Capital Markets

You Choose, You Lose

What happens when the two evils are pretty much equal?


I am not, technically speaking, an undecided voter. I plan to vote for the presidential candidate whose views about the proper role of the federal government are closest to mine: Bob Barr, the Libertarian nominee. But on the question of which major-party candidate would do less damage to the country as president—by which I mean expand government and restrict liberty less—I remain undecided.

As we saw during the first six years of the Bush administration, which featured profligate spending and unchecked executive power, the White House and Congress tend to enable each other's excesses when they are controlled by the same party. Since the Democrats are expected not only to retain but to strengthen their grip on the legislative branch, this consideration counts in favor of the Republican nominee.

Another important advantage of a McCain presidency is that he would be more likely than Barack Obama to appoint judges who see their job as interpreting and applying the Constitution, rather than rewriting it to fit their policy preferences. Since the two oldest members of the Supreme Court tend toward the latter approach, McCain could have a chance to make the Court more faithful to the original understanding of the Constitution.

While McCain would be better than Obama in this respect, it's not because he cares much about legal philosophy but because the people advising him would. Likewise on economic issues, where the people McCain consults seem less interventionist and more market-oriented than Obama's advisers. Then again, McCain has cast doubt on the superiority of his economic instincts by condemning "reckless conduct" and "unbridled greed" on Wall Street while backing taxpayer-funded bailouts of reckless and greedy lenders, investors, and borrowers.

If McCain's support for these expensive adventures in moral hazard undermines his claim to fiscal conservatism, so does his continued enthusiasm for another ill-advised, Treasury-draining initiative: the five-year-old war in Iraq, the price tag for which will exceed that of the Wall Street bailout, even without taking into account the thousands of American and Iraqi lives it has cost. Obama opposed the war from the start and is likely to bring it to a quicker close than McCain would.

Overthrowing Saddam Hussein is not the only part of President Bush's War on Terror that Obama has questioned. He has been appropriately critical of other policies Bush said were necessary to fight terrorism, including illegal, warrantless surveillance; indefinite, unreviewable detention; and "enhanced interrogation techniques" that are indistinguishable from torture. With the glaring exception of the Second Amendment, which Obama supports in theory but not in practice, he has a substantially stronger record on civil liberties than McCain does.

Obama is also superior on the related issue of executive power, rejecting Bush's contention that the president may do as he pleases in matters related to terrorism or national security. McCain initially sounded better than Bush on this question, agreeing that the president is obligated to obey the law and renouncing the use of signing statements to evade that obligation. More recently, however, his campaign has indicated that McCain's view of the president's authority is broad enough to permit violation of statutes governing surveillance of people in the United States.

The extent of the president's powers, although hardly mentioned during the general election campaign, is probably the most important consideration in choosing between McCain and Obama. It is tied to all the other major issues, including the Iraq war, the fight against terrorism, and the government's response to the current economic situation.

The crucial question is which matters more: a president's theory of executive power or the political environment he faces. If the former, Obama is the less risky choice. If the latter, McCain is, since he would face a less compliant Congress. In that case, the Republicans' sorry performance during their six years in charge of the executive and legislative branches, by highlighting the virtues of divided government, may be the best argument for their nominee.

© Copyright 2008 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

NEXT: Banana Republic

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  1. McCain would be the lesser evil only if he came with a 4-year warranty.

  2. I’m writing in Ron Paul. I would have gone for Barr, but watching him over the last couple of months, I don’t trust him as far as I could throw Hillary Clinton.


  3. JCR – good idea! Writing in Ron Paul is about as effective as writing in Mickey Mouse. Your vote will go unreported and no one will care.

  4. I have to agree with TAO here. I guess I can understand some peoples complaints about Barr. Although personally I believe he has changed his ways I completely understand how some people do not. However if you are trying to send a message with your vote, you should at least vote for a guy who actually show up in the polling numbers. I mean after all it’s not like he has a chance of winning. So, imho, either pick a candidate who will show up in the polling numbers so you do make a point, or stay home and join the “only way to waste a vote is to vote” crowd.

    On a side note I am very close to being in that crowd although I guess, naively perhaps, I still believe in the democratic process. I do believe though that choosing not to vote is one of the most American things you could do.

  5. I agree that writing in Ron Paul is pointless, though it may vary state to state.

    I do think Barr has changed his views, but he’s still a poor representative of liberty. I feel that a vote for Barr may encourage the LP to become the GOP Lite (if it hasn’t already).

    I’ll still go vote, mostly because I want to vote for Andy Horning for governor. For president, I’ll probably stick with evil ol’ Cthulhu. It’s even more pointless than voting for Ron Paul, but at least it matches my bumper stickers.

  6. In California, Paul is one of a handful of official write-in candidates, meaning that elections organizations are obliged to count and report his votes. The Secretary of State’s office says such candidates “have the right to receive votes.”

    I think it is better to vote for Barr because, in the final analysis, every vote for LP candidates improves ballot access for 2010 and 2012. As always, vote your conscience, but Ron Paul will not become President this year through a write-in campaign, and the LP could use the help with its ballot access struggle.

  7. Let me get this straight. If I’m not voting for X, and must choose between A & B, A would be better under a certain set of circumstances, and B would better under another set of circumstances. Fortunately for candidate B, circumstances favor him because his party has done such an incredibly poor job over the last decade.


  8. This year, instead of choosing the lesser of two evils, I’m choosing the lesser of six evils. There are six candidates on the ballot in enough states to (hypothetically) win an electoral majority. Normally I would just vote Libertarian, but I really don’t like Bob Barr. Nader and McKinny are too far to the left. Baldwin seems good but I can’t bring myself to vote a pastor for president. That leaves McCain and Obama. I might be able to go with an honest conservative Republican, but McCain is no such person. On global warming, McCain-Feingold, preemptive war, taxes, regulation, and his knee-jerk support for the ‘socialistic’ bailout package, McCain has aligned himself with the worst elements of the status quo.

    Further, I can not see rewarding the GOP for the last 8 years of failure with another term in the White House.

    I am nearly certain that I will regret it, but that leaves Obama as my only choice.

  9. It seems governmental and presidential power expanded most under,F.D.R.,L.B.J. AND G.W.B..All three had their party in control in congress.

  10. TAO,

    As it happens, Ron Paul is registered as a write-in candidate in my state, so casting my vote for him will have precisely the same impact as voting for Barr would have. Except that I’ll be voting for someone who deserves my support.


  11. Michael,

    Don’t forget Lincoln. He was the model for every power-grabbing president since.


  12. McCain is sufficiently better on free trade to make him clearly preferable to Obama.

  13. I already voted for Barr and I feel pretty damn good about it. However, I might have just fallen for his evil scheme to pretend to be a Libertarian so he could not be elected president.

  14. In that case, the Republicans’ sorry performance during their six years in charge of the executive and legislative branches, by highlighting the virtues of divided government, may be the best argument for their nominee

    That is the singular, and by definition, best argument they have. Also, it outweighs everything, as if you don’t have gridlock it will inevitably get worse.

  15. JCR – you still think that RP is going to garner enough write-ins to merit reporting?

    Further proof that RP has a bizarre cult-of-personality composed of all kinds of strange cronies.

  16. Re: Free Trade

    I support free trade — but how do we have ‘free trade’ with controlled economies like China? Free should mean free on all levels. Forcing the American workers to compete with what is essentially slave labor is not free trade. Rather, it’s sociological suicide.

  17. Writing in Ron Paul is about as effective as writing in Mickey Mouse. Your vote will go unreported and no one will care.

    This is patently absurd, TAO. Your vote is worth Jack and shit anyway, and Jack left town. You might as well vote for someone you actually can agree with on a lot of stuff, or do what I do: refuse to support a system of the tyranny of the majority by not voting.

    Anyone who says “you are throwing your vote away” doesn’t understand the numbers involved.

  18. Votes are counted, not weighed. Every vote for McCain and Obama is counted as a vote (and mandate for the winner) for their program. Only visible votes for the opposition are likely to cause the winner to pause (and the loser to reflect). Run up the Libertarian total so it attracts attention, instead of adding one more to the Obama landslide.

  19. “This is patently absurd, TAO. Your vote is worth Jack and shit anyway, and Jack left town. You might as well vote for someone you actually can agree with on a lot of stuff, or do what I do: refuse to support a system of the tyranny of the majority by not voting.

    Anyone who says “you are throwing your vote away” doesn’t understand the numbers involved.”

    This argument always struck me as similar to the argument that says efficient markets mean you should just buy index funds – it’s impossible to outperform the market except by luck. The problem with this is that it rests on the assumption that some players trade the stocks and make it efficient. If everyone just indexed, then the market couldn’t be efficient. Therefore the theory concludes rational people should index resting on the work of irrational actors who are doomed to failure. This is a hell of a lot like voting.

    Besides, there are other good reasons to vvote: If you don’t want to vote for a major party, or you live in a non-swing state (all of them now, apparently) then a vote is a free check you can write for a third party. Notice it’s not a vote for the candidate. Bob Barr will never be president, so voting for him isn’t really voting for “him” – it’s voting that the LP should get federal election dollars in 4 years for whoever comes next.

  20. To the libertarian Obama supporters:

    Obama is going to win in an electoral landslide. McCain can’t win, the election is basically over. Do your ideals a favor and try to get the LP candidate enough votes to register a sliver on a newspaper’s pie-chart.

    I know the GOP sucks and you want to stick it to them. Don’t worry about that because the Republicans are going to be absolutely destroyed in this election. Let’s at least try to get libertarianism out in the spotlight a little more, okay?

  21. One thing missing in this article is that the media and party power brokers have essentially hijacked the primary process. Therefore, the American voter is left with arguably the two most pathetic choices in the history of the presidency. And, that’s stating quite a bit in light of Bush-Gore and Bush-Kerry.

  22. With respect to McCain on judges, he’s going to have to convince about 10 Democrats to support his nominee to the SCOTUS. Do you think they’d confirm someone like Scalia or Thomas? Not bloody likely.

    He’s going to have to compromise quite a bit to get anyone past the Senate.

  23. As a Randian, I strongly prefer McCain to Obama. McCain is a mercantilist/T.R. progressive. Obama is, I am firmly convinced, a Marxist. On those grounds, McCain is much less dangerous. And because I’m a Randian, I have no problem with the US aggressively pursuing a struggle against Islamo-Fascism, just as I broadly supported our efforts in the Cold War. At least NOW our military are volunteers, and not conscripts. If Obama is elected, we will ALL be Frank Marshall Davis’s butt-boys.

  24. If you truly feel that your only choice this election is between BHO or JSM for whatever reason (although as has been pointed out in this comment thread here a vote for the LP is not about voting Barr but more about getting more national recognition and financing) at least vote for JSM. As Mr.Sullum pointed out, if BHO is put into office that leaves his party unchecked in legislative and executive power. Not to mention the appointment of SCOTUS judges. As many have already pointed out, when parties dominate both congress and the white house they facilitate each other to do what we all fear. At the very least, at least imho, these are great reasons to vote JSM…again only if you feel your choice is between BHO and JSM.

  25. I’ll paraphrase what I wrote on another thread:

    Bob Barr isn’t libertarian enough, so you’re willing to cast your vote on an unlibertarian candidate, when that candidate is going to win anyway?

    What a principled way to flush your principles down the toilet.

  26. The whole premise of this piece and the divided government argument, is that McCain would fight with the Democrats. Where in his history has he ever held a consistent position on any domestic policy? Where has he ever fought the Democrats? His whole current economic policy is stuff he opposed not long ago.

    McCain would give the Democrats whatever they wanted just for the chance to attack Iran. So, you would get a third war and a third New Deal. Obama at least will try to govern in a way that will get him re-elected, which will play to the massive amounts of centrist voters currently supporting him.

  27. And because I’m a Randian, I have no problem with the US aggressively pursuing a struggle against Islamo-Fascism

    Me too! Which is why I am opposed to continued involvement in Iraq, which had / has zero to do with the radical brand of Islam we’re currently fighting.

  28. Here’s the way I see it:

    Obama is a socialist democrat who, if elected, will have a socialist democrat majority in Congress. The democrats will be able to do whatever the hell they want because no other party will be able to stop them.

    McCain is a semi-socialist republican who, if elected, would have to face a democrat majority in Congress and would therefore be unable to do much of anything. Any policy he tries to put forth will be blocked by the democrats out of spite for the republicans and for McCain personally. And McCain would be able (able, though admittedly not necessarily willing) to veto any number of things the democrats might try.

    So. Obama=powerful socialist government. McCain=not very powerful somewhat less socialist government unlikely to accomplish much.

    My vote’s going to McCain.

  29. By the way, the Libertarian party isn’t on the ballot in my state, so I only have the two main choices anyway.

  30. If you look at how Obama has treated average citizens like Joe the Plumber with shockingly detailed personal investigations I doubt that an Obama with the power of government would be more restrained. Also, Obama routinely dispatches lawyers to stifle free speech by threatening media outlets that run opposition advertising by saying that they are violating their duty to promote the public good. When a person who would be president is talking about radio stations needing to promote the public good, which is defined as supporting Obama apparently, I get suspicious.

    Bush\McCain certainly have their own problems, but at least they have yet to direct their excesses against political opponents and innocent people, for the most part. I have no confidence that Obama would be better on civil rights.

    Even if he were, I know he would be worse on property rights and I care about property rights more than any others. You can’t have civil rights without property rights.

  31. it’s voting that the LP should get federal election dollars in 4 years

    You must not understand very much about libertarians.

  32. Re Sullum’s comments on Obama & surveillance, Obama voted *for* the surveillance law, so I don’t see that he can be said to be much better on that score. He voted for the Patriot Act, too.

  33. To all libertarians intending to vote for Obama:
    McCain’s campaign is dead. So by voting for Bob Barr, you will probably not significantly reduce the chances of Obama winning. If you vote for Obama, you will only strengthen the impression that he has overwhelming support for all his policies, a mandate. If you vote for Barr, you at least show that there’s some who don’t want to vote for avowed statists. And if you don’t trust Barr’s conversion, just remember that he can’t win, either, so you don’t have to worry that will become a turncoat and govern like a Republican.

  34. David,
    Shh! You’re not supposed to mention that!

  35. Angry Optimist–
    I strongly disagree with the contention that overthrowing Sadam was not an essential element of fighting the existential threat posed by Islamo-Fascism. The national socialist regimes of Iraq and Syria, along with the Islamo-wacko regime of Libya and, of course, the Iranians were/are all components of interrelated threats to liberty. This has all been argued ad nauseum for years and I don’t presume to be able to change your, or anyone else’s minds at this point. That understanding, or belief, is what drives me, though.

  36. I’m less worried about the President’s view of presidential authority than I am about congress’s

  37. JohnL,
    I would argue that the government should stick to fighting people who pose an existential threat to us. While I may sound cold-hearted, I think that the liberty (or lack thereof) of people in other countries is primarily their own responsibility (or problem).

  38. I agree with Some Guy, you’re not voting for McCain, you’re voting for Palin.

  39. Since BHO thinks the failure to legislate a more “fair” outcome of the process of supply and demand I don’t hold much hope that he has any concern about reigning in the powers of the executive.

  40. For those that aren’t voting for Barr “because I don’t like him”, keep this in mind: “Party trumps Person”. Regardless of whether you like the candidate or not, you have to remember that the President isn’t a dictator. He can’t just do things because he wants to…er…at least he shouldn’t be able to…*cough* Bush *cough*. He has to work with the Congress to have anything enacted, and usually has the help of his cabinet to do so. So in Barr’s case, whether you like him or not, you’re voting for the Libertarian Party, not just Barr. He’d theoretically fill his cabinet with like-minded people that can help him get the job done. That’s what you’d be voting for. So pick the party that most closely reflects your views, not the person.

    And don’t sit home and not vote. Messages need to be sent this time around.

  41. Your vote is worth Jack and shit anyway, and Jack left town. You might as well vote for someone you actually can agree with on a lot of stuff, or do what I do: refuse to support a system of the tyranny of the majority by not voting.

    Ron Paul doesn’t agree with me as much as I agree with myself. Does that mean I should just vote for myself?

  42. So in Barr’s case, whether you like him or not, you’re voting for the Libertarian Party, not just Barr.

    Of course some of us see the new LP platform and find them to be nothing more than a GOP-Lite. Some of us don’t really like the party either. As I mentioned before, a vote for Barr implies that the new principle-free LP is acceptable.

    People should simply vote their conscience. All of these bizarre game-theory strategies will simply perpetuate the current situation, regardless of the desired outcome.

    Besides, the winner will likely claim a “mandate” regardless of the margin of victory. George Bush the Lesser certainly claimed it when he narrowly beat John Kerry the Incompetent in ’04.


    Libertarian Party candidate Bob Barr is running for President of the United States for the following reasons:

    1. He is a patriot.

    2. He is the ‘leader’ of the nation’s third largest political party.

    3. As he wants to promote his party’s belief in smaller government, lower taxes and more freedom, a Presidential election season is an opportune time to do this.

    4. In a nation that believes in freedom of choice, he wants American voters to have an additional option to vote for.

    5. A Presidential election season is a great time to bring attention to, and gain members for, your political party. It’s also a great time to help set the national political agenda for the next legislative term.

    6. Two things will happen, if he and his running mate Wayne Allyn Root, get at least 5% of the nation’s popular vote on November 4th. Beginning with the 2012 Libertarian Presidential Campaign, signature petition drives for state ballot access would become unnecessary. Also, the party’s Presidential Campaign would qualify for voluntary federal Presidential Election Campaign Fund money.

    7. He believes that America ‘desperately needs’ a third major political party right now. So he is working very hard to help build it. If he gets more than 921,299 votes or more than 1.1% of the total votes this national election, he will set a Libertarian Party Presidential record.

    8. To get enough national popular and electoral votes to become the next President and help return this nation to greatness.

    So as you can see, Bob Barr has many very important reasons to run for President than just to win The White House! If you believe in this his cause, and after studying him like him best, then simply support him for President. Time will tell how many victories his campaign won!

    I trust this information has helped you in making your decision. I will be voting for a ‘real winner’ in Bob Barr on November 4th! I certainly hope that you will join me, by voting for him too!!!

  44. Re Sullum’s comments on Obama & surveillance, Obama voted *for* the surveillance law, so I don’t see that he can be said to be much better on that score.

    Obama voted for the entire package as it came up for a vote, after having tried to strip different elements, including Telecom Immunity, from being included in that package, and denouncing several elements of it.

    John McCain actively supported every single element of that bill, including telecom immunity, and voted to include them in the final bill.

  45. Tulpa wrote:

    Ron Paul doesn’t agree with me as much as I agree with myself. Does that mean I should just vote for myself?

    Exactly! Only you are qualified to represent you.

    Besides, the game is rigged, has been from the get-go. No matter who you vote for, the government always wins. So why participate?

  46. I just voted, and, lucky me, I got to vote for Bob Barr AND Ron Paul.

    It’s only because I live in Ron Paul’s congressional district, and even though he’s running unopposed, I still enjoyed voting for him again.

    And, even though when Barr talks, I can tell he doesn’t quite “get” liberty from the fundamental, philosophical point of view, I still voted for him because that’s the only way I can unambiguously register my disgust with both major parties, even in an infinitesimal way.

  47. A 3rd (or 4th) party vote isn’t meaningless. Mine meant “fuck you.” The message was sent to various parties & individuals, and I’m proud of its meaning. They all deserved it.

  48. I (and most libertarians) have tended to believe that Republican presidents appoint better Supreme Court justices, but I’m not so sure any more. For every “clear meaning/original intent/strict constructionist” like Thomas, you get two or three “compelling government interest/not a suicide pact/executive power apologists” like Alito, Roberts, and Scalia.

  49. I met Bob Barr last month. I found him rude, grumpy, and I am thoroughly convinced that he is a CIA plant inserted into the party to keep the Ron Paul momentum from gaining any real traction. Better to vote Baldwin or Nader that this tool.

  50. Here we go. Four more years of no change at all.

    You people never learn.

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