Arnold Kling  

A Political Prediction

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My latest essay concludes,

If politics were football, then I would say that the Clinton and Bush years saw little forward progress for either side. Clinton might have moved the ball toward the progressives' goal line, but only a few yards. I would say the same about President Bush--he moved the ball a few yards in the direction of the progressives' goal line.

I would not necessarily extrapolate the recent past into the future. My concern is that in 2009 the progressives will pick up really big yardage. In that case, the state will take another quantum leap in size.

I recently chatted with Cato's Tom Palmer about this, and he disagreed with my view of the Clinton Administration. Citing welfare reform and NAFTA, he argued that Clinton actually moved the ball a few yards in a libertarian direction.

My larger point, though, is this: assume that it is a foregone conclusion that the Republicans will be defeated, perhaps badly, in 2008. In that case, there will be important internal fights within the Democratic party, with many economists on one side and many party activists on the other. The essay describes the issues that will be affected by this division.

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CATEGORIES: Political Economy

COMMENTS (14 to date)
Randy writes:


I'm honestly not concerned as to what will happen if the Democrats take complete control in 2009. The reason I'm not concerned is that even the most ardent progressives have to give ground to reality. That is, they can't throw the economy into a tailspin and expect to stay in office. So we will forever be forced to listen to progressive talk, but progressive action will always be constrained by the rate of growth of the economy.

dearieme writes:

But the economy will already be in a tailspin. And look how FDR seized such an opportunity to drag your country in a fascist-socialist direction.

Bill Kruse writes:

Although not consistently, on balance, Clinton moved the ball a bit in the "libertarian" (or "non-interventionist") direction and this was mostly concentrated in:

1. The 1993 economic package, the source of the "I-hope-to-come-back-as-the-bond-market" comment (which was made by a frustrated James Carville, I believe). Here, a reasonably responsible economic advisor, Rubin, had Clinton's ear. Cuts were made in the relative size of the military. Growth of the military has huge, under-appreciated deleterious effects on the economy and on personal freedom.

2. Welfare reform and increased emphasis on less-distortionary strategies such as the EITC and making work pay (See Jason Furman's great essay: "Walmart: A Progressive Success Story").

So, it makes a big difference which Democrat gets in. Will it be someone inclined to listen to the likes of Rubin and Furman (Hamilton Project) or Michael Moore and Paul Krugman (vindictive left)? Libertarians should work for the former to get elected, but if it's the latter, even if they are eventually brought around to sensible policies by the bond market, etc., they'll do a lot of damage in the first 1-2 years, which could be long-lasting.

Michael Sullivan writes:

I don't see "progressive" in the sense of people who support the current democratic party as being diametrically opposed to "libertarian", but much more orthogonal.

It's certainly very hard for me to understand a characterization of the BushII administration moving the ball a few yards in the progressive's direction. On a very few minor issues where the typical progressive is anti-libertarian, that might be accurate. But that ignores 98% of the picture. Most of the ball moving by GWB has been in directions that are anathema to both libertarians *and* progressives, or in directions that are largely meaningless to libertarians but anathema to most progressives.

To call the Bush administration "progressive" requires a very peculiar understanding of the term.

The Bush administration has made gigantic changes, many of them just aren't on the libertarian v. socialist axis. Many others are changes that are both deeply authoritarian *and* anti-progressive, but excused by lots of libertarians for reasons that I really can't respect.

Torture? Disappearances? Suspension of Habeus Corpus? Pre-emptive War? Unitary Executive? The complete politicization of the justice department?
How can a libertarian not consider these outrages major setbacks? As long as somebody is skimming profit off the deal and top marginal taxes are a few percent lower, it's a win?

Maybe "Stalinist" would be a better label for the opposite end of your axis than "Progressive". In that case, I'd say the direction of movement under Clinton was debatable. The direction under the current administration is not. After starting around the 50 yard line, they're into field goal range. And the identified "progressives" are fighting those moves harder than a lot of so-called "libertarians".

Matthew c writes:

Yes, I am also concerned about what the Democratic populists will do when they gain power in 2009. I think you can kiss the medical sector goodbye, although I hold to a Hansonian view of medicine, so that is not a completely unmixed blessing.

The worst things will be the vastly higher taxes on "the rich" ( = anyone with a family income > $80,000), regulation of speech on the internet (McCain / Feingold II), and a vast explosion of new business regulations.

Matthew c writes:

If you want to know the agenda for the Democrats once they seize total control of the reigns of power in 2009, just go watch "Sicko". . .

SheetWise writes:

I believe you grossly misunderestimate Bush Inc., and highly misoverestimate Hillary (or the carnage she will leave in her wake a a loser).

The 2008 election is ripe for a Ross Perot type independent who has political skills.

dWj writes:

The Bush-Kennedy education bill? Medicare reform? McCain-Feingold? The immigration bill currently in the Senate? These all seem well within the conventional meaning of "progressive". Some of the war-on-terror response has seen progressives and libertarians together on the opposite side from the administration, but much of what Bush has signed as President has been stuff one could easily imagine a Democrat supporting -- except a Republican congress would never have gone along with it if the President pushing it had been a Democrat. A lot of libertarians who identify much more as Republicans than as Democrats might be much happier if Kerry had been elected, and given the Republican Congress some stones.

dWj writes:

On another note, though not of real relevance to this post, I followed the link at the end of that article to Kling's article on "The UN Party", and have a story to tell. In late 2001 or early 2002, I was in a big, organized discussion, which, by design, had a number of people from a variety of political viewpoints, in particular about the war in Afghanistan. Someone suggested that a particular job be given to the UN -- something like an arbitration power over something, though I don't remember what. I responded that I didn't at all trust the UN in that role. Everyone in the room responded in one of two ways, immediately visible on their faces: either it was obvious that no sensible person would trust the UN, or it was utterly shocking that anyone wouldn't trust the UN.

Michael Sullivan writes:

dWj: I don't dispute your individual points, but as something of a cross between a progressive and a libertarian, leaving the "war on terror response" aside when talking about the effects of the Bush presidency on liberty seems a little like observing that if it weren't for all the water, that lake would be quite dry.

I'd argue that a lot of the other stuff could well have happened under other Republicans. Most Republicans would have stonewalled those things coming from a Democrat, largely because of party affiliation rather than libertarian/conservative principle. Conservative as it's used politically these days means largely "what typical 50-70 year old middle class, christian white men think" and that's what has gotten you elected as a Republican recently. I don't see that demographic as significantly opposed to anything in the package you tout as "progressive" other than the immigration bill.

drtaxsacto writes:

The depressing problem from my perspective is not that one side moved the ball a bit one way or the other but that an acceptance of larger government roles in our lives seems consistent regardless of who is in power. True, Welfare Reform and NAFTA were positive developments. But can anyone look at the rest of the Clinton years or the Bush years and suggest that liberty has advanced? TSA, No Child Left Behind, the Clinton Tax Bill (including expansion of the AMT), and campaign finance "reform",etc. The field is being moved on us all.

Matt writes:

"Progressives" (Orwell would be proud of that one!) seek to expanding the state. Bush expanded the state. Not entierely in the direction they like, but when you lose elections, the winner uses the state how they see fit. His abuses of power are no more flagrant than Ruby Ridge, Waco, or FBI files on Republican members of Congress in the hands of White House staffers.

Genuine conservatives and libertarians are appalled at the Bush administration and the Clinton administration, but progressives like Clinton.

Barkley Rosser writes:

For better or worse, the 2008 prez race is hardly a slam dunk for the Dems. It increasingly looks like Hillary will be impossible to dislodge from getting the nomination, and her negatives are very high. Some recent polls have had both Giuliani and McCain beating her in head to heads, but not Romney (not sure about Fred Thompson or any others).

Stan writes:

I believe Matthew Sullivan is confused. Arnold's point was that Bush's actions have moved public opinion toward progressivism and away from conservatism. This is the worst thing about Bush is that the average Joe sees Bush and thinks conservatism, and there is a backlash against conservatism rather than just Bush. It is literally one of the worst aspects of his presidency.

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