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Friday, October 06, 2006

Can Democrats and Libertarians Find Common Ground?

I pretty much hate rules and restrictions on what I can do. Because of that, there is no sense in which I would describe myself as someone who likes government intervention. But unlike many libertarians, taxation and the size of government are not my main concern. My worries about government come from its ability to intrude into my life, to tell me what I can and cannot do, to spy on me or otherwise invade my personal life and restrict my freedom. It's none of the government's business.

I'm astounded at those who tolerate so many intrusions into their personal lives or the lives of others, intrusions that have grown in recent years, just because their incomes are higher due to tax cuts. The power to tax is but one power the government has, and to me it's far from the most worrisome one. I want government to lend a helping hand where it's needed, to regulate markets and overcome market failures, to provide law and order, to protect us from enemies, etc., and I believe that, for the most part, the people in government are well-intentioned and dedicated. But I have no desire for a government that is constantly looking over my shoulder and setting bounds on what I can do, or a government that is any larger than is absolutely necessary. I know most on the libertarian side share that sentiment, but it sure is hard to detect it in today's political environment.

This continues the series at Cato's Economics Unbound on Libertarian Democrats:

Governing Well Is the Best Revenge, by Bruce Reed, Cato Unbound: I am not a libertarian. Unlike Markos Moulitsas, I will not try to convince you that most of our fellow Democrats are libertarians, either. ...

After six years of getting burned by an administration and Congress that promised to tame government, then injected it with steroids, you deserve to hear a straight answer, and a few honest pledges that will actually be kept. So let me start by leveling about the ways in which we may disagree. I grew up in Idaho, perhaps the second most libertarian state in the Union (behind Alaska)...

Growing up in the Rockies, a world away from Washington, I picked up a healthy skepticism of government, an independent streak, and a distaste for orthodoxy. ... I took other lessons from those years... First, personal liberty and personal responsibility go hand in hand. We won’t have more of one unless we insist on more of the other. Government is not the first nor the most important agent of responsibility, but its example matters. An irresponsible, unaccountable government of any size poses a far graver threat to individual freedom than a responsible, activist one.

Second, markets can be the most effective engine of individual opportunity, but only if they are honest ones, tempered in the public interest. Third, government must be an engine of individual opportunity as well, or else it will end up imposing a crushing burden of privilege and bureaucracy. ...

These beliefs lead ... to ... stands that many libertarians will not agree with. For example, I believe that every American owes our country a debt of service. I believe that government is bound to fail any time it values responsibilities less than rights. From my own experience in government, I even have come to believe that my hero George Orwell’s vision no longer holds: In a country like ours, the more likely threat to freedom is not government conspiracy, but government ineptitude and bureaucracy.

So, if you’re looking for government to close up shop, don’t vote Democratic. Unlike George Bush and the Republican Congress, we’ll give you accountable government that lives within its means. But we want government to do something useful, not just sit there.

I’ll leave it to the civil libertarians in my party to explain why our side is less likely to spy on your library books, read your e-mails, or infringe upon your constitutional rights. My case for voting Democratic rests on three simple, comparative tests: Which party can provide smaller, more efficient government? Which party takes the responsibilities of government and limited government seriously enough to actually deliver it? Which party believes in competition enough to wean the country from its dangerous addiction to corporate welfare and make free enterprise work?

Smaller Government: Forget the sweet nothings that Republicans have whispered in your ears for decades. The last 15 years have given us a perfect laboratory experiment to measure actual results. Bill Clinton produced the first balanced budget and the first surpluses in 30 years. He cut the size of the federal workforce by 400,000, and imposed a level of spending restraint the federal government hasn’t seen before or since. As Cato bravely pointed out, George Bush did just the opposite, squandering surpluses, abandoning all restraint, and presiding over the sharpest increase in domestic spending since LBJ.

If the record isn’t enough, look at our agendas. Going forward, Democrats are the ones insisting on restoring annual spending caps and pay-as-you-go-rules to put the teeth back in fiscal discipline. The Bush White House and congressional Republicans continue to oppose it, and claim deficits don’t matter. We now have a quarter century of evidence to prove that Republican tax cuts will never shrink the size of government—on the contrary, they just delay the day of reckoning, and add interest. ...

Limited Government: Thomas Jefferson said, “That government which governs least, governs best.” After six years, we can now postulate the Bush corollary: “That government which governs worst, governs most.”

Let’s face it: If you believe in the idea of limited government, you have to take government more seriously, not less. Nations have certain irreducible needs—like protection from natural disaster, for example. Do them well, and government need not grow in size or scope. Screw them up, and you’ll have to spend, meddle, and intrude a great deal more.

Just as important, the very essence of limited government is that it must be purposeful, performance-based, and mission-driven. When the purpose is not clear and certain, the outcome and the cost will never be.

In the Clinton administration, hacks knew their place. In the Bush administration and the Republican Congress, hacks know no bounds. The Bush playbook—bribes, no-bid contracts, disdain for competence, and a penchant for botching reform—invites more government. New Democrat answers like banning earmarks, closing the revolving door, and ending the incumbent protection racket by requiring competitive congressional districts, by contrast, will keep government in check.

That is the fundamental problem with the Bush administration and Washington conservatism. The Bush White House has been a political project, not a governing one. From Katrina to Iraq to its domestic agenda, the Bush crowd didn’t take governing seriously, and never even bothered to ask whether its ideas would work. It should come as no surprise that they didn’t.

Ending Corporate Welfare: For all their talk about markets, Washington Republicans have institutionalized corporate welfare and special privilege. Corporations are not the root of all evil, as some think. But if we believe in competition, we shouldn’t be doling out taxpayer subsidies that distort the market, bloat the budget, and invite corruption all at the same time.

For years, New Democrats have been beating the same drum as the Cato Institute: It is time to end corporate welfare as we know it. ... If we level the playing field by abolishing unnecessary subsidies, we’ll advance the general welfare and be in a much stronger position for the global competition ahead.

Democrats have a vision of liberty and responsibility that America could have used these last few years, and needs even more in the years to come. We may not be Rocky Mountain libertarians. But after the mess Bush has made, you have nowhere to go but up.

    Posted by on Friday, October 6, 2006 at 12:06 AM in Economics, Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (2)  Comments (14)


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