Monday, May 19, 2008

Barr vs. Gravel -- or Barr + Gravel?

I mentioned yesterday that (ex-Republican Rep.) Bob Barr and (ex-Democratic Sen.) Mike Gravel are among the contenders for the Libertarian Party nomination for president at the LP convention this coming weekend.  Tomorrow at 4:30, though, the two of them and other LP candidates including presidential contender Wayne Allyn Root will appear and debate at Reason’s DC headquarters.  The Barr-Root-Gravel spectrum is not a bad microcosm of the ways forward open to the libertarian movement: essentially, right-libertarian, just-plain-libertarian, and left-libertarian, respectively (with Gravel perhaps naively taking the view that as long as he agrees with the LP on many issues, they should meet him halfway rather than demanding his full conversion to the philosophy).

One thing that’s exciting about it all is knowing how eager people are in any political party to make the highly contingent candidate choices part of a larger narrative that supposedly defines the whole long-term direction of the party and, by extension, civilization — as if it were all inevitable, in some rigidly Hegelian way, even though we usually know, if we really stop to consider the details honestly, that things could have turned out very differently, resulting in completely different narratives about what it all means being written and drilled into people’s heads.

An independent U.S., separated to some degree from Europe (to take an even more grandiose example), sometimes seems like the inevitable culmination of the Age of Exploration, Reformation, and Enlightenment — but the Revolution could have failed (as Christopher Hitchens once said, defending the creation of democracy through military might, no one would know Jefferson’s name today if the French army hadn’t come to the Colonies’ aid), and then the world might have been left talking for centuries about what a natural, organic extension of England the North American continent is.

Countless journalists must have been readying their “back to the 90s!” stories in preparation for Hillary Clinton’s nomination by the Democrats, but now they’ve been thrown an Obama curveball.

The Republicans, most interestingly of all, suddenly have a relatively secular and centrist standard-bearer but could have gone several different ways during the primary.  Imagine how “inevitable” the long-term triumph of the religious right would have seemed if Huckabee had gotten the nomination — but he didn’t, and that whole subplot suddenly seems to drop from the grander narrative.  Alternatively, Giuliani’s victory — which might have happened if not for several specific missteps — would have likely resulted in all sorts of pro-pro-choice “inevitable maturation/moderation” stories.

With the Libertarians, the possible prez/v.p. ticket combos could determine whether the public (and a vote-counting McCain campaign) think of libertarianism as a sort of “more principled version of conservatism” (if Barr and someone Barr-like are the ticket), as a right/left fusion (if it’s Barr/Gravel, which might aid with future recruitment by creating more of a big-tent feel), or (perhaps) as a stubborn and insular sect more concerned with ideological purity than achieving anything if they pick Root or one of the other, even more marginal figures vying for the nomination.


Though a tolerant bunch in all the ways that count, such as not passing laws that get their neighbors put in jail, the Libertarians might actually be the biggest sticklers for ideological purity of any U.S. political party, the Communists included.  But then, it gets very difficult sometimes to find anyone of any stature who is a textbook example of any familiar philosophy — everyone seems to be apostate on something.

Reason.TV here interviews Wall Street Journal’s Rob Pollock, who many libertarians would probably regard as apostate for having been a prime drum-beater for the Iraq War since way back in 2002 — but then, I think one can be hawkish and still qualify as a libertarian (regardless of whether one then qualifies as strategically unwise, a topic I’ll revisit in this coming Friday’s Retro-Journal entry, about the fateful days of early 2003).

I am more econ-focused than the antiwar crowd, as I think libertarians ought to be lest they stray beyond their area of expertise.  Rather than being appalled by “warmongers,” I am more dismayed, as it happens, by things like Reason’s own Steve Chapman in effect defending capital gains taxes (a policy topic Pollock happens to mention in his interview, too).  Yes, much like McCain, most of us now agree that tax cuts without corresponding budget cuts are often just delayed, possibly higher, taxes — and thus risky.  But let us not forget that those budget cuts never come as long as the revenue for government spending keeps rolling in.  I say keep starving the beast, then, cutting taxes no matter how bankrupt or debt-saddled the government must become before Congress wakes up and gains the ability to do basic math.

The books-balancing alternative of raising taxes is such a complete acquiescence to the massive welfare state that libertarians who drift in that direction might as well declare themselves leftists — or just get out of politics altogether and become haberdashers or something, having lost the fight.

A “libertarian” who dislikes tax cuts makes about as much sense as a “communist” who favors strict individual property rights, markets, and radically downsized government.  Furthermore, I cannot emphasize strongly enough, the latter sort of person is far more useful.  You’re only as libertarian as your policy positions and actions, labels and tribal affiliations notwithstanding.

I guess I can be doctrinaire too.


Jacob T. Levy said...

“The books-balancing alternative of raising taxes is such a complete acquiescence to the massive welfare state that libertarians who drift in that direction might as well declare themselves leftists รข€” or just get out of politics altogether and become haberdashers or something, having lost the fight.”

yeah, so, the thing is…

Taxes are an economic bad. Deficits and debts are also an economic bad. If you’re faced with a choice between two candidates, both of whom are gong to leave spending untouched, but one of whom proposes a large tax cut and the other of whom does not (which means, one proposes a different, deferred, tax base for the spending) why is it a question of principle which to support?

“The government” doesn’t become bankrupt and debt-saddled in a way that’s independent of the rest of the economy. Debt-ridden governments sometimes embark on still-more-destructive tactics like monetizing the debt; they sometimes default on loans, thereby violating contracts; at best they end up as a long-term drag on the real economy by keeping interest rates high *and* increasing taxes to pay for the interest. And finally, “starve the beast” seems to lack any empirical support as a prediction of Congressional behavior; spending goes *up* as the idea of a budget constraint is abandoned. (In a culture of balanced budgets, the first $100b spending increase is a big, visible deal. In a culture of deficits, the jump from a $200b to a $300b deficit doesn’t seem to bother Congress or voters.)

I “like tax cuts.” But I don’t think that commits me to favoring the higher-spending-and-tax-cuts party over the higher-spending-and-higher-taxes party all the time; depends on tax rates, debt levels, etc. Give me a tax-and-spending cuts option and I’ll vote for it, but choices among lesser evils require actual judgments about what’s lesser.

Todd Seavey said...

Unsustainable evil is preferable to sustainable evil, which has a tendency to simply become business as usual.

(And recent studies suggesting tax cuts inspire more spending were based on an analysis of a woefully short period of time — probably unreliable in much the way that all the tired generalizations about how “no senator in an odd-year election following a recession has ever,” etc., based on only six election cycles.)