In the weeks before the election, with the usual partisan hysteria becoming ever more intense, public intellectuals are ripping off the mask of principle to come out in favor of one or the other candidate. Typically, many libertarians are throwing their support behind Bush, and on the usual grounds that he is better than a hypothetical alternative.
It’s a strange argument. First, there is always a worse hypothetical alternative to even the worst hell on earth. Even in a solitary, dark, 5′x5′ prison cell there is something worse: the wardens could stop delivery of porridge once a day. But that is no argument for believing in the system, or ceasing to try to find a way out of it. To love one’s captors and appreciate their favors is a psychosis, but one that gains a mass following in the weeks before a presidential election.
Second, there is something gravely perverse about libertarians who arrive to convince us that the present calamity caused by the existing regime isn’t so bad after all; indeed we should support it in order to forestall a worse fate. The only result of such a position is to diminish one’s own intellectual credibility. One thinks of all the great philosophers, scientists, and artists who have thrown their support behind a terrible despot. They had a million reasons for doing so. But it always ends up diminishing them.
Third, there is no reason to believe that a Kerry victory would necessarily result in something worse than a Bush victory. One reason many supported Bush the first time was because he would supposedly stop the great catastrophe of a Gore victory. In fact, we can have no idea what Gore would have done while in office. With a Republican Congress, and a stock market deeply suspicious of an anti-industry president, it might have ended in four years of blessed gridlock instead of the wild ride of the lunatics who currently hold office.
With a track record going back some 35 years, we do know that Democrats have tended to expand the budget less, deregulate more, pass fewer new government programs, care for certain fiscal responsibilities, protect civil liberties a bit more, bring about fewer wars, avoid aggressive protectionism, and do a better job of cleaning up the public sector. Conversely, we also know that Republicans bust the budget, create new agencies, expand the federal payroll, zoom debts and deficits, start wars, and protect favored industries with trade tricks. Yes, they do cut taxes but for the same reason that Democrats try to raise the minimum wage: sops for friends.
These are generalizations, and I grant that they are counterintuitive. It seems that the parties perform largely opposite of their platforms (for more, see the research of Frankel, Westley, and Thornton), which is not to say that either party deserves support. But it does seem that we can discount extreme claims of total collapse on the occasion of a Democratic victory. In retrospect, Clinton and Carter were better for the liberties of Americans than Bush 2, Bush 1, Reagan, and Nixon.
Again, this might be due to the peculiar dynamics of American politics. It could be that the Republicans are better at playing a defensive than an offensive role. The Democrats are easier to steamroll, and so the Republicans in power are able to get away with more. Either party with full power is a terrible danger, but with two parties battling it out, we stand a greater chance of victory for the individual. Somehow the mix seems more advantageous to our long-run interests when the Democrats hold executive power and the Republicans hold legislative.
There is nothing a priori great about such arrangements. This observation comes about by observing history, and it could change. And yet there is a core rationale behind the reality that Democrats make better executives and Republicans better legislators.
The Democrats are the party of government, with the owners consisting of mostly public sector employees and their dependents. These are some of the most loathsome characters in American politics. Paradoxically, however, they have the strongest interest in keeping government functioning well, which implies balancing the budget, cleaning house, stamping out corruption, maintaining some semblance of order and peace, not doing things that utterly discredit bureaucracies, finding fixes to make things work a bit better for themselves and their friends, etc. As the most direct owners of the state, they have the strongest interest in its health and well-being.
The Republicans in contrast are the party of the private sector and the government contractors. Their primary interest is in getting their hands in the pot that belongs to the government. They are anti-government alright, so much so that they are willing to loot for themselves just about everything that is not nailed down. They arrive in town with the desire to grab as much for themselves and their friends as possible, and do it before their time is up. Remember the scenes in the first weeks after the Iraq invasion when American soldiers were stealing and abusing everything in sight? That’s Republicans when they capture the executive branch.
So a pattern has been established. The Democrats arrive with two agendas: clean up the public sector and make it work better (because they own it and they believe in it) and pass gobs of new programs. The Republicans and Wall Street (remember Clinton’s fear of the bond market?) stop them from doing the second one, so they are left with the little fixes that conform to the civics-text ideal.
Under Democrats, despite an ambitious agenda, we get a host of small fixes designed to shore up the status quo: more balanced budgets, Clinton’s welfare reform, Gore’s “Reinventing Government,” Carter’s deregulation, and the like. After this, the Republicans arrive in town and work to unbalance the budget, pass out cash to the military and corporate world, reconfigure the tax system to benefit Republican voters, and pass edicts to help old-line industrialists and banking interests.
So it goes. There is no way to know with any certainty that this is what a Kerry victory would amount to, but the historical record in the post-LBJ era would lead us to believe that the end of the world would not be nigh. The Republicans are best out of power. That’s when they put on their libertarian cloak and strut around like principled Jeffersonians. Actually, it’s a sickening sight, but not as bad as Republicans exercising power and pretending as if they alone stand between us and total calamity.
Finally there is the fear of bad judges. Actually, Republican judges can be as bad as Democratic ones. In the last several years, with many cases of federal and civil liberties on the docket, the Democrat-appointed judges have been better on libertarian issues than the Republican-appointed ones. This whole Supreme Court bogey, dragged out by GOP consultants just before every election, is just a shameless attempt to manipulate the gullible.
Many bad things would happen under a President Kerry. But many horrible things have happened under the Bush presidency. This is a regime that has exploded government power at a pace I hoped we would never see again. Just once I would like to see one of the Bush supporters write something like:
It is true that he has expanded the budget at twice the rate of Clinton, that he has created the largest and most powerful new federal bureaucracy since the WW2, that he has imposed costly protectionist legislation, that he keeps prisoners of war in violation of international law, that he lied about Iraq, that he is personally responsible for the deaths of 1,100 US soldiers, and 15,000+ Iraqi civilians, that his war has inspired terrorism around the world, and that another four years of this can only mean more loss of liberty and more bloodshed. And yet, I support his reelection for fear of Kerry.
But the Bush supporters don’t say that. Instead they liken him to God. They consider him savior. They trust him with leadership. They really credit him with securing the country. They say that he is ruling in the name of liberty. It is remarkable, even demonic. The Bush regime isn’t just a group of leaders vying for our affections. It is the world’s leading example of the cult of power itself. Kerry may be dangerous but he heads no cult and commands no army of deluded religious fanatics willing to celebrate him as he leads the country into a totalitarian hell of endless war and central administration.
Nonetheless, this is not an endorsement. It is an anti-endorsement. Until the day of real freedom arrives, we need both parties so that they might fight among themselves. Better that they point their guns at each other than at us.