"The Bush Betrayal"

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My erstwhile boss David Boaz has a piece in the Washington Post today on the disenchantment of small-government conservatives with the administration.

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  1. The liberals who voted for Clinton got welfare reform and “the era of big government is over.” Now Bush is doing the opposite to small-government conservatives. The trouble is he really believes in the power of government to solve our problems.

  2. I can understand libertarians disagreeing with much of what Bush has done since becoming President, but only if they hadn’t been paying attention could they sincerely claim to be betrayed.

    David Boaz was paying attention. He would have known that the No Child Left Behind bill was amply foreshadowed by Bush’s education policy in Texas; he would have known that Bush never at any time promised to be either pro-drugs or pro-gay rights; he would have known that Bush did not campaign on spending cuts, eliminating government programs or any other major libertarian theme except one.

    This was tax cuts. Now, a complete nincompoop might think that Bush’s zealous pursuit of massive tax cuts made him a libertarian, and someone whose familiarity with American politics dated from last Thursday might think that American voters’ rejection of specific tax increases made them small-government supporters unaccountably abandoned by the President they elected. Boaz is neither of these things.

    What he is, is someone looking to portray himself and those who agree with him as victims. They do not represent a minority viewpoint; a true libertarian candidate for the Presidency would not get only about 1% of the vote on a good day. Instead, libertarians were betrayed.

    Well, baloney. In fact, libertarians do represent the viewpoint of a small minority of voters. If they want their views to influence public policy compromises will have to be made, and they will have to do most of the compromising. They could start by supporting politicians who are as serious about governing as they are about the mechanics of getting elected. There are a few of them around, though perhaps no more than a few; one of them lost to Bush in the 2000 primaries. The point is that libertarian ideas will matter more to candidates like this than to people like Bush and Karl Rove, who have analyzed the same polls Boaz has and drawn much different, and more accurate, conclusions from them.

    Not all libertarian ideas will cut any mustard with a Richard Lugar or John McCain, for example the whole money=speech principle. So what? Libertarians need to decide what is important to them. They are not going to get Ron Paul in the White House anytime soon, and those among them who choose to respond to this unhappy fact of life by staying home on election day are making no contribution to the country now that anyone will miss.

  3. In response to Boaz’s piece, I’ll just spare everybody else the trouble of posting by saying that:

    No matter how bad the GOP seems, the Democrats are worse. The GOP wants to downsize the government. Really. Honestly. But they need to get enough power to do it, and the only way to get that power is to first crush the Democrats on election day, so they need to support some big government as a temporary measure. These programs will give them the popularity needed to win elections and amass power. Once they have enough power they’ll downsize the government. Really. Honestly. You can trust them, because they’re from the government and they’re here to help.

    So no matter what, keep voting for Republicans.

    As to Zathras’s comment:

    I agree that compromise is a good thing. There are two types of compromise, settling for a lesser evil and settling for a lesser good. A lesser evil is Bush, who increases spending but not as much as the Democrats would if left unchecked. A lesser good would be somebody who wants to cut spending but not to the same extent as a purist libertarian would like. A lesser evil wants to enforce the current gun laws and add one or two “reasonable” measures. A lesser good wants to repeal a few of the current gun laws but keep a lot of them in place.

    A “lesser good” libertarian candidate, who ran on a platform of genuinely smaller government without going “all the way” as purist libertarians would like, could probably do quite well. What would be some components of a “lesser good” platform?

    There are basically two types of government programs: Those that do something for you, and those that make you do something. (e.g. Medicare vs. drug prohibition, public schools vs. business regulations, highway funds vs. gun control) Yes, there is some overlap (maybe substantial overlap), but it provides a good paradigm for thinking about government programs.

    Nobody likes to be told what to do, although many people like to tell others what to do. But most people like getting something from others, even if they don’t like paying for something for others. Bureaucracy is unpopular, but schools, city buses, and medicare are very popular.

    So go after the part where the government tells people what to do. Go after gun control, drug laws, countless pages of economic regulations, etc. etc. Although the big-ticket items will remain, there are still subtantial savings to be had from cutting the “busybody” side of government. And cutting the busybody aspect will lead to greater economic growth, so that the big-ticket items constitute a smaller fraction of GDP (and hence a lower rate of taxation). It isn’t perfect, but it’s a good first step.

    Also, while cutting taxes, simplify the taxes that remain. A tax code that takes money from you is bad, but a tax code full of arcana that tries to distort market incentives is worse. It encourages economic decisions that a free market would not reward. Probably the easiest way to do this is a flat income tax. It isn’t as good as no income tax, but a lower flat tax with no arcane provisions is a good step in the right direction.

    (Some will suggest a sales tax, but a sales tax would soon turn into an item-by-item pitched battle over what is taxed, what isn’t taxed, and what is taxed at a lower vs. higher rate. It would be a lobbyist’s free-for-all. A flat tax with no exemptions would be much easier.)

    Anyway, now that I suggested a platform that leaves some of the government in place I have no doubt that I’ll be called a statist. (Sigh…)

  4. Libertarians think farther outside the box than either dems or reptiles, but we anarchists think even farther.
    Dems are Column A.
    Reptiles are Column B.
    Libertarians hold out hope that the magic combo of items from Column A and Column B will be gastronomic nirvana.
    Anarchists say “the hell with it; let’s go down to the taqueria.”
    AH HOOO AH!

  5. Republicans have become worse than Democrats.

    A very hard feat to manage, but true.

    Anyone who says otherwise is a fool.

  6. J.D.-

    Not true. The Democrats are worse. The Republicans said so, after all. And we can trust the Republicans, because they’re from the government and they’re here to help!

  7. I say we all just vote for Howard Dean and say the hell with it.

    We need to stop taking politcs so seriously, view it more like entertainment.

  8. I could go along with rabblerouser except voting is taking politics too seriously.
    Either that or an obsessive/compulsive disorder.

  9. And, as Zathras pointed out, if “all of us” voted for Howard Dean, it wouldn’t make a discernable bit of difference in the result of the election.

  10. if “all of us” voted for Howard Dean, it wouldn’t make a discernable bit of difference in the result of the election

    Right, because I can’t imagine a case in U.S. history in which the outcome of a presidential election hinged on a few swing votes.

    Nope. Never has been.

    Certainly not in the modern era.

    Good thing Bush got a landslide.

    Yup, I feel better.

    Now I’ll just shut up and vote Republican like I’m told to.

  11. James-

    Good point. I suggested that the winning issues for small government will be the things that government orders you to do/not do, and the losing issues (for now) are the things that government does “for” you. I didn’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t also oppose the laws that discourage (or even outright bar) private services from competing with public services. Such reforms would undermine the popularity of public services if it was seen that affordable and high quality private alternatives can thrive. I just assumed people would read my post to mean that laws against competing with the government fit in the category of “thou shalt/shalt not” laws rather than “here’s what we’ll do for you.”

    However, I do think it’s important to let the introduction of private alternatives precede the elimination of the public services. The intervening adjustment period, however brief it might be, makes any other approach politically unfeasible in the current climate. So let private companies deliver mail for those who wish to send it privately. End the government regulation of private health care, while keeping the medicare subsidy in place (for now). Overturn any laws that make it harder for private bus services to do business in the city, even while the public buses remain (for now). And so forth, and so forth.

    One thing I am skeptical of that many libertarians might support is contracting of government services. In some cases it might make sense as an intermediate step toward privatization. In other cases it simply means more layers of bureaucracy (the private contractor’s layers of management, plus the public officials overseeing the contractor). So that tactic has to be approached with skepticism and caution. (I spent a summer several years back as an intern for a government agency that was ostensibly contracted out, and it simply meant twice as many layers of bureaucracy.)

  12. The record is manifest. Bush is an enemy of liberty. Dump him! Perhaps we could start with a challenge in the primaries from one or more Republicans who revere the constitution and limited government.

    Also, let us not smear all the Republicans in congress with Bush’s big government agenda. It’s
    hard to imagine how liberty would have fared as badly, or at least any worse, had Gore won the presidency with the same GOP congress, as it has fared under the Bush regime. But there is, on the other hand, a huge difference between the GOP congress people and their Dem. counterparts. The NTU reports that in the senate the Dem. members voted to spend an average of about 4.5 times more, in new spending than the Republicans. ($150.9 billion/Democrats vs. $34.2 billion/Republicans).

    While in the house, Democrats called for an average of $417.6 billion in new spending, nearly 13 times more than House Republicans! ($32.3 billion). See:

    http://ntu.org/news_room/press_releases/P0310ntuf_pp_145.php3

  13. Thoreau says, “schools, city buses, and medicare are very popular.”

    You have to wonder why that is. In each case, the public is thrown crumbs (albeit often unnecessarily expensive crumbs), and told that they are receiving something precious that should be lusted after, sought, and grabbed as fiercely and tenaciously as Gollum’s “precious” One Ring To Rule Them All. Yet the results are fairly pathetic. Buses fail to lure all but a few away from their automobiles, and public transit systems of all kinds typically fail to live up to the grandiose ridership projections of their promoters, yet they are just effective enough to crowd out many other forms of free-market competition. All we ever hear is, “more money for schools, don’t cut money for schools.” Yet despite massive public support for the government’s near-monopoly school system, it is failing, schools are closing, and millions of students are left without anything that remotely resembles an “education.” Medicare has made a daily routine — practically an art form! — out of robbing Peter to pay Paul. As bureaucratic control has extended over more and more of the healthcare industry, distorting the market and forcing a de facto rationing of care, prices have shot through the roof. Now, almost anyone who doesn’t have some access to “insurance” will be beggared if forced to fund even a reasonably short hospital stay — not to mention heroic, livesaving treatment — out of his or her own pocket.

    The reason that such unattractive, ineffective, clattering monstrosities remain popular, in my opinion, is that people fear that, if those “public goods” went away, then nothing — certainly not anything better — would replace them. “They may not be much,” reasons the public, “but they’re all we have and by God we’re not going to let some mean-spirited SOB take them away.”

    One of the best things that any statesman could do, would be to eliminate the barriers that keep BETTER alternatives to the public facilities from competing with and ultimately obviating them.

  14. When a single party controls both the executive and legislative branches, and that party’s primary objective is to retain power, then it will be a spending free-for-all, regardless of whether we refer to the Democrat or Republican party. I did not like Bubba as a president, but the constant partisanship while he was present was a gift to the US. It won’t always be the case, as when George the Elder spent his way out of office. In three presidential elections, I’ve never voted either Republican or Democrat, but now I’m likely to vote for whatever party will likely cause partisanship and governmental deadlock between the branches.

  15. Looking empirically at the contracting issue, it is a real mixed bag here in Iowa. Say what you want about bureaucracy, but it does tend to mean more accountability for the tax dollar as opposed to simply writing a check to a service company and assuming it abides by the contract. The state Veterans Home, for example, once provided excellent care for those citizens who deserve it most. A former Governor was quoted as saying “This is a Cadillac facility when all we really need is a Chevrolet,” and he proceeded to award maintenance, staffing and supply contracts to lowest bidders. Certainly the state saved cash, but at the cost of adequate care and dignity to service men and women, and a huge embarrassment to our state. Another example would be the quasi-private foundation who contracts to inspect patient records for level-of-care and quality-of-care in private long-term care facilities. It is a nightmare of political intrigue, under-the-table favors at the expense of the vulnerable elderly. On the other hand, our zoos and interstate rest areas are pretty clean due to contract labor in those facilities. Go fig.

  16. thoreau,

    How about translating all budgetary savings into tax cuts by raising the personal exemption? Raising the personal exemption to equal median income would reduce revenues by maybe 10% or so, and would result in the biggest increase in take-home pay for the average wage-earner in the last 30 years. Since the plutes are the largest beneficiaries from current State intervention in the economy, they should be the last to benefit from the savings of downsizing government.

    Of course, even flat taxes like Steve Forbes proposed had large enough personal deductions to make it an improvement over the current system for most hourly employees. I think the main effect of his plan, besides reducing revenue, was to shift the tax burden from people like David Rockefeller to the upper middle class.

    Another good candidate for cuts would be the corporate income tax, since oligopoly firms just pass it along to the customer; and anyway it only serves to heighten the difference in privilege between corporations that do and don’t pay much tax, after breaks for interest on debt, R&D, depreciation, and so forth.

  17. Kevin-

    It’s not always true that the corporate tax is passed on to consumers. It depends on the amount of competition.

    Say that a bunch of firms are competing, and then suddenly their taxes go up. Most of them say “Well, time to pass that on to consumers.” But one guy says “Hmm, I’ll take the hit on this tax and offer the same price as before. I’ll be charging less than my competition, and the consumers will flock to me. So I’ll still come out ahead.” If the market is highly competitive (consumers have plentiful information and low transaction costs for switching to a different supplier) then the only way for his competitors to remain in business will be if they also bite the bullet on some or all of the tax.

    On the other extreme, in the case of a monopoly, or at least a market where consumers are unlikely to switch due to limited information and/or high transaction costs, companies can afford to pass some or all of the tax on to consumers.

    The extent to which the consumers pay the corporate tax vs. the company accepting lower (after-tax) profits determines who pays for the tax increase or benefits from the tax cut. Since many industries are intermediate between pure monopoly and pure competition the answer is usually “some of each.”

    Not to defend or criticize corporate taxes, just to point out the complexities.

  18. thoreau,

    Re contracting out:

    I’ve raised the issue before at this site, so my apologies to those whose eyes are glazing over.

    But government facilities paid for by past taxpayer sweat equity are rightfully the property of taxpayers. Selling off assets is likely to be a sweetheart deal for the insiders who buy them, and a royal screwing for the taxpayers who paid for them in the first place. And contracting out is often just a way for politically connected private firms to get a deal on the taxpayer tit they couldn’t get in a free market: after all, the government is still, in Uncle Milty’s words, spending other people’s money on other people–it’s just hiring somebody else to spend the money for them.

    In many cases, the fairest solution would be to decentralize control of them to the smallest possible local unit and place them under direct control by the public themselves. For example, school boards might be abolished and individual school faculties made directly responsible to the parents whose children attend. The ideal, of course, would be to make payment voluntary and run the schools on a user-fee basis; but that would take a long time to accomplish.

  19. Opus ( or perhaps it was Milo ) once opined that a statesman was just a dead politician. The world needs more statesmen!

  20. thoreau,

    Yeah, that’s why I specified oligopoly firms. Although I should have acknowledged that the firms most likely to be able to pass costs on are also likely to be paying little or not tax anyway, since most corporate tax breaks disproportionately benefit the largest.

  21. I was glad to see some republicans criticizing the insane spending that characterizes the Bush administration:
    http://apnews.myway.com/article/20031130/D7V56CGG0.html

    We should not make any excuses for the spending. We are not France, and should hold our leaders accountable for what they do.

  22. One of the following men is going to be the next president:

    George Bush
    Howard Dean
    John Kerry
    Welsey Clark
    John Edwards
    Dick Gephardt

    Pick One.

    Happy Monday, Libertoids!

  23. According to J.D., I’m a fool, however I think Joe’s post makes a point fairly clear. Like it or not, Bush is still the better option. The others on that list are simply too frightening to comprehend. I understand the “encourage gridlock” strategy of Lib. Dean supporters, but I’m not so sure it’s worth the risk. Pretend for a moment that Dean did not face as much opposition as anticipated. Shivers.

    (joe, I apologize if that was not your point)

  24. my apologies…

    …”Dean would not face…”

  25. Thoreau:

    Well done post. I agree on the income tax idea ? the national sales tax is a dangerous idea unless you repeal the 16th amendment and the normal patterns of political lobbying, neither being likely ? but disagree to some extent with your proposal on picking the right issues on which to make electoral gains. I think free marketeers should focus on policies that increase alternatives to and competition with the public sector welfare state, such as school choice, privatization, and personal savings accounts for Social Security, health care, and unemployment.

    Your basic point is well-taken, however: until the public sees a clear, presumably attractive alternative to the welfare state, no amount of moral villifcation of it can succeed in changing policy (though let’s keep the moral villification up, too, as part of the overall strategy).

    The Bush team has seriously miscalculated on trade (thank goodness for the steel-tariff repeal) and on Medicare. On the other hand, my guess is that President Gore would have done worse in trade ? despite his past, the Dems are drifting back into protectionism and he would have followed them ? and far worse on Medicare, because Republicans would have made an even worse deal to protect their Congressional majority than Bush had them do.

    Bad decisions, economically and politically. But there is still Social Security accounts. . .

  26. Hey! That was not my point! I was just trying to bum you all out. Come back here!

    Ah, crap.

  27. Rest assured, Joe, it bums me out!

  28. Just two additions to my last post:

    Howard Dean who is supposedly a ?federalist? when it comes to gun control has endorsed the gun show legislation (I do not believe Bush has) in addition to renewing the ?assault weapons? ban (which Bush has rhetorically supported but in practice allowed to wither on the vine).

    With regards to the ?faith based initiatives? ? this seems to be about the only thing where Bush can be accused of trying to legislate religion although my understanding is his proposal would simply allow religious organizations to compete for grants much like secular organizations. Fundamentally, this is not much different than allowing parochial schools to receive funding via vouchers ? something that many libertarians and conservatives (although not myself) support for reasons which have nothing to do with religion. Lieberman was the sponsor of this legislation in the Senate and IIRC still supports it. I think it is a minor issue myself (much like textile tariffs) compared to things like entitlement reform and foreign policy where Bush is clearly the preferable candidate.

  29. “fictional gun show loophole”

    Can a guy with a felony record or restraining order buy a gun at a gun show, or not?

  30. Joe,

    The rules at gun shows are the same as anywhere else. A felon is not allowed to buy a gun at all, BUT if he bought one from someone who is not a licensed dealer (his neighbor, for example), he would never get caught, because there’s no background check.

    If he buys from a dealer (whether it’s at a gun shop or a gun show booth), there has to be a background check.

    That’s the “gun show loophole.” As you can see, it has nothing to do with gun shows, and it’s not really a loophole.

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