TCS Daily


Libertarian 'Anti-Gravity'

By Arnold Kling - November 1, 2004 12:00 AM

"The Pope! How many divisions as he got?"
-- Joseph Stalin, according to Winston Churchill in The Gathering Storm

This election represents a setback for libertarians. I find this puzzling, and I can only speculate as to the causes.

Looking at the platforms and positions of George W. Bush and John Kerry, I am struck by how little both candidates have to offer those of us of a libertarian persuasion. It is as if both parties have looked at the libertarians and scoffed, "How many divisions have they got?"

On economic policy, John Kerry is running as a 1930's collectivist. He rejects any proposal to reform Social Security, regardless of the long-term consequences. He proposes a large expansion of government health care programs, to be paid for in part by a class-warfare tax on people with high incomes, with the rest presumably paid for by other tax increases, either now or later. His only complaint about the Federalization of education in what I call the No Educrat Left Behind Act is that in his view it is underfunded.

On social policy, President Bush is running as a Bible-thumping morality legislator. Positions against stem-cell research and gay marriage are key components of his electoral strategy, as one may discern from just a few moments of listening to right-wing talk radio.

Disappointing Trend

I would have thought otherwise. I picture voters under 40 as having less allegiance to top-down economics and top-down moral legislation. I would think that the trend would be libertarian.

The trade union movement is not gaining young adherents. The powerful unions today are the teachers' unions and the government employees' unions, which have no economic reason to champion traditional union legislation, such as minimum wage increases or anti-dumping rules. And yet, there is candidate Kerry, making a big deal about the minimum wage and "fair trade."

Young people do not think of themselves as stuck in a particular economic class. They do not think of Social Security as their financial bedrock. Yet there is candidate Kerry, playing the class-war card on taxes and warning ominously of a "January surprise" on Social Security.

Young people tend to be much more tolerant of homosexuality. Yet there is President Bush, supporting a Constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

If my perception of an increased trend toward libertarianism among young people is correct, then this ought to have exerted some gravitational pull on the candidates' positions. That is, it should have pulled Kerry to the right on economic issues and Bush to the left on social issues, as each tries to appeal to libertarians.

Instead, during the debates, it seems to me that we witnessed libertarian "anti-gravity," with the candidates competing to appeal to traditionalist-minded voters at the expense of libertarians. President Bush moved to the left on economic issues. He did not argue against a minimum-wage increase, nor did he articulate the economic case against importing pharmaceuticals from price-controlled Canada.

Conversely, Kerry moved to the right on social issues. During the debates, he seemed anxious to reassure voters about his commitment to religion, and he waffled on the issue of gay marriage.

Hard to Herd

Why are libertarian positions being spurned by the Presidential candidates? How did we end up feeling, as the pre-election cover of Reason put it, as though the good news is that one of the two major party candidates will lose and the bad news is that one will win? I am not sure of the answer, but I can offer a few hypotheses.

One hypothesis is that libertarians are, almost by definition, hard to herd. Because they tend to be independent thinkers, it is difficult to mobilize libertarians to vote as a bloc. A candidate who takes a courageous stand in favor of drug decriminalization could fail to interest a libertarian whose hot-button issue is school vouchers.

Libertarians do not as a bloc supply money or foot soldiers to political campaigns. There is no organization that can "deliver" the libertarian vote or funds to a candidate. There is no libertarian counterpart to the National Education Association or the Christian Coalition.

Also, to the extent that libertarians are young, politicians may view their votes as unreliable. Older voters have much higher participation rates, which may explain the oddity that so much of the focus of this year's campaign was on the Vietnam war.

Mapped Out

Another hypothesis is that the electoral map works against libertarians. In Congressional races, gerrymandering has created districts that are dominated by traditionalist factions. Even if only 30 percent of the population likes collectivist economic policies, they can be sufficiently concentrated in Democratic districts to force that party's Congressional candidates to be hard-line collectivists. By the same token, even if only 30 percent of the population likes religious conservatives, they may nonetheless dominate Republican Congressional districts.

The political map that affects national politics is the "red and blue" divide. Each party believes that in order to win it must hold onto its base, which means voters who take traditionalist economic or social positions.

Only occasional candidates for statewide offices, such as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger or Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, run counter to the traditionalist tendencies within their parties. Democrat Lieberman supports free trade and experiments with school vouchers. Republican Schwarzenegger is a liberal on social issues.

War Politics

Another hypothesis is that libertarians are stymied by the politics of the war on terrorism. At a recent conference on the war in Iraq, Reason editor Nick Gillespie estimated that about 2/3 of libertarians are rabidly anti-war, with the rest of us pro-war.

My impression is that for many libertarians, the Iraq war is their single issue. Anti-war libertarians wish to vote against Bush, and pro-war libertarians will support him. I am in the latter camp, because I continue to believe that the worst government of all is the one to which altar boy Kerry and the Democrats instinctively genuflect, namely the United Nations.

If libertarians are casting their votes this year primarily as an expression of our emotions on the war, then our impact on other issues is likely to be muted. Thus, Kerry is relatively free to spurn free-market approaches to Social Security and health care, while Bush is relatively free to spurn libertarian positions on social issues.

Four years from now, I hope that the war has receded as an issue -- it seems likely that Iraq will be less of a factor in 2008. In that case, with ongoing erosion of both the New Deal economic coalition and the religious fundamentalist hardliners, perhaps we will see a reversal of libertarian "anti-gravity." Perhaps we will see a Democrat pulled to the right on economic issues and a Republican pulled to the left on social issues, rather than the disappointing choices that we face this year.


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