Friday, June 6, 2008

Retro-Journal: Picking the Lesser of Two Evils in Early 2004

This week, in mid-2008, brought our Debate at Lolita Bar about Bob Barr, seen above with yours truly in an anti-Clinton t-shirt that’s likely to be outdated soon, possibly even today. The same day as the debate, Clark Caldwell of CBS shot a vlog of Barr’s reaction to the possibility of Hillary Clinton as a vice presidential candidate, and Caldwell expects to post a fuller Barr piece next week.

By contrast, in early 2004, libertarians were starting to argue about whether Bush’s reelection would be a disaster or the less evil of the two most likely outcomes. Or less evil and a disaster.

Politics is the art of the possible, and even among radical libertarians, it’s hard to find a candidate who agrees with all my views — I wouldn’t even necessarily vote for myself, since I’m inclined to think a good candidate requires a more thorough nuts-and-bolts knowledge of existing law and regulations than I possess, not having gone to law school. (Even a roomful of avowedly Rothbardian anarcho-capitalists might disagree on, say, abortion or immigration, not to mention the countless topics that libertarians definitely don’t think fall within the scope of law, like art and religion, but about which they certainly have varying private opinions.)

The main idea of libertarianism, though — you might almost say the only idea, so it shouldn’t be hard to wrap one’s mind around even if you disagree — described in a practical, game-theoretical way as opposed to a lofty metaphysical way (since metaphysics invites confusion and creative reinterpretation), is that individuals have strict property rights that should never (or almost never and only in the most dire emergency circumstances) be violated. This is not (at least in the most sophisticated formulations of the philosophy) so that individuals can exist in some metaphysically pristine, inherently morally superior state of independence, like Romantic sculptures representing Freedom placed upon pedestals, but rather so that interference with market processes is minimized: Instead of violence and mob rule and centralized autocracy, individuals trade in accord with their own preferences, each person saying yes or no to a proposed exchange based on whether he thinks he’d be made better or worse off than if the trade did not occur. Repeat ad infinitum and watch individuals’ utility, on balance, tend to increase as efficiency gains are constantly made.


No one is omnipotent or infinitely wealthy in the scenario, but at least all exchanges are ones deemed mutually beneficial by the trading parties, whereas in any non-libertarian arrangement, by definition, people are coerced to make “trades” they do not think will make them better off (such as paying taxes to fund services that could more efficiently be performed privately or that shouldn’t be funded at all) and, perhaps even more tragically, are prevented from making trades they would find beneficial (and that might set precedents for innovative new ways of doing things that open up new possibilities for other observers). Every deviation from a state of secure property rights, then, is a loss for utility/happiness (in a long-term, process-maintenance sense), a squelching of human will and preference — and to the extent a libertarian ventures into the morass of electoral politics, he’s trying to reduce violations of property rights and nudge things toward a property rights regime.

The Republicans deviate from property rights in numerous ways but until very recently had at least sounded as if their long-term goal (though repeatedly delayed by circumstances like the Iraq War), unlike the Democrats’, was a reduction in the size of government and the encouragement of a more market-based society. That’s arguably no reason to see the Republicans as preferable to the Libertarian Party, but with the LP marginal and sometimes needlessly crazy, you can’t blame libertarians for instead playing the game of picking between the two major parties, reluctantly putting up with wrongs like the drug war or distracting religious rhetoric in hopes of steering things in a slightly-less-socialist, slightly more property-respecting direction. Nothing’s perfect (conservatives and liberals usually don’t call their candidates “perfect,” and it’s not clear libertarians are being any more hypocritical by picking some least-bad viable option).

Then, too, some of us long hoped for the spread of “fusionist” thinking, in which conservatism would be yoked to libertarianism in such a way that conservatism is tamed, as it were (sticking closer to free-market principles than to religious or military authoritarianism), while libertarianism gained broader appeal through piggy-backing on a far, far more popular movement. This strategy not only made historical sense, given how much overlap there has been between, say, the staffs of conservative and libertarian magazines and thinktanks, but makes a fair amount of philosophical sense: There is no need to violate property rights to admire tradition (you can even be a religious fanatic without violating property rights, if you insist), while there are countless reasons to think creeping socialism is a threat to bourgeois, Western civilization as we have known it.

On a more practical, immediate level, there really is a significant subset of Republicans and conservatives (very unhappy ones these days) that wants smaller government and laissez-faire economics, while the Democratic Party and the left more generally are largely defined by their desire to maintain or expand government programs, rail against capitalist excess, aid unions with anti-market regulations, redistribute income, etc., etc. Republicans like capitalism but don’t go far enough, while Democrats often see righting the supposed wrongs of capitalism through beneficent government action as their primary reason for being involved in politics.

Now, we may have reached the point where the difference between the two parties is too small to be worth worrying about, but any libertarian who claims to see no historical reason for a natural sympathy for the right over the left is either lying, ignorant, or highly irrational.


None of that means that Bush was necessarily a wise gamble in 2000 or 2004, of course, though his efforts to partially privatize Social Security and Medicare and cut taxes were clearly ones libertarians could respect, as far as they went (which wasn’t far). Whether things that were meant to be short-term deviations from that agenda, such as toppling Saddam, were such egregious mistakes as to warrant tipping the balance of libertarian support in favor of the Democrats is debatable, but it is natural that libertarians first ask “How are the Republicans doing?” when looking to the two parties for tiny glimmers of hope, rather than expecting much good to come from the Democrats — aside from counterbalancing the excesses of the Republicans (and some libertarians were already rooting for divided government and thus a Kerry victory in 2004, while others would despair of the Republicans only later and root for divided government in the form of the Republicans losing Congress in 2006 — and I was still hoping for the Republicans to prevail, come to their senses, and accomplish some sort of useful market-based reform if they won in 2006, only giving up around…now).

We can disagree about strategy and the proper level of optimism or pessimism — and can even disagree about how heavily to weigh different deviations from property-adherence in a complex utility calculus (one in which the value of political allegiances for future reform efforts must itself be weighed, so that today’s idiocy by an ally may be partly redeemed by the ally’s strategic usefulness for more important policy battles ahead). But that needn’t imply some contradiction of basic libertarian principles. The existence of the government (not to mention decentralized property violations such as burglary and, crucially, terrorism) is the real violation of libertarian principle, and all electoral political action is a desperate defensive action. We should not begrudge victims the right to attempt defensive actions, especially ones aimed at decreasing rather than increasing coercion, relative to the other likely outcomes.

In an idealized right/left political world (which is not the one we live in, admittedly), the right has an obnoxious but short list of things it’d like to control — basically, some aspects of sex (that are largely unpolicable anyway) — while the terrifying, blandly totalitarian list of things the left would like to tax, regulate, or otherwise control is literally endless: There is simply no form of human behavior, from telecommunications to medicine to home-building to car manufacture to the use of food coloring, that the left does not see as benefiting from increased regulation. The left is where libertarian hopes, weak at the best of times, go to die. If readers want to do me a favor, in fact, vow never to speak sympathetically of the left in my presence ever again.

At the same time, a certain condescension toward the right is acceptable and indeed is now necessary. Bush does not seem to have been a gateway to small-government fusionism between the right and libertarianism. Perhaps now, four years later, it’s time to make a radical, quixotic statement in favor of such fusion by voting for (ex-Republican, now-Libertarian) Barr, though rational people (and irrational ones) can certainly disagree.


Luckily, though, 2004 wasn’t all politics. Just as I’d seen Human League, Billy Idol, Psychedelic Furs, Paul Weller, and White Stripes concerts in the latter half of the previous year, in 2004 I saw the Fall in concert for a second time — having discovered the amazing band Magnapop (who are a bit like a cross between the Go-Go’s and Dinosaur Jr.) as the opening act when I’d first seen the Fall years earlier. Meanwhile, a growing number of friends were writing books, including Kyle Smith’s Love Monkey and Caren Lissner’s Starting from Square Two. And Lefty Leibowitz founded the Gotham Girls roller derby league, part of the eclectic batch of activities that would leave him too busy to run the barroom debate series he’d created a few years earlier with LB Deyo, who moved to Austin, TX in 2003. That would leave me and moderator Michel Evanchik to run the show starting in 2005 — but before that point, we have a very heated election to relive, in next week’s Retro-Journal installment.


Mitch said...

I was there Wednesday night, and I have to say that the libertarian’s exuberance for Bob Barr and their hackling of McCain’s defender didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

Essentially, libertarians seem anti-McCain because he is only a half believer in their cause, yet with bluster they seem to gloss over a large elephant in the basement of the Lolita Bar–that the same can be said of Bob Barr. The message seemed further confused when the pro-Barr debater brought out the idealistic line, “the cause is larger than any one person” (the justification for abandoning Ron Paul for Barr). Using that reasoning, one might just as convincingly set aside gripes with McCain and work to ensure that the Democrats don’t take the White House. Hardcore idealism could very well doom libertarianism to the margins of politics and undermine any real chance for any iteration of this cause that is, we are to believe, cared for so much.

The other example that comes to mind is Nader spoiling Al Gore’s race. Looking back on the last 8 years, could Nader’s people really feel that they were finally heard by the Democrats? Perhaps Nader would argue that the Democrats are finally tacking hard to the left in 2008 as a result of his 2000 campaign, but I think that gives Nader too much credit. The Democrats seem to be racing to the left because of Iraq and other Republican disasters like the handling of Katrina, not because of Nader’s principled strategy in 2000. Instead of a US entry into the Kyoto Protocol, the Green Party got a popular movie by private citizen Gore.

I’ve taken a real liking to the libertarian party in recent years, but I am wondering how serious they really are about having more influence in Washington. Perhaps they are as serious as they seem, but I’m not convinced by their strategy in 2008.

Todd Seavey said...

I’m sure Nader did make some difference, though there are countless other factors at work as well. Each such candidacy at least makes the major parties aware that they _may lose votes_ if they stray too far from the minor candidate’s principles.

How much impact the minor candidate will have in any one or two election cycles is hard to gauge — but common sense suggests that if the major parties conclude that they _never_ lose votes to the minor parties as long as they can plausibly argue “Our major-party candidate is 3% better than the other major-party candidate,” then there is no incentive for the major party to shape up.

At some point, when its behavior has gotten bad enough, the GOP needs to be shown that some of their constituents _are_ willing to defect — and crucially, to defect to the party with the _correct_ message. Voting Dem will surely punish the GOP even harder than voting LP, but it would merely encourage them to act more like _the Democrats_, which is not the message defectors should be sending (which is why I was horrified by libertarians contemplating Kerry votes in 2004).

Todd Seavey said...

P.S. I should add that from a purely strategic perspective, I can hardly blame McCain if he spends the next five months trying to sound not like Barr but like someone with a decidedly larger bloc of voters who may be up for grabs, namely Hillary Clinton.

At our debate Wednesday, the commenter on yesterday’s entry using the handle E5 jokingly said, in fact, that McCain’s best chance for victory might be picking _Hillary_ as his running mate.

(Though I would certainly hope _that_, at least, would inspire libertarians to bolt to Barr instead of trying to pick the lesser of two evils — after all, with a McCain-Clinton ticket, you’d be getting _both_ evils!)

Todd Seavey said...

P.P.S. By contrast, libertarian Thomas Sowell sounds like he’d take even a McCain-Clinton ticket over Obama (and who knows, maybe I’ll be stumbling through radioactive ruins in two years and thinking he was right):

Mitch said...

I think it’s fair to say that the protest vote comes at a high cost. Democratic congress, Democratic president. A vote for Barr is at best a long-term strategy (at least 2010 or 2012), and I think also a long-shot strategy. Are we ready for a big move for big government in the meantime?

Todd Seavey said...

Every election cycle, defenders of the major-party option — including me in the past — say a small nudge in the right direction now may be more valuable than sending the more radical long-term message, with the result that the more radical message never gets sent.

This may be the perfect juncture — especially for people who want a libertarian messenger who represents libertarian-conservative fusion — to send a message, since there are so many disgruntled conservatives and the the GOP candidate is so unlibertarian.

Complicating factors in the calculation, though:

(a) Hard to tell just how bad Obama is — not much legislative track record, which is fine with me, but some alarmingly sweeping rhetoric that might portend big changes — or just more big talk.

(b) Hard to tell how good McCain is — possible budget-cutter or entitlement-reformer but also an opportunistic, unreliable authoritarian with no clear ideology.

(c) Hard to tell if Barr — for all his quite admirable effort — will be _heard_ as if sending a clearly libertarian message or will be remembered, due to his old track record, as “that right-wing guy who seems to dislike gays, illegal immigrants, pot-smokers, and Wiccans.”

(d) Hard to tell whether the war trumps all other concerns right now.

(e) Hard to tell what to do about it even if it does trump all other concerns (McCain? Barr? Obama??).

Choose accordingly, and if you choose incorrectly and the result is the destruction of civilization, man, are you going to feel gulty.

I know this much: I don’t want Nader to be president.

Gerard said...

I don’t see how McCain can be characterized as a “half-believer.” Sure, if your point of comparison is Barack Obama I suppose you can make a (somewhat) convincing argument that McCain is generally more liberty-inclined, but even the contrasts in this regard are limited.

Both want to supress free speech-in this respect McCain is worse since he’s actually succeeded in doing so-tax and regulate you for emitting carbon, i.e. living, in addition to other activities, manage the economic activities of oil companies-to start with-and increase the size and scope of the federal government, albeit for different purposes.

The only respect in which McCain is a pure libertarian is his unstinting support for open borders, and to be quite honest, I don’t see how allowing in millions of individuals with little to no education, who will agitate for the adoption of socialist/statist measures once they become naturalized citizens, advances the cause of liberty.

Todd Seavey said...

By the way, now would probably be an appropriate time to watch the 1981 video “President Am I” by Slow Children, a band brought to my attention by my friend Jenny:

Avery J. Knapp Jr., M.D. said...

The best argument for voting for the person whose policies would best benefit America (and you) is that: Your vote doesn’t matter in NYS for President (or any host of other states). Even if you and 10,000 others like you vote for McCain instead of Barr, it won’t help McCain win any electoral votes. By voting for Barr, however, you can send Republicans the message that we need to return the party to its Constitutional Principles.

Koli said...

A subtext of this fine explanation of libertarians’ “natural” right-leaning sympathy is that economic freedom counts for more than other sorts of freedom. There is no equally “natural” sympathy for an ideology that prohibits government from detaining you for being (or looking) Muslim; coercing you to nurture a “person” in your body for 9 months; tapping your phone; dictating who you can sleep with… etc.

Fair enough, if you think these are “lesser” evils than taxes and labor laws. Economics does affect all of us, whereas those other things affect only a subset of us who are Muslim or pregnant or gay or whatever. But is it really “irrational” for any libertarian to tip the other way? In your response to my hypothetical in the other thread I thought you suggested it could go either way. No?

Speaking of that other thread: I know I pressed a bit hard. Here’s the thing: as a liberal who is increasingly tired of “creeping socialism” I have been wondering whether some form of libertarianism could be for me. With that in mind, I’ve been kicking the tires – I suppose a little haphazardly at times. But I was trying to tease out exactly this point, that libertarians’ sympathies are predictably right-leaning. To me, they seem to overlook all kinds of anti-liberty ideas as long as they are “traditional” anti-liberty ideas rather than “liberal” ones.

What I love about American liberalism – in its best, Painean tradition – is that it’s animated by principles of individual freedom and choice, as much as by communitarian impulses and compassion. That line of fusion isn’t always clear in practical terms. Perhaps that’s where it is susceptible to “creeping socialism.” But it seems there is no room in the libertarian tent for tolerating “communitarian impulses and compassion” even as there clearly is room for at least strategic tolerance of enforced traditionalism.