Eric Cooper is the Libertarian Party’s candidate for governor in Iowa’s November 2 election.
Could you tell the readers of the Progressive a little about your background?
I was born in Iowa City, but I actually grew up in Topeka, Kansas. And I came to Ames when I got the job at Iowa State as associate professor of neuroscience and psychology here. I’ve been a member of the Libertarian Party since I was in high school. I wasn’t very active. Then I had somebody approach me in 1997, asking if I would be willing to be the faculty adviser for the Libertarians group. So I’ve been doing that for 13 years. That got me going to the state conventions and things. In 2000, I decided to start running myself. I’ve run five times for the state Legislature from Ames. And I’m now the vice chairman of the Libertarian Party of Iowa.
And what compels you to run for governor this time?
Well, I’d run the most of anybody in the state, and I thought it was a good opportunity for us to get major party status, which is what I’m trying to do. So I thought I might try it. Nobody else seemed to be interested and we need somebody to run for governor – otherwise we don’t have any chance for major party status.
What do you mean by “major party status”?
Under Iowa law, a party gets major party status in the state of Iowa if its governor’s candidate gets two percent, or if its presidential candidate gets two percent [of the vote] in an election. That gives you two things. Number one, you can have primaries if you want and number two, you can get a spot on the ballot – an automatic spot without having to petition to get on the ballot.
As it stands now, you’ve had to petition.
How many signatures have you collected?
I had to get 1500, from 10 different counties.
You’re actually polling around 2 percent right now. What do you project you’ll do in the future if you achieve that major party status?
I’m going to spend the next two years trying to recruit as many people as I can to run – ideally, for every partisan office in the state. I don’t think Libertarians are ever going to win a lot of elected offices, but our goal is to get 10 percent of the vote on a regular basis. That is enough to decide the election between the Republican and the Democrat almost always. What that means is major parties are going to be forced to start stealing our issues in order to poach our voters. That’s the way third parties have worked in American history. The populists in the 1890s, the socialists in the 1910s – they got everything they wanted without winning elections, but they were able to get a hardcore percentage of voters every single election. That’s what I see the future for the Libertarian Party as being.
So you want your movement to be absorbed ideologically by one of the two parties?
Which party do you believe is more willing to accommodate Libertarian positions?
You have to be in a position where either party can steal your positions. The Greens can’t do what we can do, because the only people who could steal from them would be the Democrats. But things like marijuana legalization would be a Democratic issue they could steal from us. Possibly easing the fireworks restrictions – I could see a Democrat supporting that. Getting rid of the motorcycle helmet laws and seatbelt laws, those would all be potential things that the Democrats could steal from us. So I want to be in a position where either party can steal from us. I’m willing to throw my support behind either one. I’m no more likely to vote Democrat than Republican if there’s not a Libertarian on the ballot, and a lot of Libertarians are like that.
Why did you choose Nick Weltha as your running mate?
I’ve known Nick for a long time, and he was the vice chairman of the Libertarian Party [of Iowa]. He’s easy to get along with, he has a big SUV to carry around our stuff in, and he’s single, so we can take off work and go campaigning together.
What has your campaign strategy been thus far?
We’re trying to hit the twelve largest cities in the state, so we try to give a speech in every town and invite the press to the speech. We’re trying to use the trips to generate some free publicity and to meet Libertarians around the state. I got a lot of people interested in becoming more involved in the party by going around the state as well. There are some cities where we have almost no Libertarians, like Dubuque and Sioux City.
How much are you spending on campaign materials?
Very little. Some of it I had from past campaigns. I think our total fundraising is certainly less than $3000. By definition, we are not a product of big money. We can only be a product of small money.
Who have your donors been?
Libertarians around the state and also out of state. The national party targeted our race as one they were particularly interested in for a couple of reasons. First, the bar is so low here to get major party status. It’s only 2 percent [of the vote], which is pretty low as states go. Second, Iowa’s the caucus state, so they decided that getting ballot status in Iowa and New Hampshire might be good for us – the idea being in the next Republican election, they might have to kiss our ass to get the support of Libertarians.
Have you used any of your own money?
Oh, God yes. I teach summer classes, and I use pretty much all that money, one way or another. Some of it would not be legitimate campaign expenses, but it is a campaign expense. For example, I lost a lot of weight and I had to buy new clothes. It’s a personal expenditure, but one that I wouldn’t have made if not for the election. Then I contributed half of what I earned this summer to the campaign. I use my own money a lot.
Do you have any volunteers?
We do. Jacob Saltzman is a student at ISU who got our signatures for the ballot petition. Laura Bosworth – I went to Iowa City and Cedar Rapids with her. They’re my main two right now. I have co-coordinators in every town that are Libertarians and they get a room for us to speak in and promote the talk before we come.
How many coordinators are there? Just 12?
Yeah, 12. Although sometimes duties are shared, so maybe 12 to 14.
How do you juggle the obligations of your day job and this campaign?
It’s hell. I don’t get much sleep every night. I scheduled all my classes on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, to allow me to campaign on the weekends. Of course, I have to work 14 hours a day on those days, and usually if I happen to be home on the weekends I have to go in then. It has not been a fun time trying to do that. People think that most candidates campaign full time…. It’s only Branstad and Culver – people with millions of dollars in their campaign chests – who can afford to do that.
It looks as though Terry Branstad has a commanding lead in the polls, and it’s looked that way for the past year. Is there anything you look forward to about his governorship, if it comes to pass?
There are some things where Governor Branstad and I agree. We both want to make this state more conducive to business. Federal and property taxes and corporate income tax, he doesn’t like and I don’t like. So it could be worse. It could be that Socialist Workers guy [Socialist Workers Party candidate David Rosenfeld]. He’d be worse.
What about Governor Culver? Are there any areas of overlap between your platform and his?
There’re not that many. Governor Culver, every time he’s had a choice between doing the fiscally responsible thing and doing the politically expedient thing, he’s always chosen the politically expedient thing. I feel sorry for the poor guy, he’s obviously under a lot of stress. Right offhand, I wouldn’t say there are a lot of points of agreement between me and Governor Culver. He’s against gun control, and I’m for him on that. And gay marriage we’re together on too.
Do you think the woes that have befallen his administration are his fault or the result of circumstances outside of his control?
I think they’re his fault. If you look at the examples, we had those budget cuts. He decided to do an across-the-board [cut] rather than call the Legislature back into session. Well, that’s stupid. In times of crisis, salary-driven elements of the government are going to be hurt a lot more by a 10 percent cut than something like roads, so it’s silly to do an across-the-board cut to everybody.
If you were in his position, you would have cut quite a bit of funding and staff as well, wouldn’t you?
Yeah, but I would have called the Legislature back into session and let them make the cuts.
Assuming you could get cooperation from them…
I think it should have been a decision on the part of the Legislature and not the government. I thought it was hubris on his part to say, “I’m going to make this decision for everybody.” But I’m not in this to say nasty things about Governor Culver and Governor Branstad. I don’t agree with either of them a whole lot. I’m in this to get two percent [of the vote].
You advocate giving subsidies to people for education, rather than funding schools directly. How would you ensure that the money is spent on education rather than something else?
What you do is you designate a specific institution and the government sends the money to that institution.
But wouldn’t you be apportioning money on a per-student basis, rather than giving it to institutions?
The student would decide where they want to go. I mean, I guess if it was home school [the check] would be mailed to the parents. That would be true. But if it’s actually a school school than the check would just get sent to the school.
I don’t know. I’m a little wary of human nature in this situation, and I’m wondering if parents might try to defraud the system by claiming they wanted to home school their children and then just taking the subsidy.
Well, right now [students] are being homeschooled without any money, so it’s no different than that situation now.
You’re a very outspoken opponent of the smoking ban. What do you make of the argument that state employees’ health care costs and the loss of productivity due to illness would be lessened by it?
Well, I would say no. If we really wanted to save money, we would get everyone to smoke, because people who smoke die young. They don’t collect Social Security for years and then die of something else. Everybody’s got to die of something, right? And to that extent, when you die you’re going to incur a lot of medical costs. But the idea, if we take this to its logical conclusion, is healthy people are costing us more than the fat people and the smokers, because they take Social Security for years and then they die of something at the end. So what we ought to be doing is encouraging people to smoke – subsidizing it. We ought to tax the hell out of health clubs and vegetables. It’s the end of a free society when the government says, “Well, you can’t do this because it would cost us tax money.”
Would you remove the taxes on cigarettes that are imposed by the state now?
On your campaign website, you warn against a “tyranny of the majority” – the majority of citizens imposing their will on everyone through the government. But how can you expect to maintain power in a representative democracy unless you accommodate the will of the majority?
The government is supposed to do four things, and nothing beyond those four things. Those are protecting people from body crimes [such as murder, assault and rape]; protecting people from property crimes; enforcing the terms of contracts; and providing public goods. And no matter how much the majority would like it to build amusement parks or whatever, it doesn’t have the power to do that.
But the history of American politics shows that voters have demanded those things that you call superfluous, like expanding health care coverage, entitlements, public education –
Well, everybody would like somebody else to pay for what they want, but that’s not the way it works. Government isn’t the best way of doing that. Now, if you wanted to do that, there are charities for doing that – Shriner’s Hospitals and things like that. That’s the way to handle it.
You would have to dismantle quite a few state institutions and cut staff significantly to achieve your vision of government. Do you have a specific target in your platform for cuts to the state workforce or state spending?
Well, I think for most of the United States’ history, government at all levels didn’t consume more than 8 percent of GDP. The price of everything else has pretty much gone down. I would say there’s no reason for the government to be consuming more than 8 percent of GDP during peacetime. There’s probably a good argument that it should consume less, given that things tend to get cheaper over time.
What kind of general tax cuts would you pursue if you were governor?
Libertarians always want taxes that don’t distort the market. All taxes distort the market some, but some more than others. I like sales tax most of all, with food, clothing, and shelter exempted. And then, if that’s not sufficient, I’d like a flat income tax, just like they have in Hong Kong. What we don’t like is property tax and graduated income tax…. I like the flat tax because to me that’s what “fair” is. Some people have more ability to produce than others. I realize that. So everybody should be contributing the same percentage of their time to the government. If you’re a rich person, it’s going to be 15 percent. If you’re a poor person, it’s going to be 15 percent…. I think it sets up very bad incentives in a democracy to say you’re going to tax some people more than others.
Do you think religious institutions should be tax-exempt?
Again, that would be a matter for the Legislature. I don’t think they should be exempted. I’ve never quite understood that. Honestly, I’d just like people to pay taxes, not institutions generally. Institutions should pay them when they buy something, [as in the case of] sales tax, but I’d just like to see the government funded by taxes on individuals.
You favor lifting the total prohibition on marijuana in the state of Iowa. If you became governor, would you be willing to defy federal laws to do that?
I wouldn’t make the state defy it. We don’t have to have a law in the state prohibiting marijuana. If the feds still do, state government doesn’t have any say over that. I don’t have any power over that. But I would encourage the Legislature – and I do realize it’s the Legislature that has to do these things – to legalize marijuana in the state.
You advocate the abolition of the minimum wage. That would put you in conflict with the federal government yet again. What actions would you take to enact that policy on a state level?
I could encourage the Legislature to lower the state minimum wage, although you’re right – since it’s lower than the federal [minimum wage] it wouldn’t do much right now. Of course, I could use the “bully pulpit” of the governorship if I were governor – which I’m not going to be – to encourage the feds to lower it. But somebody needs to be talking about this. It’s crazy in a recession to place the price of labor above where the market would set it. That’s just nuts. Unemployment’s a huge problem during a recession and that just exacerbates it.
Besides alleviating unemployment, what else do you think abolishing the minimum wage would do?
It would increase wealth. There are lots of people out there who are tax takers who could be wealth creators if we limited the minimum wage. My graduate student [at Iowa State], his parents provide an example – they’re mildly retarded. Certainly their labor’s not worth $7.25 an hour, but it would be worth $5 an hour. It’s just sad. They want to work, but they can’t because of the minimum wage.
You’ve been an instrumental supporter of Ron Paul in Iowa. What do you think of his son Rand Paul’s candidacy in Kentucky?
He’s not really a Libertarian. He’s not even for medical marijuana, much less the overall legalization of marijuana, and it embarrasses me when people call him a Libertarian. I like his dad so much better than I like him. He’s just a standard Republican as far as I can tell.
If you were governor, would you support the lifting of state statutes against discrimination by private employers?
Do you think there should be any protection from discrimination for people seeking jobs?
If it’s a government job, yes. If it’s a private job, no. The government can’t discriminate among its citizens, but a private employer has as much freedom of association as a private employee or a private customer does. It’s not fair to say, “Everyone gets free association except for business owners.” The government’s a different matter. It’s providing public goods that presumably are available to everybody and as such it shouldn’t be able to discriminate. Libertarians don’t object to the part of the Civil Rights Act that says the government shouldn’t discriminate. But we do object to the parts that say private individuals can’t.
What are your views on the apportionment of disaster relief funds?
People are building in flood plains – places that get flooded all the time. I don’t get how they get to have the benefit of building there, and then when there’s a flood, “Oh yeah, the taxpayers will pick up the cost.” That’s nuts. That should be between them and their insurance companies, not them and the state government…. The Iowa taxpayer shouldn’t be on the hook. I talked to the Cedar Rapids Gazette. They just said, “Oh, yeah we should be able to rebuild as much as we want, and every time it floods you should give us the tax money to rebuild.” Are you kidding me? We need to do something here to stop this.
Are you in favor of regulated utilities?
Well, ones that are natural monopolies, yes. Roads are a very good example. A natural monopoly is something like the electric company or the cable TV company. Since there’s only one power grid and one cable, they pretty much have to be monopolies, but they can be private companies – and that’s a public good. That’s under the fourth criterion [listed on my site] for government. That’s what we ought to do for the roads. I don’t get it. That’s exactly the same problem as with electricity and cable TV. They should just be sold to a private company and operate as a public utility.
You’ve lost 144 pounds in the past eight months. Why did you see fit to mention that on your campaign website?
It draws some people to the website. It’s kind of a human-interest thing. And you’ll notice you asked about it. Reporters always ask about it. I got tons of e-mails every day saying, “How’d you lose the weight?” So I put it on the website.
Are there any issues that you’d like to bring up before we conclude the interview?
I’d really like to see the fireworks ban eased. I think the people in the state should be able to light a firecracker in their backyards to celebrate living in the land of the free. I think it’s horrible that you can’t do that. That was one of my favorite holidays when I was growing up in Kansas, because of the fireworks, and here I hate it, because it just reminds me how unfree I am.