run Twitter account claimed that he was merely listing user pays options as opposed to endorsing the approach.]

But the fundamental reason I can’t personally vote for Sarvis is his position on abortion – not that he’s simply pro-choice, but that he appears to take the most radical positions in favor of it in a way that makes no sense to me. This includes repeatedly stressing that as governor, he will attempt to roll back recently passed safety regulations on Virginia abortion clinics. Here’s his campaign website:  “The law requiring otherwise legal abortion clinics, but not other outpatient clinics creating a similar level of health risk, to be regulated as hospitals is simply an attempt to regulate abortion clinics out of existence. Misusing public health law for such an ulterior purpose is an abuse of the rule of law.”

Backing up for a moment: Up until 2011, these facilities were treated like doctor’s offices, which are not subject to any inspection – no one was even looking at them, and in the wake of the Kermit Gosnell story, there was a push to change that. Essentially, the Virginia House of Delegates redefined abortion facilities as a type of hospital, and passed with bipartisan support legislation which asked the Board of Health to promulgate regulations related to standards, training, equipment, inspection control. This included things like infection prevention, storage and dispensing of drugs, emergency equipment on site, patients’ rights, fire systems, etc. The Board of Health did not require huge operating rooms or anything of the kind. Facilities were given two years to come into compliance, and since the regulations went into effect, 2 out of the 20 clinics in the Commonwealth shut down – but both shut down with two years to go before the standards went live, and both were already locked into financial and legal disputes. The other 18 clinics are still open and functioning (and hardly regulated out of existence).

What did public health officials find when they went to these clinics for the first time? Mollie Hemingway writes about it today.

As reported in a 65-page document, the facility was found to be blood-splattered and failing to comply with even basic sterilization procedures. Again, this was after being told when to expect a visit from health inspectors. The inspectors observed that two blood collection tubes, designated as “clean and ready for use”, actually had a “dark reddish substance” where the tube for blood collection attached. A staff member said that the cleaning process for these tubes is to run them under water and then soak them in alcohol at the end of the day, but not between patient uses. When the inspectors pointed out the substance, a staff member said, “That looks like blood. They aren’t clean.” So the staffer ran them under water and said the “blood” was gone.

And that’s just the beginning. I’m not big on government regulations, but if you really do believe that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare, that first part counts, too – and requiring the most basic reporting standards from these clinics acknowledges the bloody work that actually goes on inside their doors. There’s a reason these regulations attracted so little pushback from Virginia Democrats – when it comes to abortion, they’re just not as hardline as Sarvis.

Maybe Sarvis isn’t the political naïf that he seems to be. Maybe he has a particularly good explanation for why he thinks these safety regulations should be rolled back, or why he thinks there’s no health risks involved in the kind of situation the facility reports indicate. Maybe he has a good libertarian explanation for why he thinks we don’t need to cut taxes further in Virginia, or why he thinks we should expand Medicaid, or why he thinks it’s a good idea to install a government GPS to tax you for driving your car. Unfortunately, Sarvis’s campaign didn’t respond to my requests for an interview on any of these subjects. That search for free media, it seems, only takes you so far.

Benjamin Domenech

Benjamin Domenech (bdomenech@heartland.org) is a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute. Domenech... (read full bio)