Topic: Political Philosophy

In Search of the Libertarian Democrat

Virginia Postrel writes today of the importance of empiricism to advancing liberty. She also mentions the possibility of persuading Democrats to become more sympathetic to the struggle for limited government.

I decided to assess the likelihood of a liberal-libertarian coalition empirically by looking at Democratic replies to questions about government spending. How open are Democrats to limiting government? These responses came from the 2004 pre-election survey conducted by American National Election Studies.

ANES posed the following choice: “Some people think the government should provide fewer services even in areas such as health and education in order to reduce spending. Suppose these people are at one end of a scale, at point 1. Other people feel it is important for the government to provide many more services even if it means an increase in spending. Suppose these people are at the other end, at point 7.” People could also choose 2 through 6, 4 being the median choice.

About 9 percent of Democrats responded on the low or limited government end of the scale. 70 percent of Democrats responded 5 or more; almost one in four answered 7 to the question, the response farthest from the limited government answer. Not much evidence of a desire for limited government.

ANES also asked: “Some people feel the government in Washington should see to it that every person has a job and a good standard of living. Suppose these people are at one end of a scale, at point 1. Others think the government should just let each person get ahead on their own. Suppose these people are at the other end, at point 7. And, of course, some other people have opinions somewhere in between, at points 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6.” In other words, the lower your score, the more you favor a nanny state.

Slightly less than half the Democrats gave a 1 to 3 response to the question. One in five Democrats gave the most extreme response favoring a nanny state. Three out of four Democrats gave a median response or higher.

ANES also asked about whether spending should be increased in various ways. Here are the percentages of Democratic respondents who favored increased spending on:

Aid to the poor 73.9%

Social Security 72.1%

Public Schools 87.3%

Science and Technology 57.3%

Dealing with Crime 68.4%

Child care 72.4%

Border security, illegal immigration  57.3%

In a few cases, a majority of Democrats did not favor increased spending. Here are the percentages of Democrats who favored increased spending on:

Highways 35.9%

Welfare programs 28.7%

War on terrorism 38.3%

Foreign aid 14.1%

However, on each of these issues, the percentage of Democrats who favored either increasing spending or keeping it the same was

Highways 90%

Welfare programs 75%

War on terrorism 71.7%

Foreign Aid 60.1%

No Democratic majority could be found that favored decreasing spending on any issue broached by the ANES survey.

Postrel notes, “a liberal-libertarian coalition may sound crazy when you look at the Democratic Congress, the 2008 presidential field, or the Democrats’ reflexive demonization of pharmaceutical companies.” But this data makes it clear that the Congress and the presidential candidates reflect the attitudes of Democrats more generally.

Crazy is not the correct word for the liberal-libertarian gambit. It is not like believing the Cato Institute building is made of cheese. But a political coalition requires some agreement in basic outlook about what government should do (or not do).

To believe in the liberal-libertarian proposal, you have to believe that huge, unprecedented numbers of Democrats are going to change their minds about increasing government spending or that libertarians are going to stop caring about increases in government spending.

I am sure the former will not happen.

Euphemisms for Theft

English is a rich language. One reason is that we don’t have an equivalent of l’Academie Française, which tries (and fails) to prevent loan words, neologisms, and deviations from prior rules of grammar. 

Another reason is that political processes keep generating euphemisms designed to disguise horrid behavior. (“Did I say death camps? I meant happy camps.”) 

To honor that tradition, I offer this list of euphemisms for theft:

Email me mcannon [at] cato [dot] org (here) with additional candidates.

Will McCain Talk Straight?

John McCain has once again boarded the Straight Talk Express. You might recall that his bus trips and cozy conversations with the media brought victory in the New Hampshire primary in 2000, though not ultimately the Republican nomination for president that year. The bus symbolized that McCain was “a different kind of politician” and all the other cliches that have come to denote his public persona.

McCain’s back on the bus because his campaign for the GOP nomination has stumbled. Rudolph Guiliani leads in the polls, and McCain appears on the cusp of a death spiral. Politicians have long appealed to popular sentiment to attain power. The Straight Talk Express continues that tradition.

But how straight will McCain’s talk be? In 2000 in New Hampshire, he talked mostly about campaign finance restrictions. McCain’s current political problem comes in part from that “straight talk.” Republican primary voters don’t much support campaign finance restrictions. They understand correctly that the dominant purpose of such restrictions has long been to limit the speech and political activity of anyone who is not a liberal, a group that includes almost all of the Republican primary electorate.

So will McCain talk straight at his moment of greatest need? Will we once again hear of the corruption brought to politics by Big Money? Will he speak straight and forcefully against the Swift Boat ads in 2004?

This is a crucial moment for Senator McCain. He must talk incessantly about his support for restricting political speech. If he does not, Republican primary voters might conclude that McCain is just another ambitious, opportunistic politician who will say anything to gain power equal to desire.

And we know that is incorrect in his case, don’t we? After all, he talks straight.

Ohio Governor Seeks to Kill Voucher Program

In his State of the State address on Wednesday, Ohio governor Ted Strickland called for the elimination of the statewide voucher program aimed at students in public schools deemed to be failing. He is also seeking to prevent the creation of any new charter schools and to outlaw for-profit firms from managing charter schools.

He went on to say that no new grocery stores should be opened in Ohio, that grocery stores should not be permitted to operate for profit, and that the state would be withdrawing from the federal foodstamps program.

Okay, I made that last paragraph up. But the only reason you knew that is because we are all familiar with the advantages of a competitive market for grocery stores, and with the fact that government can subsidize access to food without actually running its own supermarkets.

Researchers who study school governance structures in an international and historical perspective know that the same things that are true of the grocery business are also true of the education sector. Members of the public who frequent Cato’s website or read our publications know this as well.

Tragically, at least one very influential man from Ohio is wholly ignorant of these facts.

This is yet another argument for federalism and against national standards in education. If Ohioans choose to elect leaders who will unravel the progress they have made toward parental choice and competition between schools, their state will lose a competitive advantage it currently enjoys in attracting businesses and families. Other states that pursue greater freedom in education will attract more businesses and families. Eventually, states will have to stop operating education as a monopoly jobs program and start letting families decide – or gradually become economic and cultural backwaters.

But if we nationalize education – as so many Republicans and Democrats currently wish to do – a single backward administration or Congress could ruin education for the entire nation.

Folks who still support national standards after thinking about that should re-read the part of Jared Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs, and Steel” that deals with medieval Chinese naval capacity and technology, and the reasons these fell behind achievements in the West.

The Government Is Not the Country

The Washington Post reports,

“Three of the last five years, there’s been no budget for this country,” [Sen. Kent] Conrad said in an interview.

Actually, for the past 218 years, there’s been no budget for this country. The country is a vast, sprawling nation of 300 million people, millions of businesses, and more than 100 million households. The country is not a corporate entity, and it has no budget.

On the other hand, there is supposed to be a budget for the federal government, and Congress is indeed derelict in failing to pass one. But politicians should not forget the distinction between the country and the government.

Bush’s Failure: More than Incompetence

Writing on opinionjournal.com, Joseph Bottum offers a conservative case against President Bush—sort of.  But in doing so, he actually reveals the larger problem with much of the conservative movement these days.

Bottum argues that the problem with the Bush administration is not the lack of a conservative ideology, but a lack of competence.  Bush has tried to do the right thing, but messed up the execution.  It’s hard to argue with any critique of the Bush administration’s competence.  Yet look at the list of “good things” that Bottum says the Bush administration has tried to do: reform education, fix Social Security, restore religion to the public square, assert American greatness, appoint good judges.  Bush has generally appointed good judges (the Harriet Miers fiasco aside).  But the other items on Bottum’s list, except for Social Security reform, are all hallmarks of big government conservatism. 

As I point out in my new book, Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought down the Republican Revolution, conservatives once opposed things like a federal takeover of education or giving tax dollars to private charity.  Now a new brand of conservatism has no problem with big government as long as it can be used to achieve conservative ends.  Just look at some of what President Bush has done:

  • Enacted the largest new entitlement program since the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, an unfunded Medicare prescription drug benefit that could add as much as $11.2 trillion to the program’s unfunded liabilities;
  • Dramatically increased federal control over local schools while increasing federal education spending by nearly 61 percent;
  • Signed a campaign finance bill that greatly restricts freedom of speech, despite saying he believed it was unconstitutional;
  • Authorized warrantless wiretapping and given vast new powers to law enforcement;
  • Federalized airport security and created a new cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security;
  • Added roughly 7,000 pages of new federal regulations, bringing the cost of federal regulations to the economy to more than $1.1 trillion;
  • Enacted a $1.5 billion program to promote marriage;
  • Proposed a $1.7 billion initiative to develop a hydrogen-powered car;
  • Abandoned traditional conservative support for free trade by imposing tariffs and other import restrictions on steel and lumber;
  • Expanded President Clinton’s national service program;
  • Increased farm subsidies;
  • Launched an array of new regulations on corporate governance and accounting; and
  • Generally done more to centralize government power in the executive branch than any administration since Richard Nixon.

Yet, Bottum offers no criticism of this agenda.  Instead he is upset that Bush “fumbled” the faith-based initiative. What Bottum and others need to understand is that the biggest failure of the Bush administration (and its allies in Congress), is not incompetence but an abandonment of conservatives’ traditional belief in limited government.

Were You Surprised that DC’s Gun Ban Was Declared Unconstitutional?

Last week, a federal appeals court overturned the District of Columbia’s gun ban on the grounds that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep a functional firearm in her home.

Some were shocked by the court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment.  After all, we’ve heard for years that the prefatory clause of that amendment, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” limits the operative clause, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” to instances where arms are used in connection with service in the militia.

Those who follow Second Amendment scholarship, however, were not surprised by the court’s reasoning.  For years, scholars have examined the text, history, and context of the Second Amendment.  Those scholars built up a large body of evidence demonstrating that the “collective right” interpretation of the Second Amendment doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

That effort arguably began with Prof. Sanford Levinson’s 1989 Yale Law Journal article, “The Embarrassing Second Amendment,” where he wrote:

For too long, most members of the legal academy have treated the Second Amendment as the equivalent of an embarrassing relative, whose mention brings a quick change of subject to other, more respectable, family members. That will no longer do. It is time for the Second Amendment to enter full scale into the consciousness of the legal academy.

Elsewhere, my colleague Tim Lynch links to reviews of several works that followed.  One of the more interesting contributions to this line of scholarship is an article by Prof. Robert J. Cottrol titled, “A Liberal Democrat’s Lament: Gun Control Is Racist, Sexist, and Classist.”  That article begins with a forceful quotation from Democratic icon Hubert Humphrey in support of “the right of the citizen to keep and bear arms.”  Cottrol concludes:

[T]he ultimate civil right is the right to defend one’s own life, that without that right all other rights are meaningless, and that without the means of self-defense the right to self-defense is but an empty promise.

Our serious thinkers have been absent from this debate for too long. The Second Amendment is simply too important to leave to the gun nuts.

The majority opinion in Parker v. District of Columbia is evidence that serious scholars heeded that call, a good summary of the debate over the Second Amendment, and a lesson about how honest, careful scholarship can defeat a very appealing myth. 

Hats off to those scholars, the litigants, and their counsel.