Commentary

A case for Bush

By Daniel Griswold
This article originally appeared in the Orange County (Calif.) Register on August 29, 2004.
Our two-party system is like cold pizza for people who love individual liberty, free markets and limited government. The two major parties seldom nominate candidates who pursue those principles in a consistent way, and this year’s presidential election is no exception. Neither the Republican, George W. Bush, nor the Democrat, John F. Kerry, would ever be mistaken for a libertarian.

Bush and the GOP Congress have presided over an explosion of federal spending during his term. Bush championed the 2002 farm subsidy bill, the Medicare drug benefit and huge increases in education spending. He signed the anti-free-speech campaign finance “reform” bill and imposed temporary tariffs on steel imports. And most libertarians (although not all) believe the war in Iraq is a dangerous distraction from the war on terrorism.

Meanwhile, Kerry and his party have proposed huge increases of their own in federal spending. Their chief criticism of Bush on health care, education and just about everything else but defense is that he has not been spending enough. And they want to underwrite their own spending spree with higher taxes on, you guessed it, “the rich.” Kerry and much of his Democratic base want to slow the advancement of free trade and accelerate regulation of the economy. They criticize Bush for his conduct of the war in Iraq but do not challenge it on principle.

What are libertarians to do on Election Day? One option would be to wash their hands of the whole grimy system and not vote. That is a perfectly defensible option, a vote of sorts against a system that discriminates against alternative parties. But the risk of not voting is that the least libertarian of the two major-party candidates could win a narrow election.

Another option is voting for the Libertarian Party candidate, but in our stacked system, that option is akin to not voting at all. Even under the best of circumstances, the LP has failed to win more than about 1 percent of the vote. Given those unappetizing alternatives, voting for George W. Bush on Nov. 2 may be the best choice for advocates of a free society. In fact, on several issues important to libertarians, Bush has even staked out positions clearly superior to those of his Democratic opponent.

Chief among them is Social Security reform. Since he first ran in 2000, Bush has proposed to return a share of Social Security taxes to workers in the form of private pension accounts invested in the market. That would transform the country’s largest entitlement program into an engine of private saving, investment and ownership. It would mark the most important curtailment of the welfare state in decades. Kerry has flatly ruled out any basic changes in the system, which means a Bush defeat would close the door to real reform in the foreseeable future.

Ditto for health care reform. Bush signed legislation establishing health savings accounts, which empower more consumers to decide how their health dollars will be spent. Families can use the accounts to pay directly for health expenses below a higher deductible, making insurance more affordable while making consumers more cost-conscious and thus dampening health-care prices.

While Bush has been a big spender, he has not been a big regulator. Under his administration, the cost of new regulations has averaged $1.6 billion a year, well below the average of $6 billion to $8 billion imposed annually under other recent administrations. As The New York Times recently reported, “The Bush administration has imposed lower costs on industry through regulation than any administration since the government began keeping records in 1987.”

On gun control, Bush is a consistent defender of the moral and constitutional right to keep and bear arms. The Democrats have gone quiet on the issue, but the two parties remain deeply divided over it, and George Bush is on the right side from a libertarian perspective.

On free trade, Bush has embraced the freedom of Americans to trade and invest in the global economy. His administration won trade promotion authority, launched a new round of negotiations in the World Trade Organization and signed a number of free trade agreements with free-market trading partners such as Chile, Singapore and Australia. While John Kerry voted for free trade in the past, he and running mate John Edwards sound more like Pat Buchanan these days.

On tax reform, Bush shares the Reagan vision of a tax system that encourages economic success. With a GOP Congress, he has cut marginal tax rates across the board and especially on dividends and capital gains. Those reforms were bitterly opposed by many Democrats as “giveaways to the rich” - never mind that the top 5 percent of earners pay more than half the income tax and are thus entitled to most of the tax relief. Now Bush is talking about abolishing the income tax and replacing it with a more economically neutral and less intrusive federal consumption tax.

Even with those issues in his favor, the libertarian case for George W. Bush is weak. But a libertarian could reasonably conclude that in our imperfect, unfair, messy and even maddening political system, the re-election of George W. Bush would leave our country better off than any realistic alternative.

Griswold is director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute in Washington and a former editorial page editor of the Colorado Springs Gazette, a Freedom Communications newspaper. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his colleagues at the Cato Institute.