Limited Government and Bush vs. Kerry:

I haven’t posted for a while, because I have become increasingly disenchanted with the current administration and have not wanted to start writing angry or petulant posts about how President Bush has betrayed the principles of limited government, but at the same time the election has been at the forefront of my thoughts and is the most important issue we face these days. Anyway, I’ve decided to post on the issue of the election to highlight a few points that have not (as far as I have seen) received as much attention as they should.

I can understand why social conservatives would support President Bush, but in my view those of us who think of ourselves as libertarians, or economic conservatives and social liberals, or believers in small government, or 19th century liberals, etc. (all of which I’m lumping into the category of “limited-government types”) should vote for John Kerry.

1) First, on the issue of this President’s policies, many commentators have ably pointed out the myriad ways in which this President has been a disaster for those who believe in limited government. (Two that come to mind are Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute and Robert George, formerly on Newt Gingrich’s staff, but there are many more; in fact, Doonesbury ran a series this week of not very funny cartoons containing links to conservatives who are disappointed in Bush.) A few of these commentators have listed Bush’s tax cuts as the one bright spot for libertarians/conservatives/limited-government types, but tax cuts without spending cuts (or, as it turns out, with massive spending increases) aren’t small government – they’re big government combined with borrowing. The government reduces your taxes but takes out a big loan in the name of you and your family. Brad DeLong says we should call this a tax shift rather than a tax cut. He’s right, although I would also call it mandated mortgaging.

What about the “starve the beast” hypothesis (i.e., that reductions in taxes will force reductions in spending)? Two big problems: first, as long as we are running up deficits (i.e., until the beast really is starved), then the government is still taking out loans in our name. Second, “starve the beast” is a nice theory, but in reality it has never happened. In fact, William Niskanen of the Cato Institute has shown that decreases in taxes are associated with increases in spending, and vice-versa.

2) “Fine,” some libertarian friends have said to me, “I admit that Bush has been bad for limited government, but won’t electing Kerry be worse for our interests?” As for the short- and medium-term, the great likelihood is that the answer is no. Unless something truly disastrous happens to the Republican party (e.g., finding out that Osama Bin Laden received money from the RNC), it is going to retain control of the House of Representatives. Indeed, it is very likely that it will gain seats in the House, as it starts from a big presumptive gain resulting from the redistricting in Texas. As for the Senate, it is conceivable that the Democrats could regain control, but just about everything would have to break their way. The bottom line is that Republicans will almost certainly control one chamber, and likely will control both. This means that a President Kerry is going to be dealing with a hostile Congress – and Tom Delay is not going to roll over. In other words, we are likely to get the same sort of gridlock that we had from 1995 to 2000, with no significant new spending and no significant new tax cuts – greater fiscal sanity and a smaller government. Again, this is not just pie in the sky. Niskanen also showed that divided government is associated with lower government spending.

3) But what about the long-term interests of those who want a limited government? Here we come to the most important point that many have overlooked: if limited-government types vote for Bush and he is reelected, then the obvious conclusion for any savvy political strategist is that Republicans can take these voters for granted and thus ignore their interests. The reality of politics is that you are always working at the margins – trying to increase turnout of your base or add swing voters. If I am a political strategist who knows that a group of voters will stick with my candidate no matter what, I’d be foolish to recommend that he respond to their concerns in any way. What’s the point of doing that, as a matter of political strategy? If I were Karl Rove (or whomever) and Bush won in 2004, I would tell any future Republican candidate that he can do anything he wants on the size of government, because Bush proved that limited-government types will still vote Republican.

The only way to send a message to future Republican candidates is for Bush to lose in part because of the defection of limited-government types. And, if we don’t send that message, I fear that we will be in the political wilderness for a long time.

The bottom line, in my view, is that people who believe in the old Republican credo of limited government had better vote for John Kerry.

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