In July a Rasmussen poll found that libertarians make up 4 percent of the nation's likely voters—and that they favor Barack Obama over John McCain, 53 percent to 38 percent. There's a Libertarians for Obama blog (two, actually), a Libertarians for Obama Facebook group (54 members and counting), even Libertarians for Obama bumper stickers and T-shirts.
Though perhaps surprising, given libertarians' historical Republican leanings, this development shouldn't be shocking, given what the last eight years of GOP rule have brought: an exploding federal budget, a hefty new entitlement, and an expansionist foreign policy. It doesn't help that McCain has been campaigning for more than a decade as a "national greatness" conservative, not as a small-government Republican in the tradition of his Senate predecessor, Barry Goldwater.
At the same time, there are plenty of reasons to worry about the prospect of an Obama presidency. The candidate who drew cheers from antiwar activists and civil libertarians by opposing the Iraq war and the PATRIOT Act from the beginning also supports an array of new economic regulations and some blurry but potentially significant tax increases. His not-exactly-pacific rhetoric about Iran and Darfur, combined with his vote for a bill granting telecommunications companies retroactive immunity for illegally assisting government surveillance, has some worried that his positions on foreign policy and civil liberties might be closer to his predecessor than they'd like. And then there's the fact that an Obama presidency will almost certainly mean the same party controls both the White House and Congress, with eight years' worth of pent-up ambitions and long overdue favors to pay back.
reason gathered together a clutch of libertarians and fellow travelers in August and asked them to share their hopes and fears regarding an Obama presidency.
Barack Obama has not run as the typical candidate, selling specific policies, a worldview, experience, or executive competence. He has instead sold himself, a glamorous icon onto whom supporters project their hopes and dreams and, in many cases, their own identities. If elected, he will have not a policy mandate but an emotional one: to make Americans feel proud of their country, optimistic about the future, and warmly included, regardless of background, in the American story.
A President Obama could deliver just the opposite. He might stumble badly abroad, projecting weakness that invites aggression (think Jimmy Carter) or involving America in a humanitarian-driven war at least as long and bloody as Iraq (think Sudan). As for inclusiveness, you can get it two ways: by respecting individual differences—however eccentric, offensive, or hard to control—or by jamming everyone into a conformist collective. Obama's New Frontier-style rhetoric has a decidedly collectivist cast. NASA is great, prizes for private space flight are stupid, and what can we make you do for your country? A guy who thinks like that will not worry about what his health care plan might do to pharmaceutical research or physicians' incentives.
Obama's campaign draws enormous power from his rhetoric of optimism-"hope," "change," and "Yes, we can." But the candidate's memoir betrays a tragic vision. In Dreams From My Father, almost everyone winds up disappointed: Obama's father, his stepfather, his grandparents, the people he meets in Chicago. Only his naive and distant mother keeps on pursuing happiness. Then she dies of cancer. He may preach hope, but Obama is not a sunny FDR or JFK. He's not a Ronald Reagan, expecting a pony in a room of manure. He assumes that any pony will have died of suffocation and worries that the horseless carriage has thrown stable hands permanently out of work. Hope is audacious because, at least in this world, it's futile and absurd. Faceless "power" is always waiting to crush your dreams.
The president's power has a face, and Obama's most fervent supporters believe he can repair the world with his face alone. Perhaps they're right, at least for the first month or two. We can only hope that he will respect the multiplicity of American dreams and the unpredictable ways in which their pursuit provides the basis for a better future.
Virginia Postrel, editor of reason from 1989 to 2000, is a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic Monthly. She is writing a book on glamour for The Free Press, which also published her book The Future and Its Enemies. She blogs at dynamist.com/weblog and at deepglamour.net.
I believe that risking new mistakes is better than repeating old ones. On that basis, I feel obliged to look on the bright side of an Obama presidency. After all, I voted for George W. Bush twice, and I supported the Iraq war.
Iraq today is a complicated mess, and how best to extricate ourselves is a tough problem. I don't know how well Barack Obama would handle that problem, but at least he sees it clearly: His goal is to get us out of there. John McCain's goal, on the other hand, is to keep us there as long as possible. That fundamental difference is reason enough in my mind to root for Obama.
The Iraq fiasco was just one consequence of a deeper misjudgment: a panicky overreaction to 9/11 that inflated the real and serious threat of terrorism into an apocalyptic fantasy of World War IV. Delusions of "existential" danger lay behind the Bush administration's resort to torture and its mad claims of absolute executive power as well as its blundering botch job in Iraq. I myself suffered from such delusions in the first years after 9/11, but the accumulation of countervailing evidence eventually freed me from them. Bush, of course, has proved incurable. And McCain's case of 1938-itis is, if possible, even worse.
Obama, to his great credit, resisted the urge to panic all along. After eight years of George W. Bush and all the damage he has done to American interests and influence in the world, it is vitally important for the next occupant of the White House to be able to face a messy and dangerous world with a clear head. Only Barack Obama is equipped to do that.
Alas, when it comes to domestic policy, Obama's inclinations on spending and regulatory issues are almost uniformly wrongheaded. My hope is that circumstances will constrain him from following those inclinations very far. But in foreign affairs, where the president has a much freer hand, he is the clearly superior alternative.
Brink Lindsey is vice president for research at Cato and author of The Age of Abundance (Collins Business).