Barbara Boxer

The Coming Libertarian Majority?


I'd really love to believe the GOP-lost-but-conservatism-won meme that's circulating, especially the version that stresses Republicans' apostasy from the '94 gospel of small government and fiscal responsibility, or the one that points to the power of libertarian spoiler candidates. Hell, I hope it sticks if it'll dissuade a few of the remnants from tacking left—or even just make Ryan Sager a few extra bucks in royalties. But I also think primary reason people are trying to push the notion mostly out of a combination of wishful thinking and that same desire to preempt a GOP shift centerwards.

Alas, Ramesh Ponnuru's cover story in the most recent National Review probably hits a good deal closer to the mark. Iraq and corruption are looking like the core factors right now, and I'd wager that for every principled fiscal conservative voter grumbling about the bank-breaking prescription drug benefit, there are two whose beef is that it was too stingy. The complaints about out-of-control spending seem to be a lot more likely to come from ideological pundits—and I think the libertarian-dissent narrative is to some extent appealing to that set because, while neither side's intellectuals are "libertarian" by a stretch, they tend to be more libertarian than the bases they represent (i.e. urban conservative writers are socially liberal as conservatives go; mainstream Dem pundits are constrained by at least a passing acquaintance with economics)

Admittedly, I'm not offering any actual "evidence" or "data" in support of this intuition. As The Wire's Proposition Joe might say, things happen at the polls; proof is hard to come by. But two things kept running through my head as I read the recent Cato study, optimistically pegging libertarians (pretty broadly defined) at 13 percent of the electorate: (1) That's a nice chunk of votes, but still a small enough proportion that you'd gain net votes by appealing to them at the expense of other groups, and (2) People are a lot more prepared to decry "big government" in general than any particular program. The Cato survey question is (necessarily) general, but legislative elections tend to be particular.

A lot of the empirical case for the "covert victory" thesis seems to involve pointing to people like Heath Shuler and Bob Casey (social rather than economic conservatives). But I don't know how far this stretches. We're getting a House swing in the vicinity of 30 seats, which after the Republican Revolution in '94 is the biggest net shift in a midterm in 20 years. So of course when you finally get flips in districts that have gone Republican for many terms, anyone who's going to win in these places is going to be pretty conservative. North Carolina is just not going to elect a Barbara Boxer or a Russ Feingold. Other things equal, the median elected official of either party is going to be closer to the center when they're in the majority than in the minority, when they're down to their hardcore base. That's just the upshot of the fact that growth happens at the margin.

NEXT: Americans Vote Pro-Life

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  1. The number of bond measures that passed at the state level would seem to argue against any kind of real small-government sentiment in the electorate.

  2. Well, from my understanding, a large number of the least conservative Republican representatives lost their seats, and a large number of relatively moderate and conservative Democrats won their elections.

    This seems to indicate that the remaining GOP members are, on average, more conservative than before, as are the Democratic members. In fact, I would venture to guess that, overall, the political positions they all hold on the spectrum average out to about the same. Only the parties have changed.

  3. My plan, and I posted this before, is that Social Security and the military get cut at the same time, by the same amount.

    This is not a popular plan. What most people take for libertarianism is merely plain old politics in disguise. You watch the HnR regulars explain why they support gov’t funding of pharamceutical research (or anything else perceived to help Wall Street), and this becomes painfully obvious.

  4. Whoa, Sam, I don’t recall seeing a lot of support in these parts for government funding of any research.

    Still arguing with that libertarian in your head? Not to worry; its a common affliction.

    legistlative elections tend to be particular

    How does this statement square with the assertion, mere paragraphs before, that:

    Iraq and corruption are looking like the core factors

    Not disagreeing, just askin’

  5. T.W.L. | November 9, 2006, 2:45pm | #

    They gave you that “refund” by not charging you to cover those costs in the first place.
    . . .
    TWL | November 9, 2006, 7:48pm | #
    Lamar, I’m . . . confused. Your contention is that pharma companies are passing along the cost of government funded R&D? That, absent government R&D, drug prices would be exactly the same?

    That’s . . . total nonsense. It’s like arguing that UPS owes me a refund because they use tax-funded roads. Only, UPS never charged me for the cost of road maintanence . . . much like no drug company has ever charged me to cover the cost of primary research funded by the government.


    Hunter | November 9, 2006, 2:48pm | #
    . . .
    Oh and metalgrid, you need to get a bit more educated about how all that tax funded research works. It doesn’t go to the drug companies for the most part . . .
    Ronald Bailey | April 2001 Print Edition

    Double Billing?

    A related charge regarding pharmaceutical costs is the idea that patients are actually paying for drugs twice — the first time as taxpayers through government-funded scientific research and again as patients, when they go to their local drugstore to pick up their prescriptions. “Research funded by the public sector — not the private sector — is chiefly responsible for a majority of the medically significant advances that have led to new treatments of disease,” argues The American Prospect.

    Is that true? The annual budget of the National Institutes of Health, the major government grant-giving institution for medical research, was $17.8 billion in 2000 and is expected to rise to $20.5 billion this year. Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical companies’ R&D budgets totaled $26.4 billion last year — almost 50 percent more than the 2000 NIH budget. (Industry R&D expenditures equal more than 20 percent of what pharmaceutical companies make in total sales, making the industry the most research-intensive business in the world.) What roles do government and private-sector research actually play in the drug discovery and development process?

    “Government-supported research gets you to the 20-yard line,” explains Duke’s Grabowski. “Biotech companies get you to the 50-yard line and [the big pharmaceutical companies] take you the rest of the way to the goal line. By and large, government labs don’t do any drug development. The real originator of 90 percent of prescription drugs is private industry. It has never been demonstrated that government labs can take the initiative all the way” to drug-store shelves.

    George Whitesides, a distinguished professor of biochemistry at Harvard University, similarly appreciates the role of often-government-funded research labs at universities in the early stages of drug development. But he stresses that “pure” research rarely translates into usable products. “The U.S. is the only country in the world that has a system for transmitting science efficiently into new technologies,” he argues. That system includes research universities that produce a lot of basic science and get a lot of government money. In turn, startup companies take that lab science and develop it further. “Startups take 50 percent of the risk out of a product by taking it up to clinical trials,” explains Whitesides. “Industry has an acute sense of what the problems are that need addressing.” Without private industry to mine the insights of university researchers, taxpayers would have paid for a lot of top-notch scientific papers, but few if any medicines.

    Frank Lichtenberg, the Columbia economist, has a slightly different take on the question of whether patients are paying twice for drugs. He cites the example of Xalatan, a glaucoma drug developed by Pharmacia & Upjohn. Last April, The New York Times ran a news story suggesting that although some of the original research on Xalatan was backed by a $4 million NIH grant in 1982, the “taxpayers have reaped no financial reward on their investment.” Not so fast, says Lichtenberg. In 1999, Xalatan represented 7 percent of sales for Pharmacia & Upjohn, so Lichtenberg reasonably assumes that 7 percent of the company’s $344 million in corporate income tax payments that year can be attributed to Xalatan. Thus Pharmacia & Upjohn paid about $24 million in income taxes on its 1999 sales of Xalatan. Just counting that one year of increased taxes as if it were the only return ever for a 17-year-old investment, Lichtenberg calculates that this yields a very respectable 11 percent return on the taxpayers’ money. In fact, future sales are very likely to be higher, “so the return on the taxpayers’ investment is likely to be considerably greater.”

    Still waiting for the rousing calls from outraged regulars that this pork needs to be cut. The crazee voices in my hed tell me that that ain’t coming. Not from the Reason crowd anyway. I seem to recall that one poster recently demurred in a thread about how great it was for the government to fund stem cell research — it sort of a bloodless, pro forma objection, but still nice to see. When UK government funded research has a breakthru, we hear about the clone, but nary a complaint about the socialized funding (much different tone than when we discuss poor British people getting direct patient care from government doctors and surgeons). I don’t need a firehose to know which way the wind blows here.

  6. Joseph,
    I have heard this argument that both parties are now more conservative a lot this week, but it glosses over the fact that the dem majority now has the power of the floor and the voting agenda, and since the reps shut out the dems with this advantage, there is no chance that the dems will use that power in a similar manner as Hastert, Delay et al did _to push a conservative (mostly social and military conservative) agenda. Hence, the house and senate will see a much different group of bills to vote on. For example, a minimum wage increase would have passed last year by a wide margin, but it was kept off the floor by the house leadership. This congress will bring it to a vote with its now more conservative body, and it will pass easily. Meanwhile the popular (in the house) anti flag burning stuff would still also pass in the house, but it won’t be heading to the floor as often, if at all.

  7. Sam-

    I was saying only that the government does in fact spend money on research, and that drug prices (as opposed to costs) are in fact lower because of this. I never said that it was, on balance, a good thing (or even a net gain). My entire point was that the cost of primary, government-funded research is paid through taxes (obviously), that drug companies did not charge consumers to cover these costs (again, obvious), and that therefore it was nonsense to claim that drug companies owed a refund on the value of that research.

  8. Who lifted the ban on Dave W.?

  9. Libertarians shouldn’t care how conservative things are. Libertarians are NOT conservative. Especially in the sense that “conservative”= socially intolerant and economically protectionist. Were libertarians supposed to be rooting for guys like Vernon Robinson? did I miss something.

  10. thoreau,

    It’s because he joined the Stonecutters. Wish I could get in 🙁

  11. I was saying only that the government does in fact spend money on research, and that drug prices (as opposed to costs) are in fact lower because of this. I never said that it was, on balance, a good thing (or even a net gain). My entire point was that the cost of primary, government-funded research is paid through taxes (obviously), that drug companies did not charge consumers to cover these costs (again, obvious), and that therefore it was nonsense to claim that drug companies owed a refund on the value of that research.

    And my point is that all that nuanced John Kerryishness is a far cry from “cut the pork.” I am not suggesting that it was your responsibility personally to say “cut the pork.” nor Alex’s nor RCD’s nor any other individual’s. Fyodor’s (he basically reserved judgement on the is-gov’t-pharma-research-pork question). But when you have these thds dispassionately discussing these government whether this particular kind of government spending redounds to the public benefit or not, it sounds a lot more like crypto-socialism than libertarianism to me. It is understandable that some libertarians individually might feel that way — we all have our weaknesses (me included), but the tenor of the whole discussion here when government spending on medical research is discussed here is very revealing.

  12. I still can’t help but wonder if this election represents a bad trend for the future. I.e. the rise of social conservatism mixed with economic populism? You know the whole crunchy conservatism vibe. I don’t know I guess we’ll see. Oh, and when will people learn that professional athletes should be barred from running for public office?

  13. I think your question is much easier to answer when you leave aside the votes for people (where the issues are complex and can include how good-looking the candidate is) to votes for propositions and initiatives. In the last election, though there were a few ballot initiative victories for libertarians, most of the vote sent the same message: We want big government and taxes. Sigh. More here

  14. T., Tim sed I can’t use Dave, citing possible confusion between my thought processes and prose, such as these gifts are arrayed me, and those of the mighty Dave “Delaware Dave” Weigel (aka Weigal) of Time magazine.

    Needless to say, the implication flattered me no end, and I quickly saw the sense in Tim’s proposal for my nomenclatural forebearance and it has worked out pretty good so far. I am Sam “The Butcher” Franklin. It is easy to remember because Sam Franklin was the butcher on The Brady Bunch. And because I look just like Al Melvin in real life. You should just be glad I chose that and not Jedi Master Mind-Molding Hypocrisy-Exposin’ Ghost. Cause that was my next choice.

    “Butcher” fans mark your calendars! My new album goes up on the Internet on 15 Novemeber 2006. The first new record in 3 years! Very excited about that. Get it free at:

  15. “We’re getting a House swing in the vicinity of 30 seats, which after the Republican Revolution in ’94 is the biggest net shift in a midterm in 20 years.”


    So what you’re actually saying is: This is the biggest net shift in a midterm in 12 years.

  16. Radley, can we please replace the ban on Dave?

  17. Sam-

    It isn’t nuance, it’s a fact. I wasn’t making a political argument at all. I don’t see how my saying “pork results in lower nominal prices” indicates anything about my attitude toward pork, except that I believe that it exists.

  18. “pork results in lower nominal prices” indicates anything about my attitude toward pork

    This brand of pork also results in higher profits for pharmaceutical companies, which is the problem with it. Focussing on the legitimate part of the transfer (any savings passed on) amounts to misdirection from the bad part. If they never taxed those dollars, then consumers could still invest them in pharmaceutical companies to increase the profitability of those firms enough to get that extra research done, but the nice thing about making those transactions in the private sector is that they become transaction of choice, rather than coercion. That is the interesting aspect for a libertarian — not public benefit analysis.

    Actually, the one who is proving me wrong here is Lamar, who is emerging as a strong voice for pork cutting in the medical research area. So, since Lamar is on it, maybe things aren’t as bad as I feared here. Go Lamar!

  19. Repubs say they desire small government but I think that they used to mean just from a fiscal, economic standpoint. But I think that it’s even more evident now then ever that there is more than one dimension to conservativism vs. liberalism. A two-dimensional view might incorporate both fiscal lib/cons and, say, social lib/cons.

    For example, today’s republicans, I think, tend to be conservative socially (see Religious Right) and economically (well, at least in principle – Reagan era republicans were, at any rate; not so sure with today’s pork spending) whereas dems are classically liberal socially (recall civil rights movement and hiring quotas) and economically (socialized medicine comes to mind).

    However, it is also possible to be economically conservative and socially liberal. My understanding is that that’s what a libertarian is supposed to be. We (and maybe I should restrict this to me but I had always been under the impression that Reason Online is a libertarian forum) typically believe that people should have the right to both own guns and smoke pot but we oppose financailly supporting those who don’t make a contribution to society (welfare and payouts for teenage mothers having their third child come to mind). Simply put, a libertarian says that you have the right to try to make money and the government shouldn’t take it away while also respecting the rights of others to do pretty much anything they wish provided it doesn’t hurt me somebody else (no victim, no crime).

    By restrciting political definitions to “Lib = Dem” and “Cons = Rep”, we marginalize what is suppose to be our cause. I understand why libertarians – as evidenced by many of the comments that I read here – would support a classic, Reaganomics sort of Republican. But, Rick Santorum and is NOT such a person while John McCain might be. On the other hand, Democrats like Hilary Clinton are, understandably, not likely to be favored by someone who wants the citizens to use their powers for good and make their own way while Joe Lieberman is (or was).

    Because we’ve so polarized the political spectrum, it’s become difficult to actually make reasonble choices about who’s actually qualified to represent us (by that, I mean Libertarians). I would assert that, if we truly appreciate the multi-dimensional aspects of words like liberal and conservative, it seems pretty obvious that those candidates who would best represent our (uh, Lib’s) interests are probably those who are considered centrists of both of the major parties. Liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats are essentially saying, “I buy into ‘X’, which is part of my party’s platform while also being brave, honest, and confident enough to think for myself and oppose my party’s notion of ‘Y’.” I think that those are precisely the sort of candidates that we should be supporting and encouraging to run for public office.

    There are more than two sides to many arguments and, as such, there should be more than two major parties from which to choose a qualified government.

  20. if it’ll dissuade a few of the remnants from tacking left

    The problem is that the Senators with Presidential aspirations have to start appealing to the base in order to win the primary. Tack left? I’m going to put a brace on the right side of my head to prevent my neck from snapping as this crowd goes hard to lee.

  21. JKP-
    My point is that both this year and 94 were hugely aberrant–big spikes in a 20 year trend of uniformly far lower turnover.

  22. Brillant piece! I couldn’t agree more. I’m afraid we libertarians are completely missing the message of this election.

    Two points: All Minimum Wage initiatives passed overwhelmingly, and a Socialist is now a US Senator from Vermont.

    How much else proof do we need. Americans seem to be sending us the message that they want more and bigger government.

    Even our conservative cousins seem to be misreading this election. They’re crying, “We need to become more Goldwaterite.”

    Great! I wish that were the case. But if we swing in that direction we may lose even bigger next time around.

    My suspicion is the exact opposite; We need to become more “Oprah Winfrey-ite” more compassion, more caring, more feminized, and yes, even more friendly towards government. It’s a hard pill to swallow. In fact, revolting for us of us who are rugged individualists, myself included.

    But our educational efforts for libertarianism have failed miserably. Americans reject us straight out.

    We need to change our appearance and message or face the possibility of extinction.

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