For those of you who don’t know, Aaron Regunberg is a well spoken and intellectually articulate state legislator representing the 4th district (Providence, East Side).  He occupies the seat formerly held by Gordon Fox, who represented the district until he was charged with public corruption by the US Department of Justice.  He is a progressive democrat who supported Bernie Sanders in the Presidential primary and helped lead a successful effort at the Democratic National Convention to reform the “super-delegate” nominating system.

As a legislator who advocates for socialist and quasi-communist policies, he has successfully represented the population he was elected to serve, namely, East Side liberal Democrats who are known for being very progressive.  In the last legislative session, he introduced and supported legislation that sought to advance the progressive agenda.  While he was successful in passing some of his initiatives, like state mandates on school lunches, prescription monitoring, and renewable energy programs (all of which became law) he was unsuccessful in passing others, such as the “fair work week” bill, state mandates on education, and income tax increases.

Rep. Regunberg appeared on Rhode Island Public Radio with Ian Donnis and Scott MacKay yesterday to discuss a range of issues, including education, the minimum wage, and 38 studios.  As is the case with many far-left Democrats, Rep. Regunberg finds common ground with libertarians on some issues, like criminal justice reform, ending corporate welfare, and the legalization of cannabis.  However, on other issues, such as the minimum wage, wealth redistribution, and right to work, he finds himself at odds with our social and economic principles.

While we should be steadfast in our defense of these principles, it’s important for us to work with elected officials on issues where we agree in order to advance the cause of liberty, and Rep. Regunberg is no exception.  I’d like to delve into and examine some of the issues that were brought up in his interview yesterday so local libertarians can better understand the areas where Rep. Regunberg diverts from libertarian philosophy and where he might prove to be a strong ally.

The Minimum Wage – FOE

 During the interview, Rep. Regunberg reasserted his support for a $15.00/hour minimum wage.  It is his belief that businesses can afford to pay their workers more and therefore, they should.  Libertarians, on the other hand, stand behind the non-aggression principle, which stipulates; no person or government has the right to act in an aggressive manner towards any other.  Minimum wage laws are an act of aggression towards business owners on the part of government.  Business owners are forced, under the threat of financial penalty and/or imprisonment, to pay workers a wage that is either higher than what the marketplace says it should be, or higher than the productive value of that particular worker.

There is also an economic argument to be made against minimum wages.  As libertarians, we know that the only economic system that adheres to the non-aggression principle is the free market, and it is the free market that provides society with the greatest economic opportunities and societal outcomes.  However, it is nearly impossible to take one aspect of the market, like wages, and determine how it affects the economy as a whole because there are so many other factors that play a part in shaping the economic landscape.  What we can do is take basic economic principles and use them to help us predict possible economic outcomes.

In a free market, business owners pay their workers what their job is worth.  There are two elements that determine wages: market value and productive value.  A dishwasher, for example, may demand a certain wage based on the number of people capable and willing to do the job.  Also, a dishwasher may demand a higher wage than another dishwasher because he/she is more productive, which makes his/her particular job more valuable.  One dishwasher may be more productive than another because he/she uses more effective capital goods (like power washers, soakers, bigger sinks, etc) than the other.  In any case, high production workers usually earn higher wages than low production workers.

If the minimum wage is set higher than the productive value of a given job, it forces the business owner to take a number of different possible actions:

  • The business owner could use less labor. Cutting labor means the remaining workers have to work harder than they did before and could create contention amongst employees, lower worker morale, and lead to more work related injuries.
  • The business owner could raise prices. However, since it is reasonable to assume that the business owner is already charging the highest possible price he/she can charge without losing customers, raising prices is usually not a desirable action.
  • The business owner could cut costs elsewhere. However, as prices tend to reflect the quality of the product, cutting costs would likely lead to lower quality goods, which in turn could cause business to suffer.
  • The business owner could choose to keep less profit for capital investment. A business cannot grow without capital investments (building expansion, remodeling, better tools and machines, etc) and it is harder for businesses to compete in the marketplace when they aren’t able to grow.

The last option is the road most likely taken because it causes the least amount of immediate damage.  It really depends on the size of the mandated wage increase.  The smaller the increase, the more likely it is that the cost of paying for it will come out of profits.

Interestingly, the state could give every worker a raise by eliminating the income tax.  Even more interesting, is the argument legislators make against such a move, that being: “we’d have to either cut the budget or increase taxes elsewhere to pay for the lost revenue,” which sounds a lot like the business owner who is criticized for arguing that minimum wage increases will force him/her to either make cuts or increase prices to make up for the higher cost of doing business.  A budget is a budget, whether it is a managed by the state or a business owner; the bottom line always wins.

Criminal Justice Reform – FRIEND

Rep. Regunberg expressed his support for criminal justice reform, broadly defined, which is an issue libertarians have long supported.  More specifically, Rep. Regunberg has supported the legalization of cannabis and reforming solitary confinement policies at the ACI, among many other initiatives.  He introduced two pieces of legislation that would require police officers to undergo training in dealing with citizens who have developmental disabilities.  He also introduced legislation that would allow any person who was wrongfully imprisoned to bring an action against the state for compensation or damages.  Perhaps more importantly, Rep. Regunberg joined Rep. Blake Filippi in sponsoring legislation that would prohibit the use of so called “stingray” devices and regulate the use of unmanned drones in the hopes of protecting privacy rights.

Although the use of cannabis has been somewhat decriminalized already, the full legalization of cannabis would greatly reduce the number of citizens who are currently being punished by the state for non-violent drug offenses such as use, possession, and dealing.  Legalization allows commerce that currently takes place on the black market to rise out of the shadows and enables people to make voluntary transactions with one another without fearing persecution by the state.  This is an issue that libertarians have supported from the genesis of the movement and is a platform on which libertarians in Rhode Island can stand side by side with Rep. Regunberg.

Rep. Regunberg fought passionately to end the practice of long-term solitary confinement at the ACI, a practice that criminal justice reform advocates have long regarded as inhumane, cruel, and unusual punishment inflicted upon prisoners by the state.  Despite the conclusion of most experts that solitary confinement can cause serious psychological harm after 15 days, former prisoners testified before the General Assembly that they had been held in solitary for several months at a time, and some claimed they knew prisoners who spent years in isolation.  Although the legislation did not pass, Rhode Island libertarians can hopefully look forward to supporting this very important legislation during next year’s session.

The protection of privacy rights has long been a core mission of libertarian activists throughout the country.  Rep. Regunberg joined hands with Rep. Blake Filippi, a legislator who has represented libertarian principles on the house floor more than any other member of the General Assembly, to introduce legislation that would prohibit law enforcement from using cell-site simulators, otherwise known as “stingray” devices, which are capable of tapping into people’s cell phones.  The bill did not come up for a vote so local libertarians should keep this legislation on their radar.  Similarly, legislation to allow citizens to seek damages from the state for wrongful imprisonment (also co-sponsored by Rep. Filippi) was also held for further study, as was legislation regulating the use of unmanned drones for the purpose of gathering information.  There is certainly a lot to fight for next year.

Free Higher Education – FOE

Libertarians are not opposed to a college education, far from it.  We are however, very much opposed to wealth redistribution of any kind and regard such an act as aggression perpetrated by the state on a portion of the citizenry.  Rep. Regunberg made it clear during his interview with Ian Donnis and Scott MacKay of Rhode Island Public Radio that he stands with Sen. Bernie Sanders on the issue of tuition free public college.  Rep. Regunberg believes every citizen ought to have the right to higher education and that free college is the only way to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to earn a degree without falling under a mountain of student loan debt.

I think it’s important for libertarians to realize that there are many progressives and socialists, like Rep. Regunberg, who genuinely want to make the lives of people better.  The demonization of those who seek to use government as a form of charity does little to further our own cause.  That being said, what progressives often fail to realize is that when a person uses government to do so, he/she cannot avoid acting in an aggressive manner towards other members of the population.  Wealth redistribution is an attack on the property rights of others in the name of social progress.  Whereas voluntary charity fosters an environment of compassion and gratitude amongst the people, involuntary charity breeds feelings of entitlement and resentment that leads to social strife and class warfare.

There is also a difference of opinion between progressives and libertarians on what it is people actually have “rights” to.  People have a right to their life, liberty, and property.  What they don’t have a right to is someone else’s money.  When the government uses tax dollars to fund social programs, they are taking money from one group of people and giving it to another.  For progressives, the ends justify the means.  For libertarians, they do not.  It’s a fundamental difference in ideology that seems impossible to bridge.

There are other problems with expanding the role of government in education beyond its current status.  If nothing else, public education run by the state has proven to be a complete and abject failure.  The United States has slipped in world education rankings in reading, math, and science on a fairly consistent basis since the creation of the US Department of Education, and student performance in Rhode Island seems to follow that national trend.

The more that education policy is taken away from local communities the worse the results seem to be, and it seems to be a problem that money cannot solve, as shown in this graphic from the CATO Institute:

graph

As anyone can clearly see, drastic increases in education spending have had absolutely no affect on student performance.  Furthermore, Rep. Regunberg fails to consider how the influx of so many more college graduates will be able to find jobs when the job market can’t absorb the current number of graduates as it is.

Pushing students into college who might not otherwise matriculate steers them away from other viable career paths that don’t require a traditional four-year college degree, like entrepreneurship or lucrative trades like plumbing, electrical work, and construction.  High school graduates are being pushed into career paths that the market cannot support and the result is college graduates who can’t find jobs in their chosen field, have tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, and have no way to pay it off.  The answer isn’t to erase the debt by making college “free” (someone’s paying for it) the answer is to stop artificially increasing the demand for college.  Doing so would cause the price of tuition to fall making college more affordable for everyone, and young adults graduating from high school would enter into careers that would earn them a decent living without incurring overwhelming student loan debt.

38 Studios – FRIEND and FOE

 Towards the end of the interview, Rep. Regunberg reasserted his opinion that the Attorney General should release all documents related to the 38 Studios investigation in the name of transparency.  Secrecy on the part of government is an obvious infringement on the rights of the people to know how their tax dollars may have been misused and why their trust was betrayed.  Libertarians in Rhode Island can stand in solidarity with Rep. Regunberg on this issue and should continue to demand that all pertinent information regarding the 38 Studios deal be released to the public.

However, Rep. Regunberg also stated that he is opposed to the idea of an independent investigation into 38 Studios and has adopted the Governor’s position that we need to “move forward.”  It seems a bit contradictory to be in favor of government transparency in one area but not the other.  Elected officials need to be held accountable for their actions and the fact that so many in the General Assembly are opposed to seeking justice for the taxpayers on this issue is disappointing to say the least.  It is hard not to feel like members of the legislature are more interested in protecting one another than they are the interests of the people.

There is, of course, a larger issue at play when it comes to 38 Studios: should the state be in the business of offering loans to private businesses?  Although he didn’t mention it in the interview, Rep. Regunberg, like libertarians, has been a strong opponent of corporate welfare.  However, it is unclear whether or not he is opposed to the state acting as a bank and lending out money.  It is a well-known fact that Curt Schilling’s video game company was unable to secure private financing.  This ought to have been a clear indication that there were problems with the business plan.  However, it should come as no surprise that the elected officials who were architects of the deal were less interested in the financial viability of 38 Studios than they were about politics and their own self-interest.

Final Word

So, when it comes to libertarian principles, is Representative Aaron Regunberg friend or foe?  The answer is: both.  Libertarians are in a unique position to find allies on both ends of the political spectrum.  Progressives on the left tend to be in favor of civil liberties while conservatives on the right are more inclined to support economic freedom.  Libertarians do not fit into the left-right paradigm that has taken over our political discourse.  Rather, libertarians fall along what I call the top-bottom paradigm, with big government statists sitting on the top and libertarians in favor of individual sovereignty on the bottom.  We should continue to fight against statists on the top of the spectrum while also working with elected officials on both the left and the right who, on specific issues, are aligned with those of us on the bottom.

About the author: Eric
Eric worked closely with Bob Healey on his campaign for Governor in 2016 and founded the “Democrats for Healey” movement. As a Libertarian Quaker activist, he advocates for both a free market and a free society as essential to a moral society. Eric Palmieri also studies economic theory, history, and philosophy through the Mises Academy (the Mises Institute's Independent Study Program) and has successfully completed more than 10 courses to date. He currently resides in North Providence, Rhode Island.