Bryan Caplan  

Libertarians for Obama: Time for Hindsight

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Theory vs. History ... Public Choice Outreach 2010...
The penultimate post of the Libertarians for Obama blog (it packed up on November 9, 2008), sure sounds naive in retrospect.  After the author writes, "I encourage my fellow libertarians, no matter who they supported, to join me in the following," there's narry a mention of impending Obamacare, "economic stimulus," or continued bail-outs.  Instead we're asked to:
Support the libertarian parts of Obama's agenda.
Ending the war, closing Guantanamo Bay and rolling back George Bush's curbs on civil liberties won't be easy. The same Republicans who called Obama a coward or a terrorist during the campaign will redouble their efforts when he starts to wind down the warfare state. He'll need all of the libertarian allies that he can get.

Stand up to him when he backslides.
Obama has made some bold pledges, including his promises to seek out and eliminate wasteful government spending and put caps on farm subsidies. Libertarians who supported him shouldn't let him get away with shying away from these promises.

Push him in a libertarian direction.
On several issues, Obama takes a liberal position that I don't think he passionately believes in. Consider gun control. Obama is in favor of some gun control, but it's never been a central part of his political philosophy. Now that he's done with a campaign in which he's seen the passion of the pro-gun community, maybe he can be convinced to move in our direction. Call me a starry-eyed optimist, but I believe that he's changeable on guns, military aid to Columbia, school vouchers and other issues. Let's help the change candidate do a little position changing.

Fight him on the issues where we disagree.
Obama believes in card check. I don't. I'm going to join with the Republicans on this one and fight him as hard as I can. Same for the Fairness Doctrine (though I doubt Obama will even try to bring that up).

Spread the word to other libertarians.
Obama is not our enemy. He's a smart man who believes in classical liberal values like tolerance, separation of church and state and the rights of the accused. He understands and appreciates the Constitution. Don't throw away a chance at a productive relationship by believing this crap about him being a communist or a dictator in waiting...
While I never believed that Obama was a communist or a dictator in waiting, I don't see that there was ever "a chance at a productive relationship."  Well before his election I worried that Obama would be another FDR.  It could have been worse, but another FDR is roughly what we got.  I can understand why a libertarian might have voted for Obama as a lesser evil, or to hold Republicans accountable for their outrages.  But to look upon Obama with optimism and respect?  Baffling.

Update:  In the comments, Lori writes:
Whatever President Obama is, he is emphatically not another FDR. He and other leading Democrats specifically excluded single-payer advocates from the health care 'debate' at the outset. New Dealers and other left-populists are as angry at Obama as are right-libertarians...I would describe him as basically another Bill Clinton; someone who is trying to be all things to all people and isn't strongly committed to any set of principles.
My reply:

Lori, I'd say that by your standards, FDR himself wasn't an FDR.  He insisted, for example, that Social Security be limited to people who made some contribution, instead of backing the far-left proposal to immediately start cutting checks to anyone over 65.

So what makes an FDR?  Roughly speaking, a president who is more leftist than 90% of the Congressmen who held office immediately prior to his first election.  I think FDR and Obama both qualify.  Clinton, in contrast, was probably no more leftist than 65%.  It's a pretty big difference.


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COMMENTS (20 to date)
Philo writes:

Bush was disappointing enough to make Obama look, by comparison, less bad than he otherwise would have seemed.

Matthew C. writes:

Obama is making Bush look like a libertarian, quite the accomplishment!

david writes:

"But to look upon Obama with optimism and respect? Baffling."

My assessment is that some who voted for Obama supported his policies and many more were caught up in the some form of self-indulgent “people’s romance”(to use Daniel Klein’s phrase).

drtaxsacto writes:

Good post and spot on!! Leopards and spots still apply.

Yancey Ward writes:

Well, I voted for Obama, but mostly because my vote was meaningless anyway (I live in a state Obama would have won even if he had lost the election). However, that piece makes me think of the old saw about the sheep and the wolves discussing what is is for dinner.

Lori writes:

Whatever President Obama is, he is emphatically not another FDR. He and other leading Democrats specifically excluded single-payer advocates from the health care 'debate' at the outset. New Dealers and other left-populists are as angry at Obama as are right-libertarians. His education department is also aggressively bullish on 'charter schools,' which to you I suppose are objectionable on 10th Amendment grounds, but to me a gambit for school privatization. From our perspective, he is someone to whom the private sector is some kind of sacred cow, albeit a heavily-subsidized private sector. If I understand your objections correctly, it's that he isn't free market, in the sense of the market being free to find its own equilibrium. If so, I would agree with that evaluation, although I don't prioritize market equilibrium as highly as I do normative follies like broad-based economic security. I would describe him as basically another Bill Clinton; someone who is trying to be all things to all people and isn't strongly committed to any set of principles. Moderates get tagged as rightists by leftist and vice versa. Tagging Obama as another FDR is a less outrageous example than redbaiting him; of the practice of trying to push the 'middle of the road' rightward by a process of insistent repetition.

Lori writes:

Yancey, the hackneyed cliché about sheep and wolves is bass ackwards. The food chain, in the human world as well as the animal world, is smaller at the top than at the bottom.

mulp writes:

"But to look upon Obama with optimism and respect? Baffling."

If find this comment baffling.

I get no sense of any realistic alternative, either in the most ideal rational political climate one finds occasionally in some businesses, and certainly not in these political times.

But it does give me hope that such views can move the Republican party to the point of near irrelevance of the 30s and 40s. Reading the reporting on Resurgent Republic and their polling and attempt to find a strategy and message, I'm hopeful this can occur.

Until you and libertarians and Republicans can define a positive vision for change that seriously addresses the current domestic and international challenges, your relevance is only in removing people from the process. When you can only argue that Obama is a disaster for America because he is like FDR, who even Reagan considered a great president, you just don't connect to the reality that the majority of the people live.

I keep seeking out libertarian and conservative and Republican points of view, but when their facts are contrary to reality, what is the basis for discussion?

Fabio Rojas writes:

When assessing Obama from a libt'n view, one must ask: is a president who expands the welfare state (Obama) worse than one that expands the war state (McCain)? Also, I value competence. Even if I think that some services should be privatized, I'd still want public officials to be competent as they do their jobs. My sense is that the Obama administration is less likely to staff key positions with hacks who can cause more damage (e.g., staffing science agencies with creationists or heading FEMA with people who have no relevant management experience). I'd rather pick mangled health care over war, and competence over incompetence. I'll stick with Obama.

Schooner writes:

Johnny "no constitutional rights for you" McCain and Sarah "Death Panels" Palin would have been a much better choice for libertarians.

Yancey Ward writes:

That some Democrats can't understand that Obama is the most leftist president since FDR is simply astounding, but I should not be surprised- many of the same people call The New York Times a right of center newspaper.

Nick writes:

The libertarians ran Bob Barr

If you wonder why some supported obama look no further.

Libertarian party need to get their own house in order before critiscizing

Jim Glass writes:

Well before his election I worried that Obama would be another FDR. It could have been worse, but another FDR is roughly what we got. ...

Lori, I'd say that by your standards, FDR himself wasn't an FDR. He insisted, for example, that Social Security be limited to people who made some contribution, instead of backing the far-left proposal to immediately start cutting checks to anyone over 65...

FDR was much more conservative than that.

Social Security wasn't even on his agenda when he was elected -- it got put there by growing pressure from much more extreme proposals that were gaining strong political traction during the Depression.

When he did start championing Social Security, it was on a very fiscally conservative basis. He not merely required "some" contribution, but required that benefits be fully pre-funded and *explicitly* rejected "paygo" proposals that would drop any inter-generational cost on the future -- in one case notably having a tantrum when he discovered his staff had tried to slip in provisions that would create underfunding in the 1960s, making them re-write the law on short notice to eliminate same before a Congressional presentation.

FDR insisted that each generation receive the same return from SS, the rate on federal bonds, with progressivity being *within* each generation (somewhat larger benefits to the lower-earners) not funded between generations. With benefits earned at the bond rate, full benefits under his orginal SS Act of 1935 were not to be paid for decades. (Earlier benefits for the needy were to be paid under a temporary program of old age benefits.)

Upon its enactment in 1935 FDR reported that Social Security was "actuarially sound and out of the Treasury forever". And he was right, if it had stayed that way it would have been, instead of going bust (for the first time) in 1983.

But politicians just can't resist getting short-term benefits at the cost of looting the future. Immediately upon SS taxes coming in to prefund benefits, the left said "we have to spend that money now!", and the right said "we have to cut those taxes before the left spends them!" -- and they quickly compromised by agreeing to do *both*, turning SS paygo, giving early retirees huge returns on contributions, and making sure SS would go broke in the long run.

FDR protested and *vetoed* those changes -- but Congress over-rode the veto. It was his only veto versus his overwhelmingly Democratic Congresses. For more details, What would FDR think of today's Social Security? (After the veto defeat FDR abandoned the SS issue and focused his efforts to WW II.)

It's often said that the payroll tax financing for SS was a ploy by FDR to keep future politicians from cutting it, since workers viewed SS as being "theirs", paid for with their money.

That is true in part. But FDR also believed it would keep politicians from irresponsibly expanding SS, turning it into a political grab bag, because workers paying for it with their payroll taxes would not stand to pay for things that didn't actually benefit them, weren't "worth it" to them.

Imagine if Obama had used that idea with Obamacare: using workers' willingness to pay for it as a test of it being "worth it" to them.

Hey, they did that in a modest way with the "Cadillac tax" ... and the unions said, "Nope, it's *not* worth it to us if we have to pay for it -- stick the cost on rich investors!"

In short, FDR was *far* more fiscally conservative in general, and on entitlements in particular, than today's Republicans, much less Democrats and liberals.

So let's be fair to the man. Obama is not "another FDR". Obama is far to the left of FDR.

MernaMoose writes:

Let it suffice to say that Obama is far to the left of what is good for our political and economic health. And so was FDR.

Next.

Doc Merlin writes:

"Until you and libertarians and Republicans can define a positive vision for change that seriously addresses the current domestic and international challenges, your relevance is only in removing people from the process"

Seriously? Do you just not listen, or are you trolling? This blog and many others like it, do nothing BUT define a positive vision for change.

mulp writes:

Bryan Caplan has hereby declared Mitt Romney a leftist because if Obama is a leftist for dvocating Romneycare, then the architects of Romneycare must be leftists as well. But Romneycare was based on the contemporary Republican alternatives floated in circa 1993-4, so they must have been leftists.

Seems to me Caplan is desperately trying to convince without providing evidence that the moderate Republican running as a Democrat is a leftist Democrat when all the evidence makes it clear he is in the middle.

Given Obama has shown himself to be to the right of 80% of the Democrats in a roughly split Congress, it is impossible to argue convincingly that Obama was "more leftist than 90% of the Congressmen who held office immediately prior to his first election."

And Obama has negotiated every bill to satisfy all 60% of the Senate, or 100% of the Democrats, he is no further left than the Senator who is the furthest to the right. Obama has not called for or proposed or pushed for a bill in any of his many initiatives that deviates from the law he signed in any ideological shift, so his position satisfied 100% of Senate Democrats and 50 to 60% of the Senate, so that has put his initial position in the center, not the left.

mulp writes:

"Seriously? Do you just not listen, or are you trolling? This blog and many others like it, do nothing BUT define a positive vision for change."

Ah, I read the libertarian motherhood and apple pie:
- less government
- lower taxes

So, you would repeal all laws governing the likes of Goldman Sacks and Lehman and Countrywide and the even less reputable mortgage origination firms and eliminate the FDIC insurance on deposits and the retroactive FDIC and Fed backing to money market funds and then have the past fiscal crisis result in widespread collapse of both the banks and the shadow banks where most businesses and individuals keep their cash?

Would you repeal Social Security so that in the present time 20-30 million people would be in homeless camps, begging, and eating from soup kitchen because they are unemployed and that aspect of Social Security is too much government? That the old would end up in poor houses or in the homeless camps?

A century ago when most people grew their own food, the government was still handing out free land, and most families produced at least part of their food. Aid to someone in need was in the form of putting them up somewhere, maybe a barn, and having them help with the chores producing the food. But that was the end of history as far as how man survived, by producing their own food from the land.

But then to the more concrete; which nation or portion of a nation of all the world is governed the way you think is the benchmark to follow? With more than 200 nations, and with many having vast regions not under the central government, surely one is governed in the obvious libertarian virtuous way. How about the remote portions of Alaska or Canada. The Siberian tundra. The self governed regions of Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Somehow people who can chose a republican government that all have the same pattern and the US isn't far from that norm.

And on health care, for example, the leading edge treatments are all the result of huge government investments and subsidies. Without the research funding, either directly or subsidized by government, the basic knowledge and then treatments wouldn't have been developed. And without the government funded or government promoted insurance system covering most people, no market would exist to justify bringing them to market.

The US is not the only place government invests heavily, so the high cost of health care isn't from the US developing all the treatments. The US health care system is the most expensive because it is the most inefficient, and it is the most inefficient because that is the most profitable. The free market profit incentives drive spending in a market segment up, not down, if at all possible. Many places in Africa and Asia have "free market health care" with dollar costs low, quantity and quality of care low, and health costs very high shares of GDP, playing a large role in driving down GDP.

The best treatment for many diseases is eradication which means spending lots of money to treat every last patient no matter what their ability to pay, and then putting the whole business enterprise out of business. The profit from treating small pox was only in ending the need to treat small pox ever again.

When you have the updated Atlas Shrugged with Ayn Rand explaining how individualism and self interest will lead to the eradication of small pox, let me know.

Brian Clendinen writes:

Obama started out as FDR but has been slowing becoming a Wilsons. I do not think he can ever get worse than Wilson other than there appears he might be a Wilson with all of Carters competencies in Forgien polciy, not a good mix. I still say Wilson is a possible front runner for worst president in U.S. History.

This interview with Richard Epstein , I watched over a year ago is great and supports partly why I think the way I do. Obama hids who he really is so you can only judge him by his actions along with the limitations of his power when a specific action is taken.

I think Richard's insights have been proven highly accurate and incredible insight to who Obama is especially when it comes to Economic policy.

David C writes:

Supporting the lesser of two evils is simply the pessimist's way of supporting the greater of two goods. Optimism is relative. And Bryan, why do you think political disagreement is sufficient grounds to not respect somebody? Or is it some other quality of Obama's that prevents you from respecting him?

guthrie writes:

Mulp, you’re hilarious!

No positive vision for change? Really?

Care to explain how you never seem to comment when there is criticism here of the Iraq war? Positive libertarian vision: A US government that does not use force against otherwise unthreatening countries.

Care to explain why President ‘hope and change’ Obama hasn’t closed Gitmo? Positive libertarian vision: A world without a US military sponsored concentration camp.

Care to explain why President Obama hasn’t stopped military action in Colombia? Positive libertarian vision: An end to the US ‘war on drugs’ on foreign (and home) soil.

Care to comment on libertarian opposition to the new Arizona immigration law (or, for that matter, US immigration law in general)? Positive libertarian vision: A US government that does not take upon itself the ‘responsibility’ (read: power backed by violent force) to decide who can or can’t live, work, and own property here.

Care to comment on the fact that regulators encouraged Sacks, Countrywide, Lehman, et al, to engage in the finance practices that got everyone in trouble? Positive libertarian vision: A true free market where government regulation doesn't incentivize businesses to make these mistakes or engage in deception, and those who do make mistakes or engage in deception are held accountable by being allowed to fail and die.

Is it your ideology that blinds you to the fact that Obama is expanding the role of government (banking and finance industry, auto industry, medicine), and that this fact is ostensibly a ‘leftist’ (but not ‘progressive’) agenda, and that this fact MIGHT JUST be objectionable to those who see such expansion as counter-productive at best?

Seems to me that you are attempting to convince, without producing actual evidence, that Obama is to the right of Regan… and that we should simply accept his ‘vision’ without question.

Again… hilarious!

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