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OPINION: A Libertarian Response to Reason's RFK Jr. Takedown

The good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of Liz Wolfe’s unbalanced RFK Jr. hit piece

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s longshot bid for the presidency has been a lot of things—entertaining, strange, exciting, and inspiring, at various turns. One thing it has not been is boring.

The bench-pressing nephew of John F. Kennedy has been unafraid to poke at the sacred cows of entrenched powers in Washington. He has called lockdowns a violation of civil rights and the largest wealth transfer in history, and has blasted US involvement in Ukraine in what he described as a “proxy war” with Russia. He has been outspoken against vaccine mandates, and claimed “Big Pharma” has manipulated vaccine trial data.

These positions have earned RFK Jr. the enmity of legacy media, but they have generated support among dissident left-liberals, populist conservatives, Tech moguls, and a surprising number of libertarians.

Not all libertarians are having it, however.

Following a combative interview between RFK Jr. and Nick Gillespie, Reason published another video featuring associate editor Liz Wolfe titled “Why Are So Many Libertarians Suddenly Fond of RFK Jr.?” that bluntly asserts Kennedy is “not worthy of the rehabilitation tour he’s getting from various pundits, podcasters, and tech luminaries.”

Wolfe is a good journalist, and many of her criticisms of the next son of Camelot are not just fair, but important to highlight. That said, there are several problems with the monologue that deserve attention. Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good

Some of the swooning over RFK Jr. has made me uncomfortable. Prior to his presidential bid, I didn’t know much about Kennedy, but I had the impression he was a bit of a kook.

As Wolfe notes in her editorial, RFK Jr. has publicly said people who oppose his climate change policies belong in prison.

“Do I think the Koch brothers should be prosecuted for reckless endangerment?” he said in a 2014 interview when asked about climate change skeptics. “Absolutely.”

Though he today sings the virtue of free speech and warns against the dangers of climate alarmism (and advocates free market solutions to climate change), Kennedy was singing a very different tune for many years, arguing (in a now archived article) that “climate deniers” should be put in jail.

And then there’s the fact that Kennedy supported the nationalization of oil companies and praised Hugo Chavez, calling the socialist strong man the “kind of leader my father and President Kennedy were looking for” in Latin America. (In RFK Jr.’s defense, Chavez was arguably still a “democratic socialist” at the time, and not yet the dictator he would become.)

There’s more examples one could cite—the claim that the 2004 election was stolen, for example—but you get the point. There’s a lot of red flags here—for libertarians and for anyone who just wants a prudent person to lead the country—and Wolfe does yeoman’s work raising these issues.

The Bad

One of the beefs I have with Reason’s video is there is simply no balance to it.

RFK Jr.’s vociferous opposition to the war in Ukraine—the most important issue of our time—is not even mentioned. (The closest we get is the admission that he is “staunchly antiwar.”)

Nor is his position on the Federal Reserve. Kennedy sounds almost like Ron Paul when he talks about the dangers of fiat money, pointing out that both major political parties are addicted to printing greenbacks, which he calls “a gift to the rich and a bane on the middle and lower classes.”

He has vowed to pardon Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, men who have been persecuted by the state and vilified by the media for exposing the government’s atrocities and illegal programs.

And then there’s the CIA. Echoing his uncle, RFK Jr. says he wants to take the CIA and “shatter it into a thousand pieces and scatter it into the winds.”

You can agree with these positions or disagree with them, but these are important issues—especially to libertarians. But we hear virtually nothing about them in this video—except when Wolfe mocks RFK’s distaste of the CIA, comparing him to Alex Jones for his “dramatized concept of the deep state.”

This is a cheap shot against a man whose father and uncle were killed by assassins. It’s also naïve. Has Wolfe actually looked at the history of the CIA? Is she aware other world leaders, including France’s Charles de Gaule who barely survived his own assassination attempt, believed JFK was killed by US security forces? Is she aware that the CIA habitually attempted to kill world leaders who were problematic to their agendas, sometimes successfully (Congo’s president Patrice Lumumba) others times unsuccessfully (Castro in Cuba)? Is she aware that to this day the CIA refuses to release all the documents related to JFK’s death?

This is proof of nothing. But it’s clear evidence that the CIA is hiding something.

“The only thing you can conclude, if you’re hiding something for so long in defiance of the law, is you have something to hide,” Jefferson Morley, a former Washington Post reporter and JFK historian, told NBC’s Chuck Todd earlier this year.

For Wolfe, apparently there’s nothing to see here. And if you believe otherwise, you are Alex Jones.

Wolfe also makes claims that are simply unsupported. She accuses Kennedy of favoring “massive wealth redistribution,” but the only evidence offered is a clip in which RFK Jr. says he doesn’t think “huge disparities in wealth are healthy for our country or for our democracy.”

That’s not the same thing as favoring “massive wealth redistribution,” so I decided to go back and look at an interview where Kennedy was asked about Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax, which was the subject of the interview Reason cited.

Frankly, it wouldn’t have surprised me if Kennedy did favor a massive redistribution scheme, but what I found was something else—RFK saying he disagreed with Bernie Sanders about billionaires and that historically tax rates in America had been too high.

“I don’t think we should ban billionaires,” he said. “When my uncle became president, there was a 90% tax on the wealthy in this country…Is that too much? Yeah, that’s probably too much. You need to incentivize people to work hard, smart people to make money.”

I’m not saying this is the stuff of Milton Friedman, but it’s hardly a message of “massive wealth redistribution.” More importantly, if you’re going to claim something, provide evidence supporting the claim.

Which brings me to a problem with Reason’s editorial: There’s an unmistakable personal feel to it. It’s like they attempted to shoehorn as many criticisms against him as they could come up with, regardless of how accurate they are or petty—like when Wolfe dismisses RFK Jr. as a “a widely ignored crackpot environmental lawyer.”

It’s not just that the video is heavy on editorializing and thin on substance. At times the charges are almost contradictory.

“He’s actually not a persecuted truth-teller,” Wolfe says of Kennedy.

The very next sentence, however, we learn that at least part of this sentence isn’t entirely true. RFK Jr. is in a sense being persecuted, she concedes, given that hosts who interview him (Joe Rogan) are attacked for “platforming” him, and YouTube is removing from its platform interviews that Kennedy does with journalists. 

For Wolfe, the censoring of a presidential candidate is unfortunate, but not for the reasons most would cite. RFK’s persecution feeds “the myth” that he is being persecuted.

This is Kafkian logic, frankly. But lost in this logic is the reason RFK Jr. is being marginalized and censored by Big Tech (who, as Reason knows, is thoroughly enwrapped in the tentacles of Big Government). As Glenn Greenwald observed following YouTube’s decision to banish RFK Jr.’s discussion with Jordan Peterson, the actions are not merely dangerous and authoritarian. They are targeted.

“This kind of policing of our political discourse by corporate giants should be shocking but is now normalized,” he wrote. “It’s clear who is — and isn’t — a threat to establishment power.”

Wolfe claims that RFJ Jr. is “fundamentally a big government liberal,” but this overlooks that he’s running an anti-establishment campaign that is challenging the status quo in Washington, D.C. — taking on the Pentagon, the National Security State, the Federal Reserve, and government-privileged special interests like Big Pharma.

The average person watching Reason’s video would not be informed of any of this.

The Ugly

Wolfe’s video isn’t long; it’s about ten minutes. But the subject that dominates is vaccines.

The video opens with statistics from a shadowy group called the Children’s Health Defense, which warns of “the possible dangers of vaccines” and whose website traffic “went wild” during the pandemic, increasing from 119,000 views a month to some 5 million.

“When Covid happened, public skepticism of the medical establishment exploded,” she explains, adding that the man behind the group is none other than RFK Jr.

Oddly, Wolfe makes it sound as if the decline in public faith in the medical establishment is a bad thing, but there’s an obvious if unstated reason public skepticism “exploded” during the pandemic. Government officials around the world had implemented the most expansive and severe set of “public health” orders in human history. Businesses were locked down. Parks were closed. Americans were confined indoors. People were arrested for leaving their homes. Mothers were body-slammed by police for the crime of walking without a mask on. People were ordered to take the government’s vaccine. By the order of the federal government, hundreds of thousands of people who declined were fired.

None of this makes it into Wolfe’s video. Instead, she focuses on RFK Jr.’s history of being “obsessed” with vaccines.

This is where things get ugly. Wolfe is not wrong that RFK Jr. has a history of “wildly [extrapolating] from little grains of truth.” This includes claims that the surge in the prevalence in medical issues witnessed in recent decades—everything from ADHD to peanut allergies to asthma and beyond—stems from vaccines.

But correlation doesn’t equal causation. And as Carl Sagan once noted, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This is something RFK Jr. has failed to produce, Wolfe correctly notes, and it seems to be the primary grievance against the presidential contender.

“His organization, Children’s Health Defense, gives opponents of vaccine mandates and government overreach a bad name by lumping us together with anti-vaxxers,” Wolfe says.

There’s some truth to this claim. How many Americans found themselves labeled “anti-vax” during the pandemic because they opposed mandating vaccination? (Count me in this group. I was routinely called “anti-vax” despite the fact that all my children received the standard vaccinations and my wife received a Covid vaccine on my recommendation after I got pretty ill from Covid-19 in early 2021.)

RFK Jr. is one of the people routinely labeled “anti-vax,” even though he maintains he’s no such thing. But is he?

I would have called RFK Jr. an anti-vaxxer myself a year ago, and I would have been partly right and partly wrong. Kennedy is clearly more vaccine hesitant than your average American, but a careful review of his speeches and interviews reveal that Kennedy 1) opposes vaccine mandates; 2) recognizes that vaccines cause injuries and come with tradeoffs; 3) believes the system for approving vaccines is fundamentally broken.

While some of RFK Jr.s previous claims about vaccines may well be wrong, none of these positions are crazy.

Indeed, Reason concedes (or at least they did in 2014) that the science of vaccines is complicated and that the ethics of government-mandated vaccination is even more so, noting that “few issues divide libertarians so emphatically as government-mandated vaccinations against communicable diseases.”

The reason for this is obvious. Vaccines save lives, but they can also claim lives. (I refuse to cite how many injuries are caused by vaccines each year, because fact-checkers routinely attack any statistics from the government’s Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System because it is “unverified,” which makes me question the point of even collecting the data.)

The CDC admits that all vaccines come with potential injuries, which vary from person-to-person and vaccine-to-vaccine. Side effects can be small (vomiting and/or fever, as is sometimes the case with the flu vaccine), serious (organ failure or inflammation of the brain: yellow fever), or fatal. Despite these injuries, humanity has pursued vaccines because they have helped eradicate or nearly-eradicate serious diseases, including Polio, smallpox, and cholera.

For most of US history, Americans didn’t didn’t do a lot of kicking and screaming over vaccines (though legal disputes over coerced vaccination go back to at least the early 19th century). But vaccines have become a bigger issue (and a bigger business) as the number of vaccines kids are required to take keeps growing, and includes relatively minor diseases.

Precisely how fast the list of required vaccines has grown is a matter of dispute.

Wolfe mocks Kennedy for playing “fast and loose” with the facts when he claims that he received three vaccines as a child and his own kids got upwards of seventy doses (delivered in sixteen vaccines). Wolfe contends it’s actually “about thirty doses.” But Sandy Reider, a primary care practitioner from Vermont who graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1971, cites figures almost identical to Kennedy’s … in Reason!

“The number of vaccines given to children has increased significantly over the last 70 years, from four antigens in about five or six injections in 1949 to as many as 71 vaccine antigens in 53 injections by age 18 today (the number varies slightly from state to state). This includes four vaccines given in two shots to pregnant women (and thus the developing fetus) and 48 vaccine antigens given in 34 injections from birth to age six.” (emphasis added)

Perhaps Reason was also playing fast and loose with the facts, but a likelier explanation is that Wolfe is simply citing a different source that is using a different methodology to determine what the “typical” child receives.

Whatever the case, Reider noted the tendency of “lumping skeptical parents with the crazies” is a way of avoiding legitimate questions on the ethics of coerced and coaxed vaccination.

“Should tetanus vaccination be required for entrance to school, given that tetanus is not a communicable disease? Why should hepatitis B immunization be required for school entrance, when the disease is found primarily among adult drug users and sex workers? Do we need to keep immunizing against diseases, such as chickenpox, that are almost always mild?”

Reider’s mention of chickenpox is noteworthy because one of RFK Jr.’s favorite lines is to point out that “vaccines are immune from pre-licensing safety testing,” and he contends that chickenpox is a great example of the risks of not doing so.

Kennedy says there’s clear evidence that the chickenpox vaccine immunizes against chickenpox—and increases the risk of shingles outbreaks later in life, which is why the United Kingdom does not have it as part of its routine childhood immunization schedule.

I was skeptical of this claim, so I went to the website of the National Health Service. Sure enough, in addition to other concerns, the NHS notes that “routine vaccination of children against chickenpox could also result in a significant increase in cases of shingles in adults.”

Who is right? RFK and the NHS? Or the CDC, which denies the risk of shingles goes up after taking the vaccine. I have no idea. But that’s not the right question.

“The most basic question is not what is best, but who shall decide what is best,” the economist Thomas Sowell has observed.

This is the problem. Government increasingly wants to decide for individuals what is best, and they’re working hand-in-hand with drug companies as they do it. Which brings me to my last point: the vaccine market is broken.

Wolfe seems to herself acknowledge that this system is broken, but she accuses RFK Jr. of “fear-mongering” when he said, during his interview with Gillespie, that he has no intention of making it “easier to get drugs to market.”

“The Food and Drug Administration is, if anything, overly-cautious with vaccine testing,” she notes. “Bringing a vaccine to market generally takes ten-to-fifteen years and costs several billion dollars.”

On its face, Wolfe’s comment seems spot on. I’ve long supported the view that the Covid-19 vaccine should have been available much sooner; the reason it wasn’t is that the FDA prohibited challenge trials that would have allowed volunteers to take the vaccine and expose themselves to the virus, which would have made the vaccine available much sooner. The FDA is all-too-often a roadblock that prevents Americans from accessing life-saving medicines, and slashing the labyrinth of bureaucratic red tape it takes to bring products to market is generally sound advice.

The problem is that vaccines are not operating in a normal marketplace in several ways.

First, as noted above, in many cases Big Government and Big Pharma collude to use the state’s monopoly on force to coax and coerce people into taking products they may not need or want.

One needn’t have a PhD in economics to see the dangerous incentive structure here, but Wolfe seems nonplussed. In fact, she chides RFK Jr. for implying that these power-brokers are “puppet-masters pulling the strings of major institutions…corrupt at best, evil at worst.”

This view is naive, but it’s of less concern than Wolfe’s far larger omission. Her view that the FDA simply needs to allow more vaccines to market overlooks another key way vaccines don’t operate in a real market.

In the real world, if someone consumes your product and it kills or injures them, they face consequences, including liability. This is not the case with vaccines. Once again, I’ll go back to Reason’s own reporting:

**In 1986 the National Vaccine Injury Act was passed, prohibiting individuals who feel they have been harmed by a vaccine from taking vaccine manufacturers, health agencies, or health care workers to court. At the time, vaccine producers were threatening to curtail or discontinue production because of the mounting number of lawsuits claiming injury to children, mostly relating to immunization against diphtheria. Once relieved of all liability, pharmaceutical corporations began rapidly increasing the number of vaccinations brought to market.

In short, the federal government protects vaccine manufacturers with liability shields. This protects them from paying restitution if their product kills or injures someone.

For consumers, this is a raw deal. But it’s great for vaccine manufacturers, and it’s this law that kicked off “the Vaccine Gold Rush,” which saw a massive proliferation of vaccinations.

Again, it doesn’t take a PhD in economics to understand the incentives liability shields create, which includes vaccine developers bringing to market riskier immunizations they might otherwise avoid if they were held liable for injuries.

Wolfe mocks RFK Jr. for saying he wouldn’t bring more vaccines to market, but he seems to have a firmer grasp than she does of a basic economic truth.

“Every economist should understand that you can’t have a market if there’s no liability,” one economist tells me.

Wolfe isn’t an economist, and that’s okay. But she is a journalist, and her failure to even mention liability shields in a libertarian story on vaccines is an egregious omission.

The Bottom Line

If Reason’s goal was to make the case that RFK Jr. is just as unfit to be president as everyone else in the 2024 race, I’m sympathetic to that goal. I don’t believe in political saviors, and this would be true even if we had a crop of candidates that didn’t consist largely of sociopaths, authoritarians, liars, fools, quacks, and narcissists. (I’m of the mind that George Washington himself couldn’t fix the problems facing the United States of America.)

So if Wolfe was tasked with the role of prosecutor to show RFK Jr. is unfit to serve in the land’s highest office, her approach was somewhat commendable. After all, there’s no need for the prosecutor to present exculpatory evidence at a trial—that’s the job of the defense.

But journalists aren’t prosecutors. It’s our job to give the full picture; to capture the nuance and explore the gray areas. This is how we shed light and offer understanding.

Politics, of course, is not interested in shedding light or offering understanding. It’s about taking people out, crushing enemies, and winning—which is why so many libertarians loathe politics. (We all know libertarians hate winning.) In her piece, Wolfe fell into the trap of politics.

RFK Jr. has said crazy things. He is not a political savior. He’s not even a libertarian. But the ideas he’s advancing and the causes he’s championing deserved better treatment than they received in Liz Wolfe’s editorial.

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