The American Libertarian Instinct

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It’s official: every presidential candidate in the race favors shrinking government. What? You don’t believe them? You shouldn’t. But it’s a good sign that the candidates want you to believe them.

Look how Bush has clarified his message as the campaign winds down. He says he is for limited government while his opponent is for the unlimited kind. This is a long way from his approach at the beginning of his campaign, which all about how he was going to spend everyone’s money on education and medical care.

Most implausible is Al Gore’s claim that he will shrink government as president. "I don’t ever want to see another era of big government," he said. "I’m opposed to big government… I’m for a smaller, smarter government…. I don’t believe there’s a government solution to every problem. I don’t believe any government program can replace the responsibility of parents, the hard work of families, or the innovation of industry."

Here, here! Up with capitalism and down with the State! But of course, and like always, he’s lying. Indeed, both major candidates favor big and bigger government in a range of areas. But the rhetorical ploy to the contrary is itself very revealing.

For several years, we’ve been told by Official Opinion that the American people now love big government. They love spending and taxes. They love regulation and welfare. They love the American world empire that shores up big government at home.

It is not true now, and it never was true. In fact, these claims tell us more about the dreams of the writers than about the current state of American political culture. Here we are in the last days of the campaign, when the candidates are scrambling for every last vote, and what rhetoric do they invoke? The language of anti-government ideology.

This is a good indication of what the politicians and their pollsters believe is the most powerful ideological pitch to toss out to undecided voters. This language, and the political philosophy that undergirds it, continues to be the heart and soul of the American spirit. Americans have been fighting against central political control for 225 years, and the tradition continues. Socialism and political centralism have no natural constituency in the American heartland.

What’s more, most Americans love the products of capitalism, admire the men of wealth who have made it in the private sector, and feel no envy toward the rich. They believe more in themselves than in politicians. There is no search going on for another Great Man of History to rule this country. Most people have had it with this approach to politics.

Further, people are disgruntled with the products of government: the tax collectors, the regulators, the schools, the programs, and the entire decaying edifice of statism. Americans don’t like taxes, don’t like conscription, don’t like the welfare state, and aren’t too crazy about American troops floating around in the high seas of Yemen.

So when they want the American people to pay attention, those running for office attempt to tap into this strain of thinking. Actually, the same point can be made about the candidates’ tax programs. Each claims to want to cut. The competition is over who benefits the most from the tax cuts, with the reasonable assumption that voters are going flock toward the man who cuts them the most. To think that only a year ago, we were being told that Americans no longer want tax cuts!

Can we now have a hiatus on the preposterous assertions that socialist theory is now the dominant preference of the American people? No chance. The pundits who claim that we now love big government have a stake in seeing the libertarian strain in American politics banished forever. They may hate welfare but love warfare, or it could be the reverse. But the pundit class has an interest in destroying the clear ideological categories that divide the country now and always.

Also fascinating is the way foreign policy is working itself into the ideological mix ten years after the end of the Cold War. Since World War II, the positions of both parties approximated the following: the Democrats like welfare but oppose warfare; meanwhile, the Republicans oppose welfare but favor warfare. This predictable pattern always put real partisans of liberty, who opposed the entire welfare-warfare state, in a bind.

But this year, something spectacular has happened, even if it is slow in working itself out. Bush is running as the man who favors limited government at home and abroad: he has come out against nation building, called for a more humble approach to foreign policy, favored an end to some troops placements abroad, and said openly that he doesn’t think the American way of life should be imposed around the world.

He’s far from perfect, but realize that this is the way Democrats used to talk. This a dramatic turn and a departure from a decades-old political impasse. The libertarian view that the government should intervene neither at home nor aboard has at last found something of a home in the American political orthodoxy.

Meanwhile, Gore belies his new limited-government rhetoric by otherwise running as the man who favors world empire, while Buchanan and Nader implausibly attempt to link socialistic economic views with foreign-policy isolationism.

Harry Browne may not get the votes but his radical platform represents mainstream thinking far more than conventional political opinion is willing to admit. There’s still a very long way to go, but these trends are worth cheering.

After this election is over, we should reflect on the fact that the original American idea was expressed in the founding consensus: the American people will be left alone to work out their lives as they see fit, to trade amongst themselves and with the world without hindrance, and not be dragged into entangling political alliances here or abroad. It’s long past time that this consensus be reflected, not just in rhetoric, but in fact.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. He also edits a daily news site, LewRockwell.com.

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