Tough Choices

How to choose when choice isn't on the ballot


"It was 'lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn't too drunk to get there," says Huck Finn's dad, the evil Pap, at one point in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I suspect a few of you are, like me, sober enough to make it to the polls where, in addition to picking our next perp-in-chief, we'll be faced with a myriad of other issues.

This election is plenty entertaining for political junkies and others with a sense of the absurd. If the prospect of a split between the popular vote and the Electoral College doesn't keep you interested in the returns until the wee hours, the possibility of a dead man winning a Senate race in Missouri and possibly throwing the Senate to Democrats just might (just so there's no confusion: Carnahan's the dead one, I think). Still, the theater aside, it's often hard for those of us interested in the expansion of individual choice and control over our own lives to know if we're winning or losing in the political sphere.

The choice at the top of the ticket is hardly exciting in this regard. Republican George W. Bush is a clear winner on personal choice in most contested policy areas other than the significant issue of abortion. In fact, he's made it a central campaign theme with tax cuts and Social Security, hammering home the idea that people should be left alone to live their lives and spend their money as they see fit. He even supports school choice, though he was careful only to whisper the word "voucher" in the presidential debates. Al Gore's never met a choice he didn't want to make for others. In fact, he even uses tax cuts to push people around and do his bidding (we're the targets in all those "targeted tax cuts"). Still, there's a lingering feeling that neither candidate embraces choice in its broad sense, which is why they're simpatico on topics such as bashing Hollywood, gay marriage, and drug use. And the 106th Congress proves there's not much difference in the parties when it comes to throwing a shindig for themselves with taxpayer money. Still, there's plenty happening at the state and local level, where citizens and interests groups are able to bypass legislatures and put issues directly before the voters.

In Alabama, for example, there's an initiative that seems to speak directly to Huck Finn's dad. In the novel, Pap swears off voting altogether when he learns that blacks can vote in Ohio ("I drawed out," says Pap in a drunken monologue, "I says I'll never vote ag'in. Them's the very words I said!). If he managed to stumble into a polling booth in today's 'Bama, he'd be faced with an initiative to actually legalize interracial marriage. It won't change anything real in the state, of course, since the law outlawing it has been a dead letter since 1967, when the Supreme Court declared antimiscegination laws unconstitutional in the aptly named case of Loving v. Virginia. But it packs symbolic value of tolerance for other people's choices.

Such tolerance isn't about to be broadly extended to gays and lesbians anytime soon. Last spring, Vermont legislators passed and the governor signed legislation recognizing "civil unions" for for gays and lesbians, an act that has elicited outrage and split the state in the current gubernatorial race. Nebraska and Nevada voters will get a chance to preemptively strike down any legislation regarding same-sex couples by passing initiatives that would amend their constitutions to prohibit the states from recognizing same sex marriages performed in other states.

And then there's the drug issue. Al Gore has acknowledged he liked to toke up to take the edge off during his time in Vietnam. Upon his return to the states, his Tennessee neighbor claims that he often burned one with the veteran (this part Gore denies). As for Bush, well he's not saying whether he did or didn't use drugs, only that he hasn't used drugs since 1974, when he was 28 years old. Before that, one can only conclude he enjoyed some controlled substances along with the more than occasional beer. Regardless of the choices they made in pursuit of pleasure or escape in their younger days, both candidates want to put you in jail if you chose to alleviate a headache, a toothache, or just plain boredom with marijuana or other drugs.

Libertarian presidential candidate Harry Browne points this out in a wonderful TV ad that asks if spending 35 years in prison for their drug use would have made Bush and Gore better people, since that's what they propose for others. Ralph Nader brings up the two candidates' drug hypocrisy as well in his many TV yak show appearances. Alaska, Colorado, and Nevada voters will have chance to register their choice on decriminalizing marijuana, at least for medical purposes. In Oregon, voters have a chance to require the government to actually convict people of crimes before it takes their property under civil asset forfeiture. In California, voters have a choice to send drug offenders to treatment instead of prison (although the former might be more punishing).

An issue that is sure to disappoint, if only because it seems like such a no-brainer to many who understand the dynamic relationship between choice, competition, and excellence, is school choice. School choice initiatives will confront Michigan and California voters, who are expected to reject them mightily. In Michigan, Republican Gov. John Engler opposed the choice initiative essentially because he was afraid that it would bring blacks to the polls who would vote for vouchers but against Republican candidates. In California, a Silicon Valley millionaire generously funded an initiative that failed to garner deep support of any sector in the state's political community.

The power to tax, to paraphrase a dead famous person, is the power to commit unsolicited buggery. Gore wants targeted buggery reduction. Bush is in favor of less of it across the board, and even for the rich. Alas, the most amazing affront on taxes was killed before voters could weigh in: In Arizona, citizens wanted to put an end to the income tax altogether, but the state's political class rallied across partisan lines and got the courts to strike it from the ballot. In Colorado, voters have the opportunity to reduce a plethora of taxes with one vote. An initiative before the Oregon voters would make federal income taxes fully deductible on state tax forms, a nice turnabout. Up one state, voters in Washington may declare fee and tax increases that were not approved by state or local legislative bodies null and void. They'll also be voting on whether to exempt their cars from property tax.

If things don't go your way tonight, you can always make the ultimate choice, and go to Oregon where the state allows physician-assisted suicide. There may soon be some relief for Easterners, as Mainers will be voting to legalize it as well. There's a catch, however: You have to be terminally ill.

Which leaves me wondering: Does a chronic case of nausea at the thought of four years of Al Gore or George W. Bush rise to that level?