The following is based on a talk given to the San Diego Libertarian Party’s annual convention in La Jolla, California, on Saturday, January 24, 2009.
According to conventional wisdom, we have this month witnessed the pinnacle moment of American democracy. Inaugurations mark the peaceful transfer of power, and in the United States, the alleged apex of civilization, we are talking about the greatest amount of power ever held by one office. In particular, many see the ascension of President Obama as carrying special significance in the history of democratic institutions. At least much of this has to do with the supposedly wide ideological gulf between him and Bush on the philosophy of government.
While many conservatives decry Obama as a socialist to the left of anything we’ve seen in the presidency, the left too sees him as a refreshing and dramatic change after eight years of the right-wing horror of the Bush administration. But although many do see him as a revolutionary, liberals also claim he represents more of a return to a golden era of government and fulfillment of long-standing American promises than any sort of upset to American tradition.
Now it is true that Bush was especially terrible. It is now a good time to reflect on what a disaster his presidency has been for liberty. But we should also recognize the continuity of tyrannical government that preceded him so as to understand where we are now and assess as best we can where we might be headed under Obama.
George W. Bush rose to power, like most all presidents do, claiming he stood for change. Bill Clinton had been an unworthy leader, a big spender, an invasive and belligerent nation-builder. Bush would clean up Washington, set a new tone, cut government and taxes, defend America but avoid unnecessary foreign wars, and defend the Constitution. He would guard the First Amendment against stifling campaign finance law, and preserve the Tenth Amendment as it concerned states rights for medical marijuana. Remember that?
Instead, he doubled the national debt and deficit. His last federal budget was 60% bigger than Clinton’s last, not including hundreds of billion in off-budget items.
Bush’s domestic economic legacy has been one of the most interventionist in American history. Only presidents like FDR and LBJ compare.
Less than a decade after mainstream Republicans were talking about abolishing the Department of Education altogether, Bush began his first term invading every public school in America with his outrageous No Child Left Behind. Soon after, he gave us the Medicare prescription drug benefit, the largest expansion of the welfare state in two generations. He responded to Enron with a ratcheting up of federal regulatory power and crippled the economy with Sarbanes Oxley.
His social security privatization idea was a bad one, as it would have only prolonged the system, socialized the stock market and forced the young to invest in favored firms. The awfulness of this idea should be plenty clear by now. But thankfully he failed on this one.
He vetoed almost nothing, gave us Project Safe Neighborhoods and a record number of firearms prosecutions, cracked down on dying medical marijuana patients, signed McCain Feingold into law while conceding it was unconstitutional, responded to Katrina with deadly and obstructive central planning and martial law.
None of this includes his reaction in the last year to the financial crisis that he helped bring about with a policy of encouraging an Ownership Society by giving easy credit and inflating the housing market. In response to this crisis, he nationalized some financial institutions, gave the Fed new powers to regulate the market, and passed the largest bailouts in U.S. history. We’re looking at trillions of dollars marked for government giveaways just in the last few months.
Laughably, Bush defended his actions by essentially saying he was destroying the free market to save it. But this duplicity, of claiming to stand for free enterprise while pushing the envelope in federal expansion and corporatism was a running theme throughout his two terms.
Of course, this doesn’t even touch on the war on terror, the great defining policy of the Bush years, the area in which he did his worst in terms of government growth and power, destruction, corruption, waste, and attacks on our civil liberties. As with his economic policy, here too he eroded our rights and expanded his power in the name of freedom.
From September 11, 2001, to January 20, 2009, Bush failed to catch Osama bin Laden. But he did invade and occupy two foreign countries, the very worst thing to do to reduce the threat of terrorism. Armed with a population hysterical about national security and inspired by neoconservatives in his brain trust and perhaps some troubling religious beliefs, Bush slaughtered thousands of innocent people, men, women, and children. He spent a trillion dollars destroying cities and attempting to rebuild them through socialist central planning. He imposed foreign military dictatorship upon a people who meant America no harm. He helped set up a government with a Soviet-like Constitution ruling through Sharia Law. He unleashed atrocities against women, Christians and others who had it better off under Saddam. He subjected the Iraqis to sewage in their streets, white phosphorous attacks, disease and mass destruction. An alarming number of Iraqis have lost their homes. A million died on his watch.
After ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein he reopened his torture chambers under American management. Bush’s detention and torture policies have stained America permanently. Hundreds of immigrants were rounded up on U.S. soil after 9/11, many hundreds of foreigners have been indiscriminately captured and abused. Beyond Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are U.S. prison camps throughout our conquered territories. Many interrogation methods — waterboarding, the use of dogs and stress positions, psychological torture — were systematic with orders from the top. The Defense Department, Justice Department and White House, as well as Bush’s judicial picks, have advanced a legal argument that essentially says the president can order anyone be tortured, even to death, and it is perfectly legal. When the administration wanted to enhance interrogation even beyond what it could stomach under its direct control, it outsourced torture to regimes so brutal that we supposedly could not engage in rational diplomacy with them, but loyal enough to the U.S. war on terrorism that they could rough up detainees on its behalf.
At home and abroad, the war on terror has been the greatest friend of big government since the world wars. Bush has left behind a staggering Homeland Security bureaucracy, the horrid nationalization of airport security with the Transportation Security Administration, despotic executive control over the National Guard, and a legacy of politically manipulated color-coded terror alerts. Citizens have been imprisoned without due process, spied on in their peaceful political and religious activities, blacklisted from commercial flight, and spied on by a wholly illegal warrantless surveillance apparatus ensconced within the military. While they were claiming to be thwarting terrorist plots in the United States, the touted successes — in Lodi, California, at Fort Dix, in Miami, at the New York subway, the paintball "terrorists" in Virginia and so forth — were all hoaxes, either the products of paranoia or plans conjured up by federal informants.
Bush has left office unpopular, but it is telling to get a glimpse of how he views his own legacy. Consider his farewell address, delivered a few days before he left office.
Bush hails the "vitality of American democracy" signified by the inauguration. He quickly brings up 9/11 and credits the police state he built up with keeping us safe. He refers to Afghanistan and Iraq as successes of democratization and nation-building. He describes the war on terror as a war between civilizations and conflates the American federal government with the principle that "liberty and justice light the path to peace."
Very important here is the Orwellian way in which he co-opts libertarian rhetoric to serve the interests of the state. The U.S. nation-state is the symbol of liberty. The powers he has wielded, the most awesome powers ever wielded by a mortal man, uphold justice. And of course, war is peace.
Bush now claims that "advancing this belief [in liberty, justice and peace] is the only practical way to protect citizens." Well, surely we want a belief in freedom to spread. But the man who eight years ago criticized Al Gore’s support for Clintonian adventurism abroad really means is waging war, toppling governments and installing puppet regimes abroad is the way to advance American interests.
Bush then goes on to take credit for much good in America, and in almost every case he is referring to government programs. He says students are meeting higher standards, meaning No Child Left Behind is a success. He boasts about his Medicare prescription drug program, faith-based welfare schemes, veterans’ benefits and environmental policy.
This has been typical Republican rhetoric for a generation: Government is sometimes a problem, but it must be made bigger, only managed better, to bring us everything we need. Economic prosperity, freedom and security are ensured only through the central administration of the nation-state.
While James Madison purportedly said that if tyranny comes to America, it will come in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy — whereas the Founding Fathers all knew that government at home was a greater threat to freedom than foreign agitators — Bush, recently the head of a government a thousand times as big as George Washington’s, says the "gravest threat to our people remains another terrorist attack." For modern conservatism, national security has always been the loophole that swallowed the devotion to liberty whole.
The president who beat foreign governments into submission with draconian trade sanctions and signed the mother of all steel tariffs also dares to condemn protectionism, which he conflates with a foreign policy of not bombing foreigners into dust.
He goes on to speak about good and evil and eternal truths and liberty, our bread and butter as libertarians, but again, the man who says compromise is impossible on timeless principles is the same man who uprooted a millennium of Anglo-Saxon law because to do otherwise would have been impractical at a time of crisis.
These themes — that we are free and great because we are a democracy, that economic stability is centrally planned, that the U.S. government represents liberty, justice, peace and truth incarnate — go back not just to the beginning of Bush’s administration, but they are a bothersome current throughout American history. From the beginning, prominent Americans saw their nation as the chosen people, their government as destined to advance liberty through force, their faith in freedom and the dignity of man no less firm despite the exceptions made for those not in the establishment’s favor — whether they were American Indians, blacks, Catholics, Mexicans, Southern civilians, Chinese, Spanish, Cubans, Filipinos, Latin Americans, anarchists, war protestors, Germans, Japanese, Communists, Koreans, Vietnamese, drug users, Branch Davidians, Serbians or Muslims.
And so despite all the particular horrors of the Bush government, despite it being especially bad, one of the worst in American history, there is continuity in the Bush years from the day he was sworn in to the day he peacefully handed the throne to Obama.
Before Bush, after all, the government was incredibly big. We already had the world’s empire, the biggest military, the most prisoners, a totalitarian drug war, erosions of every word of the Bill of Rights, gun control, public education, a welfare state and very high taxes. One reason mainstream opinion has turned against Bush is by pushing things too far, he has made the U.S. government, which was despotic before he took power, actually look despotic for once. Many people, even conservatives, began to see the emperor had no clothes.
And that’s the real function of American democracy. When someone goes out of favor, whether a Truman, a Johnson, or a Bush, there is a way to save the power structure with the illusion of real change.
Carol Quigley, brilliant historian of the American establishment, mentor to Bill Clinton and many others of the power elite, summed it up best in Tragedy and Hope, a sort of open guidebook to other men of great influence. Quigley wrote:
“The argument that the two parties should represent opposed ideals and policies, one, perhaps, of the Right and the other of the Left, is a foolish idea acceptable only to the doctrinaire and academic thinkers. Instead, the two parties should be almost identical, so that the American people can ‘throw the rascals out’ at any election without leading to any profound or extreme shifts in policy.… Either party in office becomes in time corrupt, tired, unenterprising, and vigorless. Then it should be possible to replace it, every four years if necessary, by the other party, which will be none of these things but will still pursue, with new vigor, approximately the same basic policies.”
If this is the formula behind American democracy, Obama’s rise to power is indeed one of the greatest, most quintessential moments in its history. But you need not take my word for it. We have looked at the doublespeak in Bush’s last presidential speech. Let’s consider what was said in Obama’s first.
Obama’s inaugural address has already been hailed by the mainstream media as one for the history books. But how much does it differ in substance from the Bush program?
Bush emphasized how honored he was to be president, Obama says he’s humbled. They both throw a bone to the people and congratulate each other.
Like Bush, Obama says the greatness of America is rooted in a national dedication to the principles of freedom and the Constitution, but neither sees them as limits on executive and government power. Freedom and the state are not natural enemies, but two sides of the same coin. The Constitution and American democracy give legitimacy to federal power, rather than restricting it.
More examples of the continuity: Bush’s "axis of evil" has become Obama’s "far-reaching network of violence and hatred." Sounding like Bush, Obama invokes the "God-given promise that all are equal, all are free" and touts our national "confidence. . . that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny." He attributes our liberty to battles waged in Concord, Gettysburg, Normandy, and Khe Sahn and wars fought against Communism and fascism. He tips his hat to everyday Americans and says the era of partisanship is over. To sound conciliatory, he says the market’s "power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched" and promises that government programs that do not work will be shut down.
Now, of course there are rhetorical distinctions. Quigley’s whole point was that there should be. And so Obama sounds a little more collectivist on economics, a little more prudent on foreign affairs. He gives a nod to non-believers, as well as the religious. He emphasizes international socialism, rather than the national socialism of Bush. He stresses diplomacy and sounds more like a Democrat on economic questions. He is restoring confidence in the American empire and leviathan state even as he plans mostly to expand its fearsome powers and reach. Same big stick, just more soft-spoken.
But aside from this rhetorical change, what can we expect in terms of policy? For this we need to go beyond his words and look at his record and actions.
In the realm of economics, Obama sounds like a pragmatic but dedicated interventionist. There is more danger of ideologically driven and economically destructive environmental regulation. He has consistently advocated much more government involvement in health care, infrastructure and housing. His voting record has been consistently in favor of big government at home.
But what we will get will not be as out of sync with American tradition as some might think. Obama has surrounded himself with corporate elites. He wants to continue the Republican policy of massive deficit spending as an economic stimulus. So much of his economic agenda is just the logical next step after Bush.
The biggest threat to economic liberty right now is the response to the financial crisis. Last year, the establishment talked up the alleged "credit crisis" that would destroy the economy without an immediate government response of a trillion in bailouts and new nationalist powers over the financial sector. I would refer you to the economist Robert Higgs, who has shown that, far from taking a nose dive, credit simply reached a plateau late in the year. But in Washington, if you can’t keep borrowing more money than you did the week before, the sky is falling.
There is an establishment consensus for intervention, for a second New Deal. Most intellectuals are calling for one. Keynesianism dominates the political culture. It was Republicans who said deficits don’t matter and we could have expected the financial madness to take place under John McCain as well. However, maybe now, the conservatives will dissent more than they would under Republican leadership.
All of a sudden, talk radio conservatives sound as though they have been kidnapped and replaced by alien clones. They sound like they did in the 1990s, at least on economics. "Government is not the answer," they say with a straight face. I even hear them recommending their listeners read Mises, Hazlitt and Hayek!
And this speaks to the paradoxical dynamic of American politics. People expect the Republicans to cut government except in law enforcement and war, and for Democrats to expand government but coddle criminal suspects and foreign enemies. But political pressure often pushes politicians to act opposite of what is expected. So Bush got the prescription drug benefit, something Clinton would have had much trouble getting passed. Meanwhile, pressured not to look weak on terrorists, Obama might comparatively be more of a threat in terms of civil liberties and war than on economics.
Obama once railed against Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program, but then he voted to legalize it and make it far worse. He has ordered the shut-down of Guantanamo, the black sites, and torture policy, and for this he tentatively deserves credit. This is beyond mere symbolism, but short of an undoing of the Bush detention policy. Obama seems to want to create an alternate court system here at home without the constraints of due process. His Attorney General pick, Eric Holder, has a consistent history of antagonism toward the Second Amendment and the rights for the accused. His Vice President and Chief of Staff stand out as monster drug warriors even among prohibitionists. He might erode the Bill of Rights slightly more slowly than Bush did, if we’re lucky, but that is hardly a victory. We will likely remain less secure in our privacy and due process rights than we were at the end of the Clinton regime. And then there’s the fact that he and his team keep talking about national service, which could be a euphemism for federal slavery.
As for foreign policy, Obama, to his credit, was good on Iraq when it began, but he voted for war funding as Senator and picked Hillary Clinton, from whom he distinguished himself most of all in terms of good judgment in foreign affairs, to head up foreign affairs. He thinks the military needs to be bigger. His plan for withdrawal might take a year or more and he would still leave behind a military presence bigger than what the neocons said would be needed to democratize Iraq in the first place!
Obama just yesterday ordered the bombing of Pakistan, killing over a dozen people, including several children. He is a warmonger. On the war favored by both sides of the aisle, Afghanistan, Obama is more of a hawk than Bush was. The Democrats always criticized Bush for neglecting Afghanistan, but that neglect was the biggest reason that war did not become as horrible as Iraq. Many libertarians and others defended that war even as they criticized Iraq, but it was no more justified or wise and now are facing the potential of an imperial nation-building project even more futile and protracted than the one in Mesopotamia. Meanwhile, he might revive liberal interventionism in the form of humanitarian bombing and sanctions directed towards Darfur or God knows where.
I do not want to sound fatalistic. But our short-term prospects with this administration will be shaped by political reality, and our opportunities to see some liberty advance on one front or another might be where they are least expected. Since he is perceived as a liberal democrat, Obama’s statism will be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. In the name of peace and with the reputation of being softer on terrorists and criminals, Democrats have been known to wage the biggest wars and conduct the greatest invasions of our privacy and individual rights.
The reoccurring theme of conflating freedom with tyranny, justice with state power, and empire with peace and security runs through both major parties, with only a few differences in emphasis. This need to appeal to libertarian sentiment speaks well of Americans’ instincts about freedom and the limits of power. But on the other hand, politicians have exploited the confusion to their advantage, and America has never achieved its full promise as a result.
This is where libertarians come in. We don’t confuse democracy for freedom, postpartisanship for liberty, or the government for the people. We love and defend liberty — the liberty of all individuals to be free from aggression by anyone or any government at any time anywhere — as a universal principle. We believe it is wrong to initiate force against the innocent. We believe people own themselves and should not be jailed for non-crimes, conscripted for national priorities, or bombed or tortured to death in the name of peace. We know that taxation is theft and states are, in the real world, the greatest threat to a people’s freedom, not at all the source of their freedom.
It was a libertarian revolution when feudalism was overthrown and the king was no longer seen as above the law, when repressive guilds gave way to free labor markets, when the freedom of conscience was claimed by the American colonists, when primogeniture, entail and other feudal residue were banished from this land.
It was a libertarian revolution to recognize that the King of England had no more natural right to rule the American colonies than did the King of France, that people were born with the right to modify or abolish their government, that people could rise up and secede from a central state.
It was a libertarian insight that freedom in America would be forever compromised by the most fatal flaw in the Founders’ design, the protection of chattel slavery, a systematic crime against liberty that had to be opposed for America to truly be free.
It was principled libertarian thought that led brave men and women to condemn Polk as he invaded Mexico, to dissent from Lincoln’s war at a time when dissenters were jailed, to demand full rights for blacks living under the oppression of black codes and Jim Crow, to demand legal quality between the sexes, to oppose America’s war with Spain and development into an international empire. Libertarian principle guided people as they resisted Wilson’s war for the munitions and banking industries, decried the insanity of alcohol prohibition, opposed FDR’s New Deal and drive to war, and championed peace at time when there was a distinct chance of mutual nuclear annihilation in the name of fighting Communism.
In all of these depredations on liberty, those who protested were called un-American, traitors, people who hated freedom, or at best unrealistic. Most of the big losses in liberty we have suffered have come under the guise of protecting freedom and our way of life, as well as our economic and social stability. FDR’s Four Freedoms meant more economic nationalism. The war on Soviet totalitarianism made America more totalitarian by the day. Reagan campaigned on smaller government and left behind a police state and bureaucracy much bigger than he found it.
To cut through all this fog, to eschew the trappings of socialism cloaked in the language of change and hope as well as the brutality of fascism and imperialism wrapped in the banner of compassionate conservatism and wars for freedom, we as libertarians must dedicate ourselves to understanding libertarian principle. We must understand the ways the state enslaves in the name of freedom as well as security, justice and peace. We need to work to educate ourselves and others on the economics, history, philosophy and science of liberty. Embrace freedom of exchange regardless of the demands of the bailout mongers and the temptations to get to the promised land through legislation and government programs. Embrace personal freedom and defend it against any encroachment, no matter the excuse. Embrace peace even as those who live off your tax dollars try to lure you with the promise that spilling blood will make us free at last.
Some things might get a little better or worse under Obama and the Democrats, but the promise of freedom transcends party, it puts the lie to hollow rhetoric and it comes not from electoral politics or the government, but rather flourishes insofar as the state lets go, walks away and leaves us alone.
What this means is our hope cannot come from a charismatic leader with catchy slogans, but it need not die with him either. It is everywhere around us, everywhere the state does not touch it. It is enjoyed by all of us in some areas of our lives that would have been unthinkable anywhere when this country was born.
Globally, Communism and fascism have been discredited and many nations are moving toward the free market. The idea of liberty has come so far that even dictators pretend to believe in freedom, whereas even our Founding Fathers once defended slavery. To get elected, Republicans and Democrats now have to promise fidelity to the Constitution, civil liberties, respect for the market, lower taxes and individual freedom. Thanks for all your work in spreading the message.
If we continue to explain to people that liberty is the mother of civilization and all they love, if we can get through to our neighbors and communities and get them to embrace our ideals, then and only then will we see change that we can believe in. Today, no matter who is president, we must be on guard. Perhaps one day, no matter who is president, we can ignore him and live our lives in peace and freedom.