Christina Sandefur really loves freedom and her pet parrot. She could talk for days about both.
Sandefur, the executive vice president of the libertarian think tank Goldwater Institute, has written a book about private property rights, sued the state over Medicaid expansion and drafted a law that’s now been approved in 38 states.
But the Michigan native doesn’t think the Goldwater Institute is as influential in state government as people give it credit for. And she’s not a member of any political party herself, and she’s never contributed to any campaigns.
“When I was in elementary school, my best friend and I considered ourselves to be environmentalists and would literally go out and hug trees at recess. So I guess that was my liberal period,” Sandefur said.
Do you consider yourself conservative or libertarian or neither? Have you ever been a liberal?
One interesting thing is, I’ve never been registered with a political party, and I don’t consider myself to be political, which usually shocks people. If I had to define myself, I’d say small-L libertarian, so not a member of the Libertarian Party, but I believe in protecting people’s individual rights and limited government constitutionalism. But I’m not a Republican, not a Democrat, have worked very well with both.
You wrote a book, “Cornerstone of Liberty: Property Rights in 21st Century America.” What made you decide to write it?
Property rights have always been near and dear to my heart because I think it really is the foundation of all of our other rights. If you don’t have a right to private property, then you really can’t exercise any of your other rights. For example, the right to exercise the religion of your choice – you don’t have freedom of religion if you can’t own a church or you can’t be free to worship in that church. You can’t have freedom of the press if you can’t own a printing press.
That leads into something the Goldwater Institute has been criticized for, this priority on private property rights and freedom above all else, at the expense of regulations that could protect people or preserve neighborhoods in the Airbnb case. What do you make of this criticism?
Well, if in fact the biggest criticism of the Goldwater Institute is that we put freedom above all else, then I say that’s criticism that I will take. Because I do think freedom is the most important thing, it’s absolutely essential to human dignity. But I think that it’s a misconception that freedom can’t coexist with responsible regulations.
So are there regulations that are justified? What kind of regulations are justified?
Regulations that stop people from intruding on other people’s rights are justified. So in the home-sharing context, saying that somebody shouldn’t be able to rent their home on Airbnb, that is more of a preferential regulation or an aesthetic regulation. That’s not justified. That’s somebody’s property right and they should be able to make that decision. If their neighbor doesn’t like it, unfortunately, or actually fortunately, that’s what freedom is all about. Sometimes people make decisions we don’t like, but in a free society, that’s how things go. However, when a neighbor is renting out to somebody who turns their home into a party house or is throwing trash in the street or parking in places they shouldn’t park, that is now intruding on the neighbor’s right to be free from excessive noise or free from waste in the road or free from parking violations or things like that. That’s where it makes sense of the government to come in and regulate to protect a person’s property right.
Some also criticize the role that Goldwater has at the Legislature, with the Governor’s Office, basically in state government in general. Do you think that Goldwater has an outsized influence?
I wish. I’ve heard that criticism off and on, and I wish it were true because it would make my job a lot easier. It’s true that there are legislators that share our principles or that share some of our principles, and certainly I think this governor has been very friendly to many of the types of things that we do, so he’s been very friendly to the sharing economy and to property rights and to economic liberty and to school choice. So there’s a lot of overlap there. I think that’s because the people of Arizona generally are favorable to those types of things. We fight a lot of uphill battles. Although while it’s nice to have lawmakers here that are sometimes friendly to the work that we do, there are definitely lawmakers that are not friendly to the work that we do, and we find that on both sides of the political aisle.
How does the Goldwater Institute decide what sort of issues to go after or not pursue? And do donors play a role in deciding on these issues?
They don’t, really. People donate to us because of the issues that we take on. In fact, most people in this building don’t really have any idea who our donors are. It’s always been important to the Goldwater Institute to respect donor privacy because we see that as an exercise of free speech. We make our decisions on what to pursue based on our principles and based on where we think we can make the most impact for the greatest number of people.
You work with your husband, Tim. What’s the trick to working with your spouse?
Driving separately to work and not carpooling, that’s one of the tricks. I like to tell people that we’ve done things sort of the opposite of the way kids do things these days. Most people move in and then get married. What we did is, we met working in the freedom movement, then we got married, and then we moved into the same state and the same home. And now we work at the same organization.
You have a bird. Tell me about this bird.
I have a parrot named Jackson. Jackson, if he were here, would tell you about himself because he’s quite a talker. What I love about parrots is they’re so intelligent, so smart. They can talk, they can understand concepts. When he’s hungry, he tells me. If you give him food that he likes, he says “good,” he says “thank you.” If he doesn’t like it, he says “no.” When I leave to go to work he says goodbye without me saying it first. Plus, I think it’s kind of fun to have a parrot because it’s a unique thing. Everybody’s a dog person or a cat person, and I’ve never really fit into groups very well. I’m not a Republican, I’m not a Democrat. So I think it makes perfect sense for me to be a bird person.