Assessing Presidential Candidates:

Like David Bernstein, I doubt I will pick a particular presidential candidate to support. In my view, assessing candidates is a far more difficult business than many people seem to suppose. In looking over the candidate's record, it's necessary to separate out those positions that he or she took because of genuine commitment from those adopted because of the political constraints the candidate was under at the time. Consider Mitt Romney's socially liberal/pro big government (on economic issues) record as governor of Massachusetts. How much of this represented Romney's true convictions, and how much was the liberal Massachusetts political environment? It's very difficult to tell. If Romney's past positions were primarily a product of the political environment he was in, they may be poor guides to how he will perform as president in a very different setting.

Like co-blogger Jonathan Adler, I'm impressed with some of Fred Thompson's statements on federalism. However, I wonder how much of it he really means and how much represents the fact that he spent his political career as a senator from a conservative state and then as a Republican presidential candidate (settings where supporting federalism - especially in a vague general way - carries few risks, and at least some political benefits). Back in 2000, candidate George W. Bush also made positive noises about federalism, only to support massive expansions of federal power once he got into office. Thompson is probably better in this respect than Bush (I suspect); but it's hard to tell by how much. In any event, being better than Bush on federalism is a very low standard of comparison.

Ultimately, however, the key lesson of libertarianism is that we don't want a system where we have to place heavy reliance on the good intentions of individual politicians. Such reliance is all too likely to be misplaced. Instead, our ultimate objective must be to reimpose strong limits on government power so as to minimize the harm that politicians of any stripe can cause.

As I see it, my main comparative advantage as a blogger is not to tell you to support candidate X vs. candidate Y, but rather to help promote and develop libertarian ideas as thoughtfully and effectively as I can. If those ideas become widely enough accepted, even the most unprincipled of politicians will have to reckon with them out of self-interest. If they don't, even candidates personally sympathetic to liberty will have to support big government to a large extent in order to get themselves elected. The world I hope one day to live in is one where the outcome of presidential elections matters a lot less than it does now because government - especially the federal government - doesn't wield so much power.

None of this means that we should be completely indifferent to electoral outcomes. Some candidates are indeed a lesser evil than others. However, I prefer to focus most of my energy on analyzing broader systemic issues rather than on the immediate electoral politics of the moment. In the long run, the tide of opinion on the former is likely to be far more important than the latter.