The Intelligent Person's Guide to Presidential Politics
by Andrew Ferguson | Posted October 25, 2012
The tradition at Liberty is to introduce every presidential election witha symposium of libertarian views about whom to vote for: the Democrat, the Libertarian, the Republican, and No One at All. This year, we are happy to follow the tradition with commentary by four expert analysts, each well known to our readers: Drew Ferguson, Jon Harrison, Wayland Hunter, and Gary Jason. There's enough here to get anyone's blood boiling. —Stephen Cox
* * *
The Case for Johnson
By Andrew Ferguson
I’m here to exhort you, reader, to vote Libertarian in the upcoming election. Specifically, I’m urging you to vote for Gary Johnson, rather than sitting out the election entirely, or writing in “Donald Duck” or something similarly hilarious.
Since I’m writing to an ostensibly libertarian audience, I assume that those are the options you’re considering. Because your individual vote contributes to the totals about as much as a decent piss does to the ocean, why bother disrupting an otherwise productive day to cast a vote in favor of either major party? They don’t care about your vote; in fact, they go as far out of the way as possible to disclaim any “libertarian” viewpoint or content in their campaigns. And whichever candidate wins, he’s going to screw you more or less in the same way: more taxes to fund more wars; more kickbacks to benefit more cronies; more tariffs to feed nativist ignorance and hike prices for consumer goods . . . in short, more for DC, and less for all the rest of us.
If those were my only two choices — as all the major media seem to believe — I’d certainly exercise my right not to vote. And in fact, I’ve done exactly that in the past two election cycles: with the major-party candidates, as always, being unconscionable, and the LP candidates being, respectively, naïve and loathsome. But this year . . . this year is different.
I am on record saying that Gary Johnson is the strongest candidate the Libertarian Party has ever recruited to head its ticket; likely, he is the strongest candidate who ever will carry the LP torch. I knew this within the first 15 seconds of my interview with him at the LP Convention, when he quickly showed himself to be neither naïve nor loathsome, nor — and this by far the most important — the sort of personality who seeks guru status, or who inspires (and accepts) cultish devotion.
Johnson will not win. And he will not place. But he must show, and show strong, to indicate that there is a future for libertarian thought in American governance.
Of course, he is in no way a perfect candidate. (Such politicians are illusions, reflections of a better universe, in which each person has the rule of his or her own house alone, and is free there to enact his or her own image of the perfect ruler.) But an America under Gary Johnson would be an America that doesn't maintain or extend its imperial military presence around the world; an America that doesn’t haul off and invade Iran or any other country on someone else’s say-so; an America that doesn’t exude a rhetoric of hatred, fear, and absolute moral certainty. His America wouldn’t lock up hundreds of dissenters or millions of victimless criminals; wouldn’t starve poor countries to prop up farm subsidies; wouldn’t hand economic policy over to Goldman Sachs to impoverish the unconnected; wouldn’t court a new Depression by inciting trade wars and deepening international divides.
Clearly such an America is too badass a country for the cultural elites to allow even a fleeting image to lodge in the minds of most American voters. But if such a vision is to get any foothold in this great land — if we are to pull back from the ledge at any moment before we fling ourselves pell-mell over it — we must show in this election that there is some opposition left, some coherent alternative to wars and prisons and empire.
With every election that goes by, the militaristic oligarchy that controls these United States grows stronger, conducting its business and screening itself from criticism behind the farcical pretense of partisan politics. Whichever party takes the present contest will further the agenda and then, since this will take our nation still closer to bankruptcy, lose big in 2016. The party assuming control at that time will misrepresent a normal response to failure — kicking the bums out — as a “mandate” to enact legislation that does yet more harm. Then matters will repeat in 2020, and 2024, and ever after, until we find out just how much ruin there is in a country — or until we shake things up, and crash the comfortable party.
So let’s get this straight: Johnson will not win. And he will not place. But he must show, and show strong, to indicate that there is a future for libertarian thought in American governance. This election, don’t waste your vote on the big guys. And don’t let it pass into nothingness. Give it to someone who can actually use it, someone who can channel the voices of millions of Americans who are fed up with the system and its phonies, its cronies, and its crooks. Vote Gary Johnson.
* * *
The Case for Obama
By Jon Harrison
I find this assignment, to make the case for voting for Barack Obama, somewhat distasteful, because I am neither a Democrat nor a strong supporter of the president. I am turned off by both of the major parties — so much so that I haven’t voted in a federal election since 1988. I could perhaps make the case for not voting. I must admit, however, that if my home state of Vermont were in danger of going Republican, I would get out on November 6 and vote for Obama.
I would’ve been happy to make the case for voting Libertarian, because I think the LP’s 2012 ticket is the best it has ever fielded (although John Hospers was a fine choice as the party’s first presidential candidate in 1972), and the party platform is one I can live with although I disagree with some of its planks. But as I believe the LP is an exercise in futility, and that libertarians would do well to devote their energies to working within the major parties in order to transform them into something like true liberty-loving movements, I can’t honestly make the case for voting Libertarian.
I can’t possibly make the case for voting Republican this year, given the manifest danger to liberty the party represents. The party is both beholden to, and largely divided between, two groups of radicals: ultracapitalists on the one hand, and protofascist populists on the other. Establishment Republicans, such as John McCain and David Brooks, are a shrinking minority within the party, and increasingly irrelevant to its deliberations. And even these people tend to hold dangerous neocon views on foreign policy.
Recall that the Republican Party gave us No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, exploding deficits, and two wars financed entirely on credit. Paul Ryan, the party’s candidate for vice president and the darling of the far right, voted for all these things in Congress. And Ryan, like so many Republicans, is a notorious reactionary on social issues, with a 1950s attitude toward homosexuality and women’s reproductive rights. Do we really want such a man a heartbeat away from the presidency? Do we really want a party that contains people like Todd Akin (he of “legitimate rape”) and Allen West (“there’s about 78 to 81 members of the Democrat Party that are members of the Communist Party”) running the country?
The state of the party is such that its candidate, Mitt Romney, had to become a serial liar in order to gain the presidential nomination. Romney is basically the Massachusetts moderate he was accused of being during the Republican primaries. Whatever he may say now, the fact is he pushed through Romneycare in Massachusetts, and he would keep important aspects of Obamacare on the books. He is for progressivity in the tax code. He is in favor of shoring up the welfare state, not radically restricting it. If elected, he will rely upon the Democrats in Congress to keep his own party from moving policy too far to the right.
Romney’s greatest fault is that he lacks the courage of his convictions. He should be denied the presidency because he is a man without principle: he is willing to say and do almost anything to become president, to an extent that puts even Richard Nixon in the shade. Thus we have the Mitt of the 47% recording, and the Mitt of the first presidential debate, both dwelling within the same fleshly envelope. A Janus such as this in the Oval Office would almost certainly create havoc in the body politic. Add to this his formidable ignorance of foreign affairs, and you have a man who simply must be kept from the highest place, lest we descend once more into Bushworld.
The Obama record is unquestionably a mixed one, and yet the worst has been avoided. This is no small thing, given the situation that prevailed at the beginning of 2009.
Now to the current occupant of the White House. The president has been craven on such issues as the deficit and entitlements. He has done nothing to reverse the Bush administration’s unconstitutional domestic surveillance programs. The former dabbler in illegal substances has shown neither courage nor compassion in dealing with America’s tragically misguided policy toward drug use and abuse. He allowed Congress free rein to craft a stimulus bill that amounted to the biggest pile of pork ever made into law. He responded poorly to the housing crisis, adopting a middle course that proved the worst of all worlds for real estate, and seriously hampered a recovery of the economy. He also temporized with regard to the shenanigans of the big banks, a policy that may eventually prove disastrous. He came into office even more unprepared than the man he was often compared to, John Kennedy, and he has not grown in office to anything like the extent JFK did. And yet . . .
And yet the worst has been avoided. This is no small thing, given the situation that prevailed at the beginning of 2009. I was opposed to Obama’s bailout of the auto industry, yet we must admit that it probably prevented an economic disaster (on this see Bruce Ramsey’s “Assessing the Bailouts”). The American war in Iraq has ended, and the war in Afghanistan is finally being wound down (Obama’s Afghanistan “surge” was a mistake, it now seems clear, yet unavoidable given the pressure he was under from the Republicans and certain quarters of the military). Bin Laden is dead. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been abolished, with no noticeable effect on the morale or combat capability of the military. Above all, we have not plunged into the folly of pulling Israel’s chestnuts out of the fire in Iran. An American war to stop Iran’s nuclear program would be a catastrophe economically, causing energy prices to soar to unprecedented levels. Add to this the cost in blood and dollars of such a campaign, and the growth of radicalism in the Muslim world that it would provoke, and you have a situation even worse than the final years of Bush. We are more likely to avoid such a fate under Obama than Romney.
The Obama record is unquestionably a mixed one. The man, though personally engaging and far more “cerebral” (as former Secy. of Defense Robert Gates put it) than his predecessor, has been a mediocre first executive. Moreover, he appears worn and seems to lack fresh ideas for the future. How then to justify a vote to reelect him?
Bloomberg conducted a poll on the presidential race at the end of September. In its report it quoted a self-described libertarian, one Stephanie Martin of Virginia, who said the following:
If I have to choose between the two, I prefer Barack over Mitt. I think Mitt Romney is just so out of touch. It’s mostly a protest against him and the Republican establishment; it’s not that I think Obama has done such a great job.
Stephanie, I’m with you.
* * *
The Case for Romney
By Gary Jason
I will be cheerfully (though not enthusiastically) voting for Mitt Romney. While I don’t expect the following sketch of my reasons to convince many readers who don’t already favor him, the case is worth stating.
Let me begin by stating the obvious (but not the always recognized): in our system, voting for a third party candidate is almost always just wasting your vote. Since I have written at length on this elsewhere in this journal, let me simply reiterate that while I would favor something like a ranked voting system, in the absence of such a system, to vote for a third party is merely political theater.
Put another way, the reply to “I’m tired of voting for the lesser of the two evils” is that when you vote third party (or refuse to vote) you are helping the greater of two evils to triumph. Seems pointless, right?
Moreover, Romney (while admittedly a moderate) has a number of strong points (especially when he is compared with Obama) that make me positively want to vote for him. The most obvious of them include superior managerial competence, deeper economic understanding greater disposition to freedom, more realistic vision, and better character.
Superior managerial competence: Begin with the fact that our nation is in an enduring economic malaise, with unemployment still around 8% even after several years of recovery, and debtlevels soaring. Romney seems clearly more qualified to turn this around.
- Romney, who earned an MBA from Harvard and had an outstanding career in business, views free market capitalism as the key to prosperity. In contrast, Obama continues his college professor rants against businesses and wealthy people, which only discourages economic expansion. In this Obama recapitulates the errors of his hero FDR, who (as Amity Shlaes has argued in The Forgotten Man) managed to extend the Depression through his class warfare rhetoric.
- Romney is less likely by far to raise taxes. Obama in a second term would surely use his power to force increases in taxes at least on wealthier citizens.
- Will Romney lower all tax rates by 20% and eliminate deductions? It will be great if he does, and he did do so when he was governor of Massachusetts. One of the advantages of Romney’s plan is that it would lessen the deduction of state taxes for the wealthy, which I strongly favor even though I live in the tax hell called California, because it is immoral to force citizens of low-tax states to carry part of the burden of state taxes in the irresponsible high-tax states. However, I don’t know whether and to what extent Romney’s party will control Congress, so I don’t know whether he will succeed. If he just keeps the present rates in place that would be enormously helpful.
- Romney’s masterly handling of Bain Capital and the Olympics showed an innate talent for running organizations competently.
Deeper economic understanding: Romney shows reasonable understanding of the need for free trade, free markets, and free labor mobility — not to as great a degree as I would hope, but surely infinitely better than the economically ignorant Obama.
- Romney will at least be open to free trade, especially with South America. I have suggested elsewhere that he should start with Brazil. An FTA with Brazil (and one with India) would do wonders. Obama by contrast started trade wars with our close partners Mexico and Canada, stalled for three long years the three FTAs he inherited from Bush, and has taken no steps to enter into FTAs with any other countries.
- Romney clearly seems to favor free markets in energy. He would end the war on fossil fuel waged by Obama and the environmentalist ideologues he placed in power at the EPA, the Department of Energy, and elsewhere. Romney will almost surely sign off on the Keystone Pipeline. He will very likely allow more leases on federal land and offshore. He may even succeed — finally — in opening up ANWR, through (again) that will depend upon his control of Congress.
- More generally, Romney will doubtless lighten up on regulation. Can he repeal and replace Dodd-Frank? God, I hope so — why not just repeal it and reinstitute Glass-Steagall? Again, it depends on Congress. But at least he will not push new regulatory mischief.
- Romney seems more inclined to allow free mobility of labor, aka immigration reform. He seems sincere when he expresses support for expanding legal immigration of skilled labor, though I am not entirely sure of the depth of his feeling in that regard. But while Obama talks as if he favors comprehensive immigration reform, he really doesn’t. He had complete control of Congress for two years, and never bothered to introduce a bill. At least Romney has promised to increase the H1-B Visa limit for skilled immigrants, which is something.
Greater disposition to freedom: Romney seems to want to roll back the encroachments on freedom imposed by Obama’s expansion of the progressive liberal welfare state.
- I am very sure that Romney will carry through his promise to try to repeal ObamaCare, and if he succeeds, it will be hugely important. It would be the first major defeat of the ever-advancing progressive welfare state since 1932, and would stop the process of nationalization of healthcare which, when it has happened in other countries, has proven impossible to reverse. It would also prevent a wave of built-in tax increases, such as the new federal tax on the profits from home sales, and the new tax on medical devices.
- Regarding education, again the choice is clear. Romney favors expanding school choice, while teacher union tool Obama ended the meager DC Voucher program, and did little to expand charter schools.
More realistic vision: Regarding foreign policy, I view Romney as simply more realistic.
- Yes, both major candidates favor withdrawing from Afghanistan, but Romney seems to recognize that to simply turn the country back over to the Taliban would not prevent future attacks. Taking the time necessary to train a proper Afghan force may take longer, but it saves lives in the long run.
- I won’t rehash Obama’s policy of being overly attentive to Russia (in canceling the missile defense system we had arranged to put in Poland, for example) and getting nothing in return, or in tossing the tyrant Mubarak under the bus in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood — a huge mistake with ever more disturbing unintended consequences appearing every day (for example, the recent announcementby one of the Brotherhood’s leaders that he favors instituting Sharia law). Just ask the Copts — which will be easy to do, since very soonall of them will live here. And the inconsistency is breathtaking: we aided the Libyan rebels — even though Col. Gaddafi had in fact turned over his weapons of mass destruction (including an advanced nuclear program) to our country the week when Bush invaded Iraq, and ended his support of terrorists, in exchange for our tacit agreement not to invade him — but we have refused to give armed support of the Syrian rebels — even though the government they fight (the Assad regime) is a devoted supporter of Iran, which funds terrorism against us. Go figure.
- The naiveté and hubris of Obama’s foreign policy has been evident from the day he accepted the Nobel Prize for “peace,” after doing nothing but say that he wanted peace. The sheer dishonesty of his foreign policy is sufficiently exemplified by recent events regarding Libya. Naivete, hubris, and dishonesty are assets to no one, even people who favor the president’s announced goals of peace and international harmony.
- I can imagine the responses from some readers: You are a dirty neocon! No, in matters of foreign policy I obey a law older than neoconservatism: realism. We can’t withdraw into Fortress America, and we never could. But on the other hand we certainly shouldn’t take on the role of Captain America, world policeman. We need to exercise practical wisdom — what the Greeks called phronesis — to distinguish (among other things): vital national interests from mere national preferences; sending weapons from sending troops; encouraging alliances from establishing empires; supporting the lesser of two evils (such as Mubarak) from supporting the greater of two evils (the Brotherhood); and maintaining peace through free trade from courting war through protectionism.
Better character: Can anyone doubt that Romney has superior character to Obama?
- Obama has proven himself to be arrogant, snarky, cheap, infantile, and narcissistic. Romney seems none of those things, appearing essentially modest, decent, and generous — actually having given $50 million of his own money to charity — as well as mature.
- The mainstream media have been trying to dig up dirt on Romney for many months now, and cannot find one iota of dirt to display. Hence their pathetic attempts to use his wealth and Mormonism to attack him.
- We might also mention Obama’s disgusting corruption — learned no doubt as a community organizer and player in Chicago’s political cesspool. In numerous cases, government loans and grants have gone to companies headed by prominent cronies of Obama. Not a scintilla of this has ever attended Romney’s tenure in any of the enterprises (for-profit, non-profit, or governmental) that he has run. Maybe knowing you can earn a quarter of a billion bucks legally and honestly makes you less inclined to corrupt dealings.
I know many people are nervous about Romney, especially those on the political right. Romney may possibly be lying across the board. Maybe he will not sign Keystone, not try to repeal ObamaCare, let all the tax increases happen, not allow more skilled immigrants in, block free trade agreements, and go all wobbly Green by opposing fossil fuels. Maybe — but the point I would make to the ultra-pure rightists is that Obama has shown that he will do all these things.
Nor am I under any illusion that Romney is Hayek redivivus. He has what seems to be a congenitally moderate nature, one that doesn’t adhere to a purely classically liberal ideology –more’s the pity. So I don’t expect him to get school vouchers enacted nationwide (as Sweden did years ago), or to end all farm subsidies (as New Zealand did years ago), or to enact a truly low flat tax with no deductions allowed (as Russia and numerous other countries did years ago), or to privatize Social Security (much less Medicare), or to create a vast free trade alliance of all democratic countries. I myself deeply desire all of these things, although I believe I will live to see none of them.
For this I won’t blame President Romney but my fellow Americans. They are too addicted to the welfare state, and will only change when the major welfare state programs finally fail. But Romney can do some moderate good in limiting the depth of our decline, instead of willfully accelerating it, and for this he will have my vote.
* * *
The Case for None of the Above
By Wayland Hunter
When I walk past my local polling place, I see people coming out with little stickers on their shirts, saying “I Voted!” As if that were something to be proud of.
I’m not saying that I’ve never voted, or that I feel some kind of quasi-religious objection to the secret ballot, à la 19th-century anarchist Lysander Spooner. I’m not an anarchist. I remember, maybe 30 years ago, Reason ran a poll asking its readers all sorts of things. One of them was, Are you an anarchist? Another was, Do you vote? The results were something like 40% on the first question and 90% on the second. So much, I thought, for libertarian anarchism.
I have no such “principled” objection to voting. If I find an election in which I think my vote matters, in the right way, I’ll go ahead and vote.
But right now, I feel as if I were channeling R.W. Bradford, founder of this journal. I don’t know whether, or how often, Mr. Bradford may have voted. (Seldom, I suppose.) But I recall his exposure of the “handful of votes” myth. He showed, beyond any possibility of confutation, that virtually no elections, however petty, are decided by the proverbial “handful.” The possibility of any election being decided by one vote, your vote, is similar to that of Columbus, Ohio being obliterated by a meteor strike.
There is no practical reason to vote.
But what about the alleged moral reason? Good libertarians remind us, every four years, of the categorical imperative: you must act in such a way that if everyone acted in that way, it would be good, or there would be good effects, or better effects than worse ones, or no really bad effects, or something. In other words, you shouldn’t throw your cigarette onto the sidewalk, because if everyone threw a cigarette onto the sidewalk, what would the sidewalk look like?
If you don’t see how silly that is, I’ll try to explain it, or at least to extend its logic into the absurdity it’s heading for.
Just think: if everyone ate a hamburger at every meal, every day, no cows would survive. If everyone went to the symphony, tickets would be priced out of sight. Don’t become a guitar repairman, because if everyone becomes a guitar repairman, the world will starve to death. If I don’t have children, it means I am decreeing the depopulation of the earth.
Not convinced? But why should you be? It’s a silly idea. If I had a cigarette, I would look for a decent receptacle to put it in. I wouldn’t throw it on the sidewalk. Why? Because littering is wrong in itself. I don’t care how many people do it; it’s ugly and therefore wrong. Now show me why it’s wrong in itself not to vote. Is it only wrong because if everybody else refrained from voting, that would be wrong? Have we gone in a circle here?
One of Obama or Romney will win, and the election won’t turn on my single vote. But does either of them provide enough reason for me to go to the polls and pull the lever for him? That question answers itself.
But there’s another reason why not voting is not equivalent to littering the gutters. Not voting is not doing something. If nobody voted, well, the parties would have to nominate candidates whom somebody would go ahead and vote for, willingly and unthreatened by false moral theory — and that would be a good thing, right?
To support my view, I don’t need to go in the Randian-anarchist direction and talk about how awful it is to give my “sanction” to some candidate who isn’t ideologically perfect (“moral”) by voting for him or her. All I have to do is point to Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. One of them will win, and the election won’t turn on my single vote. But does either of them provide enough reason for me to go to the polls and pull the lever for him? That question answers itself.
Well, what about the Libertarian Party nominee?
Please. When I vote LP, what am I voting for? An organization that, in forty years, has never won a significant election. An organization that occasionally appears to have thrown the election to a Democrat, rather than a Republican. This is not a compelling reason to go to the polls.
Oh, but by voting Libertarian you would be voting for your principles!
Would I? You who say that — have you read the LP party platform? Neither have I. Neither has anyone else — including, I suppose, the people who wrote it. In this case, principles are irrelevant.
I rest my case. If all the paid staff members of the Libertarian Party, and all the unpaid volunteers whom they try to organize, would devote themselves to nonelectoral work for specific libertarian causes, who would deny that more would be accomplished? So if, by not voting, I am somehow objectively voting against the LP — as the old Marxists used to say when arguing that if you don’t participate in the workers’ struggle, then you are objectively in favor of fascism — aso be it. But I don’t think I am voting against the LP. I think I am voting for the LP activists to go out and do something productive. Even the devotees of the categorical imperative should be proud of me for saying that.
And that is all I need to say.
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