Nicholas Sarwark was elected chair of the Libertarian National Committee — the central governance body of the Libertarian Party, America’s third-largest political party — in 2014. He graduated from Washington Adventist University (then Columbia Union College) in 1998 with a BS in computer science and a minor in philosophy, going on to earn a JD from American University’s Washington College of Law, cum laude, in 2008.
Born in Phoenix in 1979, Sarwark has been an active Libertarian since 1999 and has also served on the Judicial and Bylaws committees of the national party, as chair of the Libertarian Party of Maryland, and as vice chair of the Libertarian Party of Colorado. He worked as a deputy public defender in Colorado, trying multiple jury cases and arguing before the Colorado Supreme Court. He also has more than a decade of experience in computer consulting and sales. In 2014, he moved to Arizona with his wife and children to join in the operations of a family business, the oldest independent auto dealership in Phoenix.
Question: What attracted you to Washington Adventist University? How did you decide to enroll there?
Answer: I started college very young (well before I was 18), and, after a couple of years getting prerequisites done at a local community college, I wanted to go away to school. My parents agreed, but on the condition that I would be at a smaller school with a good value system, rather than a large state school. My mother’s cousin lived in Columbia, Maryland, at the time, so I had family to visit on the weekends and during breaks.
Question: You worked for ADRA in Albania and Kosovo. What prompted you to do so? What was the experience like? What did you learn about economic development? About war?
Answer: One of my friends from school, Mitch Scoggins, had done relief work for ADRA in Africa prior to attending WAU (then CUC). When the conflict in Kosovo broke out, ADRA asked him to go to manage a refugee camp in the north of Albania. We were talking a few days before he was scheduled to leave and he suggested that it was a valuable experience and that I should apply. He was kind enough to drop my resume and a good word off at ADRA headquarters before leaving the country and I got an interview a few weeks later.
Working with ADRA and the people who choose to travel around the world to help those in need was a great experience. People from all sorts of backgrounds coming together to feed people is really quite amazing. On the flip side, working for a large bureaucracy (ADRA) working as an implementing partner for an even larger bureaucracy (the World Food Program) leads to some frustration.
Directly distributing the food aid — be it produce, sacks of grain, or oil and sugar — was a quick fix to the problem of hungry refugees, but it didn’t address long-term economic development.
After spending time in Kosovo as well, assisting in some of the development (as opposed to relief) work, I came back skeptical that economic development can be effectively done through charitable giving. My observations were that when people saw something as a free handout, they didn’t value it as much as, say, the baker I bought bread from in the mornings who had scrimped and saved to open his own modest shop.
As for war, I already agreed with Smedley Butler that “war is a racket,” but seeing the destruction brought to Albania and Kosovo both by the warring sides there and through the use of American bombs further solidified my view that war doesn’t decide who is right, only who is left.
Part of the reason I applied to work with ADRA was that I had been very vocal trying to convince my representatives not to go to war in Kosovo, and when that failed, I wanted to do something that could have a positive effect. Feeding refugees without questioning which side they were on in the conflict seemed to be an unalloyed good.
Question: When did you join the Libertarian Party? And why?
Answer: I was first exposed to the Libertarian Party when I was 10 or 12, attending Maricopa County Libertarian Party meetings here in Phoenix with my father. You could say I was raised libertarian. When I graduated from WAU in 1998, I got involved with the Libertarian Party of Maryland and later ended up state chair.
Libertarianism just makes sense to me. Forcing other people to do what you think they should do is both terribly arrogant (what if you’re wrong about the right thing to do?) and ineffective in the long term (think of small children who only do what they’re told under the threat of punishment). If you can persuade people of the right thing to do, they will internalize and embrace it and nobody has to be forced. It’s a longer process, but it recognizes that other people have a right to make their own choices.
Question: So much attention is focused on the two major political parties in the US. Why should anyone be interested in “America’s third-largest political party”?
Answer: The two old political parties have been around for over 100 years, so I guess there’s a longevity there. However, they aren’t serious about actually dealing with America’s problems. Neither old party has a plan for how to get our government to stop spending our grandchildren into bankruptcy, they only have different arguments for what government programs the national debt should be used to pay for. Neither old party wants to let you make your own life choices; they just have different areas of focus for which aspects of your life they want to control.
The Libertarian Party is the only political party fundamentally committed to human freedom. We believe that Americans should be treated like adults and allowed to make their own choices about how to live their lives as long as they don’t hurt anyone else. There are two old parties committed to coming up with rules and laws to tell you how you can live your life; there’s only one party committed to empowering you to pursue your happiness however you see fit as long as you don’t hurt anyone.
Question: What are the biggest issues facing Americans today? What are the key elements of the Libertarian Party’s response?
Answer: The biggest issues facing America today are the expansion of government into so many areas of our lives and at a cost that is so far outside of our means that we’re indebting our grandchildren in order to have them inherit a less free society than their parents and grandparents grew up in. Going deeper in debt to pursue a failed war on drugs or a militaristic foreign policy is a fundamentally broken strategy.
At the core, human freedom and government control are opposites. You cannot have more government control without less human freedom, and you can’t have more human freedom without less government control. The Libertarian Party’s response is to cut back government control to allow human beings more freedom to pursue their happiness. Not only is it the right thing to do, it also costs less tax dollars.
Question: Should Seventh-day Adventists find the Libertarian Party appealing? Why?
Answer: I know many Seventh-day Adventists who are active within the Libertarian Party. If you look at the history of Seventh-day Adventism, the founders were deeply skeptical of a government using policy to enforce Sunday laws for the benefit of the dominant Christian sects or to push unhealthy diets for the interests of big business. There is also a long history of principled pacifism and conscientious objection that dovetails nicely with the Libertarian Party’s foreign policy.
Question: Some Adventists would be uncomfortable with libertarianism as a political position because they think it implies support for libertinism. How would you respond?
Answer: There is a difference between allowing other adults to make libertine choices in their own lives and support for libertinism as a good. As a former public defender, I’ve met many clients whose lives were ravaged by drugs like methamphetamine. However, being locked in a cage and dragged through the criminal justice system didn’t improve their situation in any way and to me seemed like it compounded the punishment and pain of drug addiction in the first place.
Adults with free will need to be allowed to freedom to make bad choices in their own lives in order to have the opportunity to make good choices. When I was at WAU (then CUC), attendance at some worship services was mandatory. What people took away from those services varied greatly between those students who were there because they had to be and those students who were there because they wanted to be. It’s the same with the choice to live a moral life of service. I have embraced the motto of my alma mater and the principles of the “Gateway to Service” — not because I am required to, but because I chose to.
Question: Others would be doubtful about libertarianism because they believe Christianity means a commitment to social justice they think is inconsistent with the libertarian philosophy. Do you think they’re right?
Answer: There is nothing within libertarianism that is incompatible with a commitment to social justice; the only thing libertarianism doesn’t allow is forcing others to share your commitment through government force. Jesus called his followers to go out and live their witness, not to force others to do so.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church does wonderful work to help the poor and underserved, funded through the voluntary tithe of the members. No matter how good the work is, forcing non-Adventists to tithe to the Adventist Church would be immoral and wrong. One can’t achieve justice through injustice.
Libertarians are also convinced that, without government interference with the market — propping up well-connected businesses that are “too big to fail” and creating barriers to entry that stifle innovation — productivity would be a lot greater, and people who wanted to support charitable causes like poverty relief would have a lot more resources with which to do so.
But Libertarians don’t just want to rely on charitable giving to resolve the problem of poverty. Government actively creates poverty — through everything from licensing requirements, zoning regulations, land-use regulations, building codes, and other rules that make and keep people poor by raising the cost of starting and growing businesses, and also through the active theft of land and other assets, mass incarceration (in the course of the drug war), and so forth. Libertarians don’t see poverty as simply a product of accident or bad luck or personal failure; rather, government intervention in the market is a persistent driver of poverty. Getting rid of poverty-producing interventions would play a massive role in reducing the problem of poverty.
Question: Given Adventism’s traditional support for nonviolence, how should Adventists feel about the libertarian position on war and peace?
Answer: Libertarianism has a central belief that nobody has the right to initiate force against anyone else. The only justifiable use of force is in self-defense. This applies both to individuals and to countries. Libertarians oppose all wars of aggression, all wars of choice. As an example, the Libertarian Party opposed both wars in Iraq as well as the proposal to go to another war in Iraq and Syria currently being debated. The only acceptable war from a Libertarian perspective is one of actual self-defense.
Libertarians also believe in freedom of conscience. Just because one may be allowed to act in self-defense doesn’t mean that one must choose to do so. Martin Luther King was strictly non-violent, but other leaders in the civil rights struggles believed in armed self-defense. Gandhi was strictly non-violent, but others in the movement for Indian independence believed in armed self-defense. This issue of war and peace is probably the one where Adventism is most closely aligned with libertarianism.
Question: What’s it like being the chair of America’s third largest political party?
Answer: Difficult and hopeful. Difficult, because our party is smaller than the two old parties who have dominated American politics for so long. They have put up barriers to our participation in the political system, through discriminatory laws and policies to prevent challengers with fresh ideas from running for office. They have major corporations backing them and can afford lavish offices and armies of paid staff. In contrast, our party funds are focused on doing the political work to get candidates on the ballot, and service in both state and national party leadership is unpaid.
Hopeful, because the course of human history bends naturally toward freedom and more Americans are realizing every day that the old parties lie to them to get elected. When those people say, “enough is enough,” and join the Libertarian Party, we welcome them with open arms in the struggle to create a freer country for our children and grandchildren. I have three beautiful children under the age of 5: Ruth, Joel, and Ava. This job takes me away from them more often than before I was elected chair, but they are why I do it.
Remember, it was not Goliath and the multitudes who were victorious. It was David.
Gary Chartier is Professor of Law and Business Ethics and Associate Dean of the Tom and Vi Zapara School of Business at La Sierra University. He holds a PhD in Christian theology and ethics from the University of Cambridge (1991) and a JD from the University of California at Los Angeles (2001). He is the author of five books, including Radicalizing Rawls: Global Justice and the Foundations of International Law, his most recent.