Topic: Government and Politics

Weekend Links

  • The G.O.P.’s next move on health care: “The challenge for Republicans is not to try to ‘do’ things just like the Democrats but a little less expensively or with a little less bureaucracy, but to present an agenda of personal and economic liberty as a positive alternative… [Republicans] will have to show that this time they are in favor of something positive. It’s called freedom.”

How Many Libertarian Voters Are There?

In our new study, David Kirby and I round up various estimates on the number of libertarian-leaning voters. Our own calculation, 14 percent, is actually the lowest estimate.

We use three questions on political values from the generally acknowledged gold standard of public opinion data, the surveys of the American National Election Studies, and find that 14 percent of respondents gave libertarian answers to all three questions. But other researchers have used somewhat looser criteria and found larger numbers of libertarians:

For more than a dozen years now, the Gallup poll has been using two broad questions to categorize respondents by ideology about economic and social freedom… Combining the responses to these two questions, Gallup consistently finds about 20 percent of respondents to be libertarian. In 2009 they found 23 percent libertarians, along with 18 percent liberals, 19 percent populists, and 31 percent conservatives (9 percent were unclassifiable).

In a 2008–2009 panel study, ANES asked [two] questions… If we define “libertarian”  as those who believe that the federal government should have less effect on Americans’ lives and do less to influence businesses, we get 25 percent of voters—slightly higher than Gallup’s 23 percent…

Finally, we commissioned Zogby International to ask our three ANES questions to 1,012 actual (reported) voters in the 2006 election… We asked half the sample, “Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal?” We asked the other half of the respondents, “Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as libertarian?”

 The results surprised us. Fully 59 percent of the respondents said “yes” to the first question. That is, by 59 to 27 percent, poll respondents said they would describe themselves as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.”

The addition of the word “libertarian” clearly made the question more challenging. What surprised us was how small the drop-off was. A healthy 44 percent of respondents answered “yes” to that question, accepting a self-description as “libertarian.”

We summed all that up in this handy but not necessarily helpful graph

This Week in Government Failure

Over at Downsizing Government, we focused on the following issues this week:

Is “Race to the Top” Handwriting on the Wall?

As freedom-minded folks have been celebrating major setbacks for Obama Care, campaign-speech control, and lots of other attacks on liberty, some have been sounding the alarm over the insidious “Race to the Top” contest. A couple of siren blasts I just caught are well worth taking in yourself, one by the Heartland Institute’s Robert Holland and the other by Colorado Board of Education member Peggy Littleton. In particular, the writers think they see the handwriting on the wall in the de facto requirement that states promise to adopt as-yet-unwritten “common” (read: national) standards to compete for RTTT funds.  As Littleton writes:

We already know that the federal government, or at the least consortiums of states, wants to develop assessments to assess the Common Core. The scary progression continues… National Common Core, common assessment, will inevitably lead to a national curriculum.

Is nationalizing – and thereby federalizing – the curriculum the Obama administration’s goal? RTTT sure as heck makes it seem that way, but we should have an even better idea soon: the administration wants Congress to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act this year.

And so it may be coming to pass: Perhaps, ironically, because of this week’s revolt against Washington, we might be heading for another power grab by Washington. And this time, we shouldn’t expect anything close to unanimous Republican help fending it off. 

Ideological Arrogance

Today Politico Arena asks:

The road ahead for the White House? Are the Clinton and Reagan lessons useful for Obama?

My response:

Are the Clinton and Reagan lessons useful for Obama?  Sure – if he paid them any heed.  Reagan had a game plan from day one, grounded in reality, and he stuck with it even after the modest but expected electoral set-backs of 1982:  Lower taxes, less regulation, and, with those signals, the economy would correct itself, as it did.  Clinton was less focused and therefore was able eventually to shift when reality, in the form of the 1994 elections, forced itself upon him:  He finally accepted the welfare reform congressional Republicans had crafted, admitted that “the era of big government is over,” and the stability that Reagan had secured after the turbulent Carter years continued.

So far, however, there are few signs that Obama will heed such lessons.  He’s perhaps the most ideologically driven president we’ve ever had, but his ideology comes out of the left, which means that it clashes with the real world and with the larger part of the American electorate, once they’ve come to see it in practice.  In that respect, in fact, a single example sometimes captures the character of an entire administration.  Although there’s no shortage of such examples in this case, the eminent historian James Q. Wilson discusses one such in this morning’s Wall Street Journal – the administration’s decision to try confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four al-Qaeda cohorts in a civilian court in downtown Manhattan.

Set aside the profound legal questions that decision has raised – classified evidence, confrontation rights, finding an impartial jury, speedy-trial rights, protecting witnesses and jurors, pre-trial prejudice (Obama: “when he’s convicted and when the death penalty is applied to him”; AG Holder: “failure [to convict] is not an option”), procedural compromises needed to convict spilling over to ordinary trials, to cite just a few – Wilson asks a simple question:  Will Washington pay for the terror trials?  He starts with the nonmonetary costs, zeroing in on the actual real estate at play in the “inner perimeter” – the government buildings, churches, apartment buildings, public garages:  Everyone who wants to get to one of those, he notes, ”will face road blocks, car searches, radiation monitors and pedestrian checks,” for the year the trial is expected to last.  And the monetary costs, excluding those of the federal government, are estimated to be $216 million, for a city that has lost over 6,000 officers in recent years due to budget cutbacks.  And here’s the kicker:  The decision to hold this trial not before a military commission on a secure army base but in crowded downtown Manhattan was made with no consultation with city officials.

The indifference to the practical, to say nothing of the legal and political, problems surrounding this decision bespeaks an arrogance so surpassing that it can be explained only by an ideologically driven vision of the world – an arrogance that in other hands and other centuries has led to human tragedies of incalculable proportions.  We’re fortunate in America that we have constitutional checks on such power, as we saw yesterday, when the Court put a halt to congressional incumbents’ efforts to hobble challengers, and on Tuesday, when the people themselves put a halt to machine politics as usual.  So will Obama learn?  Not likely, but if he doesn’t, we are not without recourse.

EDA’s Delusions of Grandeur

The U.S. Department of Commerce’s $400 million Economic Development Administration provides grants and loans to state and local governments, nonprofit groups, and businesses in regions that are supposed to be economically distressed. The EDA is a relic of the 1960s belief that the federal government can solve the problems of distressed urban centers. Its legacy is one of wasteful and politicized spending. Former EDA director Orson Swindle called it a “congressional cookie jar,” and the legendary anti-pork Democrat Senator William Proxmire argued that it “deserves to die.”

But the EDA did not die and its spending is as wasteful as ever. The EDA’s current administrator, John Fernandez, recently gave a speech on economic development under the Obama administration:

Over the past decade, we let our infrastructure crumble … our schools languish … our small businesses fend for themselves. Instead of building foundations, we chased bubbles.

Obama administration officials frequently blame current problems on the previous administration, and to some degree they are right. But it’s fallacious to imply that the Bush administration financially short-changed state and local infrastructure, schools, and small businesses — all of which are activities the federal government shouldn’t be funding to begin with. As Chris Edwards demonstrates, George W. Bush was the biggest spender since LBJ.

Fernandez continues:

By acting decisively, President Obama and his team pulled us back from the brink. Independent economists have just confirmed that the Recovery Act has saved or created more than 1.5 million jobs. The jobs picture is still sobering, but the unemployment trend is nowhere near as bad as it was when President Obama took office. One year ago, our economy was shrinking at rate of 6 percent. Today, it’s growing at a rate of 3 percent.

Regarding these claims, this graph says it all:

Here’s more lofty rhetoric from Fernandez:

As the president points out, we need to do more than get America back on its feet… We need to take big steps: we need to modernize our education system, revitalize our infrastructure, invest in industries of the future, and create a new entrepreneurial culture in which innovation can flourish… For centuries, we’ve attracted, developed, and nurtured the world’s best talent, and given our citizens a chance to build a better life for themselves and their families.

By “we need” Fernandez means the federal government, not the private sector. Yet this country didn’t become an economic powerhouse because of the Department of Commerce or any other federal bureaucracy. America’s rise to prosperity was fueled by entrepreneurship and the vast investment of private capital initially unhindered by a small and distant federal government. The “big steps” Fernandez wants to take would mean more taxes and debt, which would kill the entrepreneurship and innovation that he lauds.

Fernandez discusses the idea that state and local governments should think of economic development from a regional perspective. Competition for industry and jobs between neighboring jurisdictions should be subordinated to regional economies “planned” by government officials in conjunction with business and civic leaders. He makes a curious statement in this regard:

Our political system rewards mayors, members of Congress, and governors for how much good they did for their constituents in the short term — you don’t get credit for fostering long-term growth. And in recent years, a virtual cottage industry has developed in ranking states on how attractive they are as places to do business: who’s got the lowest labor costs, who’s got the lightest tax load or regulatory burden, and so on.

He would have a point if he were talking about narrow tax loopholes and government subsidies for companies to locate to a particular state or city. But broad-based reductions in tax and regulatory burdens most certainly foster long-term growth. And inter-jurisdictional competition over tax and regulatory burdens is an important factor promoting government restraint.

Unfortunately, the growing centralization of power at the state level at the expense of local autonomy, and similar unhealthy relationship between the federal government and the states, inhibits this healthy competition.

Although he denies it, it’s planning and centralization that Fernandez seems to view as the ideal. State and local officials should be “collaborating” on regional economic development because the real competition is foreigners. And who better to deal with foreigners than Uncle Sam?

[F]or the past decade, federal support for these regional efforts has been too limited. Too fragmented. Too inconsistent. The federal government has not been a reliable partner… What Washington can do — and under President Obama, what Washington has begun to do — is to facilitate collaboration. To provide a framework for that discussion among all the stakeholders. To help regions assess their competitive strengths. To help them design a strategy to bring together the technology, the human capital, and the financial capital it will take to compete. And to provide seed money for turning a region’s unique strategy into reality.

According to Fernandez, this is “where the Economic Development Administration comes in.” On cue, he proceeds to provide a litany of all the wonderful things his agency is doing. None of it is worth quoting, as it’s the same warmed-over subsidy ideas we’ve been hearing from federal officials for decades. The fact is the EDA is a $400 million economic development program in a $14 trillion economy. Even though that’s $400 million taxpayer dollars too many, it nonetheless amounts to a pothole on the nation’s economic superhighway.

See this essay for more on why the Economic Development Administration should be abolished.

Debating the Libertarian Vote

They’re having a lively time with our study “The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama” over at the Corner. Ramesh Ponnuru says our results show that “libertarians moved in nearly perfect opposition to the public at large, which was swinging toward the Republicans from 2000 through 2004 and against them from then through 2008.” Guess he didn’t buy our argument that “Libertarians seem to be a lead indicator of trends in centrist, independent-minded voters,” and they’re currently leading independents in a flight from the Obama agenda.

Jonah Goldberg says there aren’t many consistent libertarians, and they don’t vote as a bloc, or swing. Veronique de Rugy kindly posted a response by me:

Jonah says consistent libertarians are rare. Sure. So are consistent conservatives who would affirm every tenet of the Sharon Statement, or an updated Ten Principles of Conservatism for today, complete with policy specifics. What we are saying, and what I think no one has actually countered, is that there are some millions of voters — maybe our 14 percent, maybe Gallup’s 23 percent, maybe even Zogby’s 44/59 percent — who don’t line up either red or blue. They don’t buy the whole package from Rush or Keith, McCain or Obama, NR or TNR. They have real libertarian tendencies on both economic and personal issues.

Does that mean they want to abolish public education and legalize drugs? Of course not. But they do oppose both health care “reform” and restrictions on abortion, or they like both lower taxes and gay marriage or civil unions. According to the 2004 exit polls, 28 million Bush voters supported either marriage or civil unions. And neither party typically offers that program. Which means that some of those people — like eight Seattle entrepreneurs who visited Cato today — are uncomfortable with both parties and don’t vote consistently for either.

Jonah says, “most of the talk about ‘libertarians’ switching sides has been exactly that, talk.” Maybe he should read the study, or at least read Table 2 on page 8. A group of people who are identifiably outside the red/blue boxes did swing toward the Democrats in 2004 and 2006, and then swung back against Obama.

Veronique’s post also linked to Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy, who makes similar points in rather more scholarly language. For more debate, Katherine Mangu-Ward’s report on the study drew more than 100 comments at reason.com.