Fashion slave:

Yes, yes, I knew that, as Virginia Postrel notes, a bad fashion sense isn’t actually any defense against a charge of acting fashionably, and that she was suggesting that I might be responding to peer pressure from my fellow academics. I gave a non-responsive defense because a responsive defense to that kind of charge just can’t be persuasive, can it? If I were just following academic fashion, I wouldn’t admit it and might not know it, so no on-topic evidence will do me any good here.

But I will say this.

Vote for Kerry if you must, folks. But don’t pretend you’re doing it because Bush’s economic policies are insufficiently free market or fiscally responsible.

I’d put it differently. The fiscal profligacy and protectionism mean that I don’t have any affirmative reason to vote for Bush in domestic policy. Bush hasn’t been such a fiscal/trade stalwart that I want to reward him for his behavior; he’s been such a mess on both counts that I want to contribute my 1/200,000,000th of the decision to the lesson that steel, ag, shrimp, textile, lumber, etc protectionism and swollen spending lose an incumbent votes. Re-election campaigns are, rightly, part referendum on the incumbent’s performance; and future politicians learn their lessons from the results of those referenda.

But I’ve never said that one should vote for Kerry on the strength of a head-to-head comparison on, e.g., trade policy. We’ve had too many mixed signals from his record and his rhetoric to know quite what to think Kerry’s trade instincts and policies are.

Bush’s fiscal and economic record means only that that set of possible reasons for libertarians to support him are neutralized. My active opposition to Bush, and active hope for Kerry, stems from the overlapping competence/ honesty/ expertise problems, and the way those problems have made a hash of postwar reconstruction.

Glenn Reynolds and others have cast scorn on the Peggy Noonan/ Mickey Kaus “take a break” argument, noting that neither al Qaeda nor rogue states will be taking a break in the meantime. I’d put that differently, too. It takes a different set of skills and virtues to break something than to build something. The war-on-terror argument for the war in Iraq was that the status quo in the Middle East needed to be broken. The Afghan state that was hopelessly entangled with al Qaeda had earlier needed to be broken. It might be that a Democratic President 2000-04 would not have done either. But reconstruction of both Iraq and Afghanistan is also crucial– crucial for, as Paul Wolfowitz and others always said, beginning any kind of political-cultural shift that weakens Islamism and moves the Muslim and Arab worlds toward civil society and democracy. And the Bush Administration has not shown any ability to manage those reconstructions successfully. This is not a call to hide from the war on terror for four years and hope it goes away. It’s a call to understand that overthrowing states is not the crucial skill oif the current phase of the war on terror; and that that’s the only skill the Bush Administration has convincingly shown that it has. From Tora Bora to Abu Ghraib, they’ve been failing at both the fight against al Qaeda proper and at the effecting the political-cultural shift and diplomatic successes that we need.

Update:

See also this Robert Tagorda post, correctly pointing out that Edwards is a trade problem– not Richard Gephardt, but a trade problem nonetheless. The fact that Bush has a terrible trade record certainly doesn’t necessarily mean that Kerry-Edwards will mark a return to Clinton-era policies. And I’m going to be listening, carefully and nervously, to what Kerry and Edwards have to say about trade. I don’t expect them to be much better than Bush has been, but I won’t be a happy camper if they run a campaign centered on a promise to be worse.

Dan Drezner, here and heretalks through his own sources of uncertainty and indecision– overlapping a great deal though not entirely with the questions I worried about in reaching a decision. (Ezra Klein answers Dan’s questions.) Dan also points out this Ryan Lizza column maintaining that “These attacks on free trade were an awkward fit with the rest of Edwards’s middle-class, New Democrat agenda, and they will clearly not be a major feature of the Kerry-Edwards rhetoric.” I hope he’s right.

Reason’s Matt Welsh argues against both Virginia’s imputation of heteronomous decision-making and her assumption that a Kerry presidency will be fiscally less responsible than a Bush one.

Finally, expanding on that last point, our own Tyler Cowen, over on Marginal Revolution, makes the case for thinking about the alignments of political forces and incentives that would face a re-elected Bush or a newly-elected Kerry, and concludes that “it is not obvious to me that Kerry would be less fiscally responsible than Bush.”

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