Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Time for Obama Honeymoon to End (Plus: Libertarians Aren't Capitalist Enough)

I think the time for treating Obama with kid gloves has now passed (so let’s hope people feel free to criticize him a bit during tonight’s Lolita Bar panel). The media found him charming, Americans found him a pleasingly ambiguous political-horoscope into which they could read their fondest hopes for a changed world, and a few too many conservatives and libertarians found him a pleasing weapon with which to punish a failed Republican Party, which may or may not learn something useful from the beating, like a dog punished two days after its misdeeds.

Election day was fun for a lot of frustrated-but-hopeful Americans — but the era of Obama’s political dominance has gone on quite long enough, and it’s time to get down to the serious business of banding together and stopping him — all of us who prefer markets to command-economy nonsense and individual freedom of action to regulatory behavioral guides (whether your conception of freedom is shaped by tradition, anarchic individualism, moderate common sense, or communal voluntarism). It’s too soon to call for impeachment — that should wait at least until after the swearing-in in January, but battles of that sort may lie ahead, and it is important to steel ourselves for them, not get lost in the Obama-supporters’ giddy hero-worship.

I’ve said before that libertarians are smarter on average than other political factions — not so much because libertarianism is true and other philosophies aren’t but because most political philosophies have both intellectuals and masses of ordinary supporters, while libertarianism basically has nothing but a tiny handful of intellectuals. That being the case, we will indeed need to think coalitionally — my strict adherence to principle has never caused me to lose sight of that.

At this point, rather than think in terms of whether to form electoral coalitions with left, right, or center, though, I’d suggest aiming higher and thinking in terms of recruiting every beneficiary of capitalism to our banner — and getting humanity to realize there are some 7 billion such beneficiaries. Too often, in a world where most people — especially politicians and political activists — are eager to avoid the painful chore of economic reasoning, libertarians have shown themselves willing to play along, getting bogged down in tangential issues outside our area of expertise (such as gay marriage, to take an example from the comments thread to yesterday’s entry) and which may be politically-charged but affect only relatively small numbers of people.

I say keep our eyes on the prize: no matter what narrative right and left want to fight over in the (difficult) years ahead, just keeping pointing out what capitalism gives us and what government takes away. It’s not such a strange or alien message for this glorious nation of producers and property owners.


Sammler said...

Sensible stuff, though I did get a laugh out of “It’s too soon to call for impeachment.”

There are two challenges for non-statists in the next few years. One is to resist Obama Derangement, which will only discredit all opposition (and which will be eagerly reported). The second is to remember that even two years is quite a long time: patient, fundamental messages like those Mr. Seavey is advocating can indeed bear fruit.

Jacob T. Levy said...

A great first couple of paragraphs! And it’ll be nice to rejoin you in the opposition

On balance, though– it’s odd how non-marginalist you are about economics! Thinking economically allows us to make tradeoffs at the margins; it doesn’t require a lexical prioritization of economic questions over all others. Nope. not gonna shut up about torture or gay marriage; see no reason to abide by your edict about what counts as “our area of expertise;” why on earth should it be the case that an ideological viewpoint generates an area of expertise the way that training in an academic discipline does?

But it’s an odd thing to treat very marginal differences on taxes as if they amounted to binary questions of principle, once-and-for-all decisions about Capitalism Or Communism– but to think that actual binary policy decisions (gay marriage or not?) that might involve important questions of principle are, at best, uninteresting distractions. I just don’t see the difference between a somewhat-more-deficit-funded 20% of GDP federal budget and a somewhat-more-current-tax-funded 20% of GDP federal budget (or even 21%!) as being the choice between Capitalism and Communism, or even Capitalism and Social Democracy, so I do feel free to sometimes prioritize policy areas where the choices are more absolute.

Mark said...

I for one, welcome our new liberal overlords, and hope their ascendance ushers in a brand new era of peace, prosperity, and umh, whatever else.

Just a quick note on “tangential” issues on gay marriage. It’s stuff like that which takes the “hard” edge off libertarianism and gives it a more compassionate face.

Todd Seavey said...

It is precisely because the econ issues are _not_ binary that they require greater vigilance. Simplistic issues like gay marriage can flip back and forth in the public’s mind, while econ policy is better thought of as a slow erosion, bringing us not some static 20%-government society — which is of course about a 40%-government society with state and local governments taken into account — but a society slowly but surely unlearning the ways of a market economy and learning to expect an omnipresent welfare /regulatory state.

That is the quiet, creeping death overcoming America — while flashy, simple issues like gay marriage are something people can always get “up to speed” on with the next impassioned sermon or righteous rock ballad.

I fear we’ll still be having spirited debates about gay marriage and fancying ourselves a half-conservative, half-liberal nation long after the economy has quietly become 68% government and the concept of individual freedom is no longer one familiar enough to form a plausible basis of argument and metaphor.

It’s unclear what McCain represented, but to all too many, Obama represents a push toward still more taxation, still more spending, and still more regulation — a push that it is dangerous for America to be seen to endorse _even if_ the practical effect during the actual term of his presidency is a percentile difference in spending.

Long-term, the symbolism and perceived “moral high ground” matter, and people –especially those in a position to shape the opinions of other people, including youth — mistakenly think today that the moral high ground belongs to a statist Obama. Any real libertarian ought to regard that as a _disaster_, and if enough libertarians disagree with me about that, I really am happy to find some other label. I want to decrease human suffering, not score points within some movement or even help win elections.

I want to fight the terrible harm that statists like Obama do, that he has already been doing, and that he will do in earnest come January.

Todd Seavey said...

P.S. Jacob, who comments above, is pretty quick to see positive signs regarding Obama, I’d say, and calls Obama’s invitation to Democratic Rep. Rahm Emanuel to be Chief of Staff one such sign, in part because Emanuel pushed for NAFTA under Clinton…though he also was instrumental in pushing for socialized medicine at the same time and is also, one is tempted to conclude, batshit insane. Here’s his Wiki. entry, but I don’t have the strength this week to go into every such troubling detail about Obama’s Illinois cronies:

Todd Seavey said...

One more thing today: You don’t get much more libertarian than Virginia Postrel, I hope readers will agree, and I think her reaction to the election is worth noting:

Jack said...

I sympathize with your economic argument against Obama. But for someone so outspokenly concerned with liberty, the intensity of your aversion to him feels rather onesided.

Yes, Obama’s statist leanings must be resisted. But why have you not resisted with even greater intensity the Republican party’s recent assaults on liberty and the rule of law: the elimination of

habeus corpus, torture, the theory of the unitary executive, Bush’s signing statements, and so on?

Surely the Republican Party, in its recent incarnation, has been a far greater threat to liberty and the rule of law than an Obama Administration is ever likely to be.

Or do you disagree?

Christopher said...

SNL, in spite of the politics of its writers, has to be a little disappointed they won’t have Palin around for the foreseeable future:

And this was on FOX, for Christ’s sake.

Gerard said...

Surely the Republican Party, in its recent incarnation, has been a far greater threat to liberty and the rule of law than an Obama Administration is ever likely to be.


I’m storing that for future reference, so I can laugh at you when my hernia doesn’t make laughter feel like a drill press is being dropped onto my pelvis.

Sammler said...

Conflating “liberty” and “rule of law” is missing the point. The Bush administration several times attempted to evade the rule of law (though, in fairness, I am not sure what constitutional rights non-citizens should have); the Obama administration will attempt to use the rule of ever more laws to materially decrease liberty.

Jack said...

“Conflating ‘liberty and ‘rule of law’ is missing the point.”

I don’t really conflate them. I just mention them together, because, practically speaking, they are related. If the Bush Administration believes that when it comes to “national security,” the President has the power to do pretty much whatever he wants, including indefinitely imprisoning and torturing people (even American citizens) on the mere suspicion of “terrorism,” then that flouting of the rule of law is at the same time a serious assault on liberty.

I don’t deny that Obama might pursue policies that “materially decrease liberty,” and I agree that he should be resisted if he does. But I’m always struck by the Libertarian tendency to be much more critical toward assaults on liberty from the Left than on those that come from the Right.

The double standard is not universal among Libertarians. But it is conspicuously widespread. And Seavey himself seems to fall into it from time to time.

That was my point.

Jack said...

“I’m storing that for future reference, so I can laugh at you when my hernia doesn’t make laughter feel like a drill press is being dropped onto my pelvis”

This, of course, is exactly the attitude that I’m talking about.

Perry said...

Todd writes: “libertarians have shown themselves willing to play along, getting bogged down in tangential issues outside our area of expertise (such as gay marriage, to take an example from the comments thread to yesterday’s entry)”

Gay marriage is not a “tangential issue”. Freedom isn’t just about being able to hire someone at whatever wage you both agree to. There is no right more fundamental than the right to freely select the person with whom you wish to share your life and to live that life in peace and dignity.

For many of my friends, the revolution isn’t meaningful if they still get beaten up for kissing the people they love, and honestly, if you can’t wholeheartedly support the rights of others to love who they want with no less dignity than anyone else is given, you are no libertarian.

If you aren’t in this fight, if you consider it “unimportant”, you are at best some half assed wannabe who thinks the word “libertarian” is cool. This is not a side issue. This is about the core of what it means to be a libertarian — the willingness to leave others to live as they wish provided they do no violence to others.

I am still waiting to hear a clear answer from you on this topic. I think you’re dodging it. Spit it out already. Do you think gays should have precisely the same rights as straights or not. If you keep trying to dodge your way out of it, we’ll know your answer.

x. trapnel said...

Moreover, for many people, liberty and the rule of law are *deeply* connected. Locke, Montesquieu, and Hayek certainly thought so, as must anyone for whom the antithesis of liberty is having one’s fundamental interests subject to the arbitrary will of another.

The rule of law, and thus liberty, are threatened by executive power on a fundamental level. If you really believe America has to be an empire, fine, but don’t pretend this doesn’t have massive costs for liberty. On this, at least, the Founders really were right.

x. trapnel said...

And Seavey’s response to Levy is pretty puzzling. Because the danger to economic liberty is gradual but ever-present, and choices are generally on the margin, while those to other liberties are binary, we should … ignore the latter and focus on the former? I’m having a hard time seeing the implied model for which that’s the proper optimizing strategy. It seems to me that, insofar as deprivations of liberty that are based on fear of the Other tend to decline in popularity as the Other becomes more familiar, binary civil liberty decisions have the potential to act as powerful ratchets, making it *very* important to act on them when possible.

Moreover, precisely *because* these binary decisions are essentially political, there’s no such thing as “sitting this one out.” Economic organization, by contrast, is quite flexible: at any moment, there’s a great deal you could be doing to encourage a freer, less statist, less centralized economic system. And quite frankly, top tax brackets have a hell of a lot less impact on psychological dynamism than, say, the difference between a nation of Smithian pin-makers and a nation of genuinely independent entrepreneurs.

Todd Seavey said...

Yeah, and apparently communist Hungary had great nudist beaches. Seriously. Economics, schmeconomics. (Coming up tomorrow: climate change.)

Perry said...

Still waiting for a straight answer, Todd. At this point, it is becoming increasingly possible that you’re avoiding saying out loud that you’re an opponent of equal marriage rights for all people. I would prefer not to believe that of you, but if you don’t say otherwise soon, what is a person to think?

Perry said...

I think I have my answer, Todd, if only by default. You apparently do not feel gay people have the same right to live their lives in freedom that straight people have. I’m disappointed in you, to be sure, but at least I now know how you feel. One positive note is that you’re clearly too embarrassed to say it out loud in public, and that embarrassment probably means you understand that your position is not one that people would congratulate you on.