November 01, 2008
Will Libertarians Really Vote for Obama?

My good friends at Reason have taken their quadrennial presidential “poll” of contributors and other libertarians. (I passed on an opportunity to participate.) Of those who would reveal their preference, there were 14 for Obama, 4 for McCain, 13 for Libertarian Bob Barr, and 1 for Ralph Nader.

I respect the folks responding to Reason, and many of them I know personally and consider friends. But when I read the infatuation of these libertarians with Barack Obama, I simply have to conclude that they are not thinking seriously.

For example, one common reason for the choice was to “punish” Republicans. Science fiction writer John Scalzi typifies this sentiment: “I think the GOP need [sic] a moment or two in the Time Out corner, don’t you?” Ron Bailey says, “The Republicans must be punished and punished hard.” Author David Brin argues that if the GOP is “utterly … sent into exile,” then, “perhaps sincere men and women may remember Barry Goldwater and resurrect some kind of healthy, libertarian Conservatism.”

Let’s leave aside the question of which party could really stand for some time in time out (Us!? What about them!!) The problem with this theory is that such “punishment” simply doesn’t yield the desired results.

Historically, parties that suffer major defeats at the polls move away from ideological purity. When Reagan blasted Mondale in 1984, the Democrats moved not to the left, but to the technocrat Dukakis in 1988 and then to the still more moderate DLC leader Clinton in 1992. When Nixon thumped McGovern in 1972, the Democrats did not become more pure, but nominated the hapless moderate Jimmy Carter in 1976. Republicans remember 1964 as the year that paved the way for Reagan, but they forget that Reagan’s election did not come for another 16 years. Many young Reaganites may have cut their teeth in the Goldwater campaign, but the campaign did not move the party’s standard bearers to the right, and the thumping Goldwater absorbed in 1964 probably kept Reagan from being the nominee in 1976, if not sooner. In 1966 the party made big gains, but for the most part not behind conservatives (despite Reagan’s California gubernatorial win), but behind moderates such as Illinois’s Charles Percy, Everett Brooke of Massachusetts, and Oregon’s Mark Hatfield in the Senate, George H. W. Bush in the House, and Governors such as Walter Hickel of Alaska and Ray Shafer of Pennsylvania, not to mention big reelection wins by moderate governors such as George Romney and Nelson Rockefeller. In 1968 the party rejected Reagan for president in favor of the more moderate Nixon, and in 1976 it rejected Reagan again, for the more moderate Gerry Ford.

Moreover, it is not only the losing party that draws lessons from an election. The winning party does, too. What lessons will the Democrats draw from a landslide win? I suggest it is not going to be that they moderate their pursuit of socialized medicine, a windfall profits tax on oil, union “card-check” legislation, anti-trade sentiments, or any other of the thoroughly un-libertarian policies that dominate the Democratic party.

The GOP needs to be punished, eh? Really? How many times did we hear this same thing two years ago? How has that worked out, huh? Most of these same libertarians, for example, opposed the financial bailout. Hey, maybe with another twenty conservative Republicans in Congress, that bailout would have failed. Do they really think Congress can’t cut spending because there are too few Democrats?

From a policy standpoint, it is very hard to see that Obama offers libertarians anything. And in those same Reason predictions, my old high school classmate Tim Slagleone of the funniest political comics in America - makes a huge point: “With the Federal Government holding so many banks and a lot of the mortgages right now, I think it's important to vote for somebody who at least has the intention of giving everything back to the private sector. I see no inclination for Obama to do that. In fact it would not surprise me, to see him calling for more nationalization in his first term.”

This is something Reason’s Obamanauts seem to be missing. The reasons given for selecting Obama range from trite (“I believe in hope and change and unicorns;” “he’s the coolest to watch on television;” “has run a less brain-dead, faux-populist campaign than the Republican”) to, it strikes me, wildly out of proportion – usually a vague reference to “civil rights” as if the U.S. were in some sort of police state. But the changes that could come with Obama – nationalized health care in particular – will be very hard ever to repeal.

It is no secret that libertarians in particular are pretty disgusted with the GOP, but I am hopeful that now, late in the day, libertarians may be figuring out what an Obama presidency with a Democratic congress would really mean for liberty. Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Todd Zywicki notes that there has been a, “general perception among libertarians that there is really no difference between McCain and Obama … . McCain and Obama both are pretty statist, Obama moreso on the economy, McCain moreso on foreign policy. And McCain-Feingold is a true abomination. In which case it is a toss-up… .,” Zywicki admits that that’s where he was, until recently. “I have slowly come to the conclusion,” he writes, “that as bad as McCain is, Obama really is much, much worse than I realized for a long time. Maybe I'm just slower at this than others, but it really took a long for it to sink in to me exactly how far left Obama really is. On every single issue that I am aware of, he seems to be at the far left end of the Democratic Party spectrum. I mean really out there.”
Zywicki notes a complacency – one that I find seems to be affecting many of doctors, small business owners, and other traditionally limited-government conservatives now supporting Obama:

“Given the history of the world over the past 25 years I think I just had assumed that no serious politician or thinker would in this day and age hold the sorts of views that Obama seems to hold. Raising taxes in a recession, protectionism, abolition of the secret ballot for union elections, big spending increases, nationalized health care, and most appallingly (to my mind) the potential reimposition of the "Fairness Doctrine"--I mean this is pretty serious stuff. And when combined with a Democratic Congress, I think we may be talking about (to use Thomas Sowell's recent phrase) a "point of no return." I guess I just assumed that Obama would be sort of Bill Clintonish--"the era of big government is over" and all that stuff. That he would have absorbed the basic insights of recent decades on taxes, trade, regulation, etc.”

Zywicki concludes: “from what I can tell none of those libertarians or conservatives who are Obama supporters are attracted to him because of his positions (other than those who care strongly about the Iraq war and foreign policy), but rather because of who he is. Obama is a compelling personality. But in reading these encomiums to him, I haven't seen any explanation as to how Obama's policies on tax, trade, spending, or regulatory would be friendlier to individual liberty than what is likely to be McCain's … . As someone observed somewhere recently, this is about the first time in history that you have endorsements from people who endorse Obama on the hope that he won't do what he says he'll do rather than because of what he says he'll do.”

Meanwhile, another longtime libertarian friend, David Bernstein, is issuing a similar warning at Volokh Conspiracy. Bernstein places an emphasis on judicial appointments, writing:

“Libertarians have been heavily involved in some of the most important constitutional Supreme Court litigation of the last two decades, either in terms of bringing the case, being among the most important advocates of one side's constitutional theory, or both. Among the cases in this category are Lopez, Morrison, Boy Scouts v. Dale, U.S. Term Limits, Grutter, Gratz, Kelo, Raich, Heller, and probably a few more that I'm not thinking of offhand. With the minor exception of Justice Breyers' vote in Gratz, in each of these cases, the ONLY votes the libertarian side received were from Republican appointees, and all of the Democrat appointees, plus the more liberal Republican appointees, ALWAYS voted against the libertarian side. The latter did so even in cases in which their political preferences were either irrelevant (Term Limits), or should have led them to sympathize with the plaintiff (Lopez, Kelo, Raich)."

Bernstein also notes that McCain is, at least these last few weeks, “running the most rhetorically libertarian presidential campaign I can remember since Reagan's 1980 campaign. Every time I hear a clip on the news, he's denouncing Obama for being a big spender and a taxer. He pledges to freeze most federal spending, and to take on entitlements and the grotesque reverse Robin Hood farm programs that Obama and almost all Congressional Democrats support. If he pulls out a victory, it will be seen as a stunning come from behind victory for those ideas. If he loses, and especially if loses badly, it will look like Americans are okay with "spreading the wealth."

I am really pleased to see guys like Todd and David voicing this stuff, and I hope the more cavalier libertarians at Reason and elsewhere are taking note.

Posted by Brad Smith at 03:08 AM

The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it. -Adam Smith

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