Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Tax Day -- and Bob Barr's Year

The entire libertarian/conservative 2008 dilemma, in six easily-digestible Parts (and on a decidedly different culture-war note, check out these fine photos by J.D. Weiner, whose name I misspelled in a mass-e-mail a couple months ago, of our Debate at Lolita Bar two weeks ago, on Christian rock):

Part I: Government

The image above was e-mailed by Sean Hastings, co-author of the anti-groupthink book God Wants You Dead — and it’s an apt reminder of the proper way to view government: as a predator (it is for similar reasons that I leave Scott Nybakken a voicemail every year around tax time, for about a decade and a half now, noting with alarm that the government has just stolen a whole bunch of my money — eternal vigilance…though maybe I should stop harassing him).

Why, oh why, ostensibly skeptical people — who can see ulterior motives everywhere in, say, corporate America — cannot summon the skepticism to look with equal or greater suspicion upon an entity with the power to put them in jail, dominated for a century and a half by the same two cabals, which takes over a third of the national income and constantly tells us what to do while generating endless new crusades to justify its own existence, I don’t know.

Could it be an innate longing for communal or social-democratic unity, as Charles Taylor (author of what will be my June Book Selection, Sources of the Self), argues (quite unlike his fellow McGill prof, Jacob Levy)? Could it be, as I would argue, that people are just a bunch of gullible, irrational, ignorant dumbshits afraid to make their own decisions and in love with power? These theories need not be mutually exclusive, of course, and can engage in productive dialogue with each other.

But a few of us are aware of government’s inevitably rapacious quality — each dime forcibly thrown into its maw diverted from voluntary, more-efficient uses, to what are more often than not ludicrously wasteful and pointless ones that dishonor the very cause of human life and productive action. Just as it is mysterious that so few intellectuals distrust government more than they distrust the local department store (and individual freedom would face an uphill battle even if all the intellectuals were on its side), so too is it mysterious that more reporters don’t do stories about the laughable, obscene everyday waste in government.

And I’m not talking about programs that didn’t quite yield the expected results — I’m talking about three-hour lunches at the Department of Transportation. I’m talking about staff members throughout the government who read magazines all day because no one has ever bothered to tell them what their supposed duties are. I’m talking about things like the Department of Housing and Urban Development subsidizing homes for…well-paid staff members at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. I’m talking about the military, supposedly stretched to the breaking point now, routinely burning up its allotted budget (to avoid cuts the next year) by doing things like buying entire shiploads of golfballs or flying constant helicopter flights just to burn up already-purchased fuel.

Do people like Paul Krugman who call for higher taxes — or folks at The Nation who decry every attempt at cutting the budget as evidence of heartlessness — really never encounter these stories? Am I to believe that I talk to people in government — and learn about the routine, Xerxes-like extravagance and waste — more often than the lefties do? That seems unlikely. Perhaps they just don’t care — as long as they can dream that one day people like themselves, with noble goals like theirs, will be in charge of it all (plenty of them already get subsidies from it, disturbingly used to call for still more spending, a “greedy” spiral if ever there was one).

I have an idea: Let’s abolish it, liberating untold wealth and individualized, voluntary human decision-making power.

Part II: The Damn Republicans

Like it or not, though, that requires changing the law, and that requires politicians, much as it sickens me to say so (violent revolution is only fun for about the first day, generally speaking, and much as libertarians may detest government, you can change law a lot more easily by being a legislator, judge, or lawyer than by being a columnist or jazz musician). Historically, the Republicans have been slightly more sympathetic to restraining government growth than Democrats, but that distinction plainly grows less significant each year — though never irrelevant (parties sometimes crudely approximate their stated goals, or at least have the potential to be reminded someday of their ostensible goals, so better a party purportedly opposed to government growth than one in favor of it). The question, then, unless someone has a better strategy (and I sure as hell haven’t heard one despite decades of entirely understandable libertarian dismay at Republican Party behavior), is how to drag the Republican Party into the budget-cutting and deregulating it sometimes used to claim to stand for.

And political parties understand only one thing: losing elections. But it matters who they lose to, since losers tend to imitate winners (it would be a pretty odd, lame world if that were not the case). If the Republicans lose in November 2008 and merely think that they lost to the Democrats, they will likely behave more like Democrats next time around. Ah, but if they clearly, undeniably lose because of the loss of support from libertarians and conservatives, they may very well start trying harder to behave like, and appeal to, libertarians and conservatives. I’m sure I sound too Republican to some of my libertarian friends (and too libertarian to some of my Republican friends), but I’ve said for about a decade now that the best thing libertarians can do is be a fickle protest vote — if the Republicans want us, they have to earn us, and so, much as I hate to sound cruel (I say all this for the good of humanity, as I hope is clear), it makes a great deal of sense to kick the Republicans when they’re down and kick them very, very hard if, for once, there’s a good chance they’ll notice it was libertarianism that kicked them and that they ought to offer an olive branch.

Furthermore, while I would be delighted to see people from the left defect to the libertarian banner (even slightly-confused people like Mike Gravel), I’ve long said the fusionist route of making common cause with conservatives when possible is the path of least resistance for libertarians in American politics.

So: the less libertarian the Republican candidate — and the more likely his defeat — and the more fusionist (libertarian/right) and potentially popular (by feeble minor-party standards) the Libertarian Party candidate, the more the calculus of political defection leads to the conclusion: time to smash the Republican Party in order to save it, making the biggest possible message-sending impact on media, major-party pollsters, and major-party thinking.

I don’t hate John McCain — he has some very admirable qualities, and Obama (the probable Democratic nominee) is pretty awful by my standards (like the Founders, I don’t award any points for speechmaking, which simply makes demagoguery, always a danger, that much easier). But it may be time for McCain to perform his last great service to his nation — by being the man who lost because of a massive and clearly-decisive defection of libertarians and conservatives, the principled members of his supposed constituency, to the Libertarian candidate, Bob Barr. I do not relish even having to think about this calculation (I get no glee from the thought of libertarians being “mere” spoilers the way some do), but I fear the hour is late, America is in distress, McCain gets us no significant distance toward the almost anarchist thinking now necessary to make a dent in Leviathan, and there may be more to be gained, on a purely pragmatic level (I put no great stock in mere symbolic gestures, believe me), from getting America talking about “that curious 8% of the electorate who say government is bad and cost McCain the election” than from preventing an Obama win, much as I might wish the Obama-Clinton fight would somehow end with their party ceasing to exist.

On the other hand, this whole choice would be easier if McCain were a more straightforward embodiment of Bushian errors: if he were not a budget hawk, if he favored permitting torture. In some ways, the man does repair some Bush errors and act as a living rebuke to the religious right and the neocons, simply by not clearly being one of them — but he notoriously introduces other deviations and errors (serious ones) all his own (as I noted yesterday).

Part III: Who Is Bob?

But who the heck is Bob Barr, center/left readers are probably still asking, despite all the recent media attention he’s gotten, and why would he ever make a big enough dent in McCain’s vote totals to reshape public dialogue? (I assume he’ll get the Libertarian Party nomination at their relatively early convention in Colorado, May 22-26.)

Well, Bob Barr is himself a weird mixed bag, which makes the calculations above even more complicated and anxiety-inducing. A recent convert — but seemingly a very gung-ho one (as is often the case with converts) — to libertarianism, he now has (judging by his campaign website) a four-part message (similar to that of a certain failed Republican presidential candidate who recently issued a memo praising the John Birch Society and whose book The Revolution: A Manifesto comes out on April 30): massive cuts in government spending, restoration of strict civil liberties protections, an end to unnecessary wars, and border enforcement to reduce illegal immigration.

What makes me less than 100% positive that the Barr rebellion is the right way to go this November is that I only whole-heartedly agree with the first item in that four-part agenda (not that I like civil liberties violations and unnecessary wars, you understand, but I don’t take quite the nuance-free view of those issues that some of my libertarian and leftist acquaintances do, and I would err on the side of open borders, with real security/terrorism concerns alone justifying exceptions, though I can sympathize with the strain-on-the-welfare-state argument for observing proper legal procedures in that area).

But Barr — by his own admission — isn’t going to be president anyway, so his precise positions matter only to the extent that they might muddle the message that would be seen to have “brought down the Republican Party standard-bearer, McCain.” I certainly wouldn’t want McCain and company, after a Barr-spawned defeat, merely thinking (even more than they do already) “Huh, maybe we should have done more immigrant-bashing.”

Barr does not (AS FAR AS I KNOW AS OF THIS WRITING) have any bizarre, ghostwritten racist newsletters in his past, though he undoubtedly has some militia-man fans these days given his frequent railing against the PATRIOT Act and our devolution into a police state — and he spoke to the Council of Conservative Citizens, association with which helped sink the despicable Trent Lott, but if speaking to dubious groups were sufficient reason to rule someone out of polite society, Hamas-whisperer Jimmy Carter would be universally regarded as history’s greatest monster.

Add to these concerns, though, the highly ironic and weird fact that Barr was not merely conservative back in his days in the GOP but was a chief architect of DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act), which defined marriage as male-female for federal purposes (while leaving states free to do their own thing), and, perhaps most unlibertarianly, was the man responsible for strategically defunding the counting of votes that might have legalized medical marijuana in DC — even though he now favors getting the federal government out of the Drug War and leaving the matter to the states (he avoids going so far as to say every state should legalize, but that’s OK — presidents shouldn’t be telling states what to do most of the time anyway). He also repeatedly encouraged impeachment for Bill Clinton even before the Lewinsky scandal, for good or ill (so the ultimate irony would be if he ended up putting not Obama but the Clintons in the White House), and condemned Wicca services in the military (making me wonder how my friend and fellow Phillips Foundation Fellow Catherine Sanders, who wrote a book critical of Wicca, feels about that, not to mention my neo-pagan friends who like to attend Burning Man).

Never mind the question of whether Barr’s a flawed messenger (if he’s not going to be in the Oval Office, it doesn’t much matter if he cheated on his wife and readily accepted his mate getting an abortion despite his being pro-life) — the more appropriate question is, Is Barr a clear enough message to warrant sending him at McCain?

The GOP will call him a fringe figure (and he is indeed something of a loose cannon), but then again, as Barr wisely said during an on-air argument with pro-Establishment, Reagan-praising Sean Hannity: “You know who tried to work against Ronald Reagan and convince him not to run? It was the Republican Party, Sean.”

Part IV: What Is to Be Done?

The least painful outcome for everyone, perhaps, would be for McCain to start trying very, very hard to convince us all that he will adopt a radically libertarian agenda that makes a vote for Bob Barr unnecessary. Come late May, I think McCain had better get started on that — and at this juncture in American political history, I don’t think promising some tax deductions for college tuition or cuts at the Department of Energy is going to suffice.

What we really need — though McCain can’t safely say it outright without frightening the general electorate — is to

•abolish entitlements (grandfathering in those now receiving or about to receive them)
•bring the troops home (perhaps from everywhere except Iraq, if he wants to remain there)
•sell all public land (giving preference perhaps to eco-friendly buyers)
•stop inflating the currency
•close most Cabinet agencies
•and deregulate, deregulate, deregulate (appeasing lawyers by pointing out that this may give them more to do) so people can more flexibly innovate.

And remember: Just because it sounds radical doesn’t mean there’s an alternative besides national bankruptcy.

Then, as always these days, there’s the whole question of how central the war is anyway, since that seems more and more to be libertarian politicians’ main theme, and Barr is no exception. Reason’s May cover article skewers “The Trillion-Dollar War,” with writer Veronique de Rugy, generally good with numbers, calling Iraq the second-most-expensive war in U.S. history, after WWII, hard as that is to believe (more expensive than the Civil War?). Is it reason enough to cast a Barr vote knowing it’s effectively an Obama vote? (But then, what about if it ends up being effectively a Hillary vote after all?) Do you let the more devoted welfare statists get elected just in order to cast an antiwar vote? If the answer is an easy “yes” for you, as it seems to be for ardently antiwar libertarians like Justin Raimondo (who claims the aforementioned Manifesto author tacitly supports Barr), I’d say you may be a leftist or a paleocon or just an antiwar moderate or something else, but you’re not clearly a libertarian (for what it’s worth) unless that word has lost most of its economic meaning, in which case I may have to find another label (with or without an associated movement), thank you kindly. I will say this, though: Given how appalled some libertarians are by antigay sentiment, if they can vote for the DOMA guy on antiwar grounds, I will be impressed by their commitment to the latter sentiment. Must be some left-leaning libertarians who are more torn than ever over this one, and I’d be interested to see their Responses below about their calculations.

But, hey, don’t lose sleep worrying about all about these questions — there is no correct answer. There is no correct answer.

Part V: How Would Gravel as Running Mate Affect the Calculus?

I think it is unlikely that the Libertarians will end up giving Barr, who has proven his understanding of his newly-adopted philosophy, ex-Democrat Mike Gravel as a running mate — Gravel is too focused on Naderite corporation-bashing to please laissez-faire capitalists, though much that corporations do is not capitalist, hard as that is for most people to grasp. It’s worth asking, though, whether Gravel on the ticket would strengthen the case for an LP vote this year: In strict libertarian-philosophical terms, no — but then again, his anticorporate attitude might be a glimpse of a more left-anarchist future (one born of social-networking fluidity more than conservative thinktank wonkery — but more about that later, possibly in the pages of a book) in which libertarianism itself will stress different issues than it does now. In present-day strategic terms, if one wanted to send the GOP a clear message, no — but then again, maybe pulling protest votes from both the Democrats and Republicans is actually a safer, even more productive thing to do than just slamming McCain alone. The calculus just gets more complicated.

Part VI: Do Not Dismiss the Cost of Accepting Democratic Victory

Again, I don’t want anyone to think giving up on the GOP would please me or that I’m oblivious to the costs of Democratic victory: Hillary Clinton, for example, wants things like price controls on credit cards and health insurance, as well as a freeze on home foreclosures. Obama wants more Fed control of banks. McCain, in a reminder he still has his uses, recognizes that basic financial institutions, of all things, are not the place for grandstanding, one-time crisis interventions (even though he loves grandstanding, one-time crisis interventions in other, less fragile areas). There is no better way to create long-term instability than to suggest to actors in the market that we’re willing to rewrite the fundamental financial rules and offer bailouts with every downturn and misstep. Under Bill Clinton and then Bush, my concern was simply that we would spend too much (possibly while bungling foreign policy) — but now the Dem candidates, who didn’t have my vote to begin with but might easily have kept me relatively indifferent to the outcome in November, have me very worried (long-term, I am also worried about the inescapable fact that no matter how much government screws up, the economic consequences are always likely to look like consequences of capitalism for the simple reason that economic consequences are mainly experienced in the market: stock dips, layoffs, store closings, etc.).

Preference for McCain over them rising (and any politician who, like Calvin Coolidge, knows when to do nothing deserves at least a bit of my respect). But perhaps it’s too little too late given the far larger long-term stakes — and perhaps the foundation can actually be laid now for far more radical change beyond this election cycle.


Jacob T. Levy said...

“like the Founders, I don’t award any points for speechmaking, which simply makes demagoguery, always a danger, that much easier”

Not *quite* sure who you have in mind, but this is more wrong than right. Eloquence and mastery of rhetoric were highly valued– and understood to be properties of the educated. It wasn’t until the rise of the plain-spoken demagogue Andrew Jackson that this was fully eclipsed. Hannah Arendt may have misunderstood an awfuul lot about the American Revolution, but her emphasis on the high value the Founders on speaking great words was right.

jenny said...

when are you going to get around to podcasting those monthly debates, anyway?

Todd Seavey said...

The debate audio, too, might be a threat to democracy and must be suppressed. Actually, I asked NY ICE if they were posting the video they made of the immigration debate they participated in but have heard nothing yet, so to speak — but here (on our moderator’s site) is the audio for an earlier debate, about the value or lack thereof of the Ivy League that spawned those of us in this Response thread:


E5 said...

your thoughts on the following:


specifically the following 2 quotes:

“As the world’s largest producer by far of cocaine, Colombia occupies a pivotal position in the U.S. effort to stem the tide of illicit drug trafficking in our country.”

“If Congress truly wants the plan work better, the solution would be not to dry up funding but to provide more flexibility for its implementation.”

I have raised 2 questions that the Barr campaign has been consistently dodging:

1) Does the first quote above mean that Barr is in favor of US efforts to stem the flow of illicit drugs to begin with?

2) Does the second quote mean the justification for giving MY tax dollars to Columbia is somehow related to what Columbia does with the money or how effective it’s results are?

So we are now okay with gov’t taxation for foreign aid, only so long as the foreign aid is going to a “good purpose”?

I had a friend at the LP email my questions to the Barr campaign and they dodged them completely… they provided a straw man argument along the lines of “yeah, some anti Barr libertarians alas say he wants to nuke Colombia”, then proceeded to refute it.

I have no patience to play the “we both know I’m dodging your question but I’m gonna pretend not to understand it” game with his campaign.

Do you read those quotes (in full context) any differently than written by someone who is in favor of some form of US drug war (maybe nitpick details here or there), or as someone who at least agrees with Congress’ moral and legal authority to take my money and give it to others, and merely want’s to defend taht this specific form od aid is okay?


Ken Silber said...

I’m ready to take the Yes side in a debate on Is McCain Any Good? or even Should Libertarians Support McCain?, etc. Though granted, sometimes McCain doesn’t help.

Todd Seavey said...

I don’t think Barr wants to legalize drugs, but he’s moved toward greater sympathy with that position, and the two major parties show no interest in legalization, so his waffling there doesn’t trouble me any more than the stable positions of his opponents do. I’m willing to judge him by other criteria — though a clear-cut Bushian vs. standard-issue (yet widely known) libertarian, legalization and all, would certainly make this easier.