« The Fairness and Efficiency of 'Fairtrade' | Main | Krugman: Review of 'Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations,' by David Warsh »

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Libertarians of the World, Unite!

Let's look in on the debate among Republicans about the will to reduce the size of government within the party, and how those who retain the core conservative/libertarian value of a smaller government might best achieve their goal. This is Bruce Bartlett writing a reaction essay in Cato Unbound. He is responding to the lead essay by David Frum:

In this month’s provocative lead essay, ...former Bush speechwriter David Frum considers whether the time has come and gone for the small government heirs of Goldwater, Reagan, and Gingrich. His answer: “the day in which we could look to the GOP to have an affirmative small-government vision of its own has I think definitively passed.” ... Frum argues ... there is little chance that Republicans going forward will repudiate the spirit of the big-government Bush agenda. The small-government conservative’s best hope is that, like the defunct Whigs and Progressives, elements of their ideas and ideals will survive as a part of the political consensus.

Here's Bruce Bartlett's reaction:

The Forecast is Grim … So What Are We Going to Do About It?, by Bruce Bartlett, Reaction Essay , Cato Unbound: Like David, I am very pessimistic about the prospects for conservative/libertarian reform. He is exactly right that demographically-driven federal spending is rising rapidly as the baby boom generation nears retirement, and the best political opportunity for restructuring Social Security and Medicare has passed. As the percentage of voters benefiting from these programs in their current form rises, it is unrealistic to think that spending for them can be reduced except marginally.

David is also right that the Republican Party has become deeply corrupt and appears to lack any leaders with the potential for pushing it back in a more conservative direction. ... From this, David concludes that small government-types should just suck it up, try to slow the rate of growth of spending and do their best to shame the Republicans into behaving more responsibly. He dismisses the prospects for a third party that would embody a more libertarian/conservative philosophy.

In many ways, this is my perspective as well. Because of it, I concluded that conservatives and libertarians need to think seriously about how best to finance the government spending that is in the pipeline. Given the magnitude of that spending growth ... I have suggested that it is time to think about a value-added tax for the U.S. ...

This suggestion has been anathema to conservatives and libertarians alike. They view it as surrender to Big Government. ... If government spending were dominated by discretionary programs ... then I would be more likely to agree. Under such circumstances, the idea that one can “starve the beast” ... has some validity...

However, today government spending is totally dominated by interest on the debt that is impossible to cut, entitlements that are almost impossible to cut, and national defense, which is unlikely to be cut ... more than 80 percent of the budget is effectively off limits. ... To offset the entire projected rise in entitlement spending would require the abolition of virtually every other thing the government does... This may be fine to extreme libertarians, but it hardly constitutes a realistic political strategy for reducing government.

At this point, my friends must think I have totally thrown in the towel on bigger government. This is not so. What I have discussed thus far is simply a forecast of what I see coming. It doesn’t imply anything about my desired outcome. Just because I might predict that a recession is coming, based on my analysis of economic data, it doesn’t mean that I want a recession to happen. ...

In other words, the first thing that libertarian or conservative small government advocates need is a clear-eyed understanding of where we are and where we are going, absent drastic and unlikely changes in law and policy. In my observation, many—even most—tend to be ignorant of the actual fiscal facts... And because many of them hate the federal government and view all those who serve in it as crooks, imbeciles and fools, they tend to know almost nothing about the legislative process or the actual operation of the political system.

Implicitly, many in the small government community put themselves in the position of the world’s most powerful dictator, able to simply slash government programs willy-nilly, without regard to programmatic details, the real world consequences for those who depend on such programs, and without having to worry about where the votes will come from to achieve their goals. I often hear libertarians says things like just cut spending across the board, eliminate X department, or abolish this or that program, as if slashing government is as easy as waving a magic wand.

When they come to realize the extreme difficulty of making even minuscule changes in the growth path of federal spending ... many libertarians and conservatives withdraw from the political process altogether, refusing even to vote because they see it as lending credibility to a system they find abhorrent. ...

Occasionally, a third party effort such as Ross Perot’s in 1992 will tempt the politically alienated small government constituency. But the result of all third party efforts is to undermine the major party closest to it ideologically... Thus, Ralph Nader’s quixotic campaigns only had the effect of helping George W. Bush...

I would add that the net effect of the Libertarian Party over its history has been to drain political activists with a libertarian bent away from the two major parties... In my opinion, libertarian goals would be much better advanced by ... an organized libertarian interest group along the lines of the National Rifle Association or the pro and con abortion groups that could mobilize libertarian voters, contributions, and other resources within the existing two-party structure, instead of outside where it is and always will be impotent. The constitutional requirement that a president receive an absolute majority of votes in the Electoral College effectively means that we can never have more that two viable political parties.

Theoretically, a third party could supplant one of the major parties, as the Republicans did with the Whigs. While this sort of thing happens fairly often in other countries such as Canada, it has only happened in the U.S. when one party found itself incapable of dealing with an issue of overriding importance, such as slavery, which is what doomed the Whigs. ...

I would welcome a serious debate among libertarians and small government-types on a realistic political strategy for achieving their goals. Simply damning the existing system and withdrawing from it is just a prescription for accelerating the trend toward bigger government.

    Posted by on Wednesday, May 3, 2006 at 03:00 AM in Budget Deficit, Economics, Politics, Taxes | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (13)


    TrackBack URL for this entry:

    Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Libertarians of the World, Unite!:


    Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.