Politics & Policy

Another Round, Please

What's a libertarian to do?

Like most libertarians, I spend a lot of time in bars. I don’t drink all that much (really), but it’s a good place to talk, mostly about politics. One day recently I was so employed at a local establishment with a member of that species, the Washington Summer Intern. The chat naturally turned to the upcoming presidential election, and YoungMan Intern surprised me.

”I’m going to vote for Kerry,” he said as if announcing his class schedule for the fall semester.

Panic set in. I know a lot of people who don’t vote, many out of principle. I may be one of those people. I don’t know many people who plan to vote for Kerry, and I really don’t have much experience talking to them, much less persuading them to do something else. I quickly (O.K., slowly) search my wet computer for arguments and data.

“He’s got a lifetime ADA rating of 90 and will expand government beyond belief,” I say, preparing to explain what an ADA rating is in the hope that YoungMan will be so bored he starts talking about something sensible, like, say, baseball.

But YoungMan Intern is having nothing of it. “I’m not so much voting for Kerry as voting against Bush.”

Huh? I start thinking YoungMan is confused. I had heard about what a bad job the schools were doing, but I had no idea. “YoungMan,” I begin, “George Bush is the Republican candidate. The Republicans are the party of limited government and individual liberty.”

“Says who?” YoungMan quickly replies. “The GOP has had control of the presidency and Congress since 2000. Discretionary domestic spending (that is, non-defense spending) began to rise early in Bush’s term. It started with education and ended up with a $16.6 trillion Medicare drug benefit. The Bush administration also seems to have abandoned Social Security reform. When was the last time you heard anything about that? Even the people who would be inclined to blame Congress for all the spending know that the president has never raised a finger to object to any spending at any time.”

I begin to wonder if YoungMan Intern owns a Prius with a “Re-Defeat Bush” bumper sticker on it. Probably not. He doesn’t live in Bethesda.

I also think about changing the subject. I know what’s coming next. YoungMan Intern is getting agitated.

“War is a big problem for me. It leads to killing people abroad and coercion at home. Like most things governments do, it is usually unjustified from the start or leads to perverse consequences. That said, every libertarian I know supported the war in Afghanistan after 9/11. Some of my friends supported the war in Iraq. Not me. The president didn’t make much of a case that Saddam Hussein represented a real threat to the life, liberty, or property of Americans. Then Bush started talking about democracy and endless wars of liberation. He’s a combination of Lyndon Johnson and Woodrow Wilson.”

“I don’t think he’s anything like LBJ. He doesn’t make Cheney come into the bathroom when he’s using it.” Once again my learned historical reference falls on deaf ears.

“But you know what really bugs me about Bush. Libertarians had made real strides with Republicans, especially young people. And now Bush and his national greatness buddies are stripping all the libertarian DNA out of the GOP. So instead we get ‘projects worthy of a great nation.’ Conservative collectivism, he means.”

YoungMan falls silent. I sense an opening. “Ok, let’s assume all this is true about Bush. Even so, that doesn’t mean you should vote for Kerry. People say Kerry will be like Clinton from 1994 on. The Republican Congress controlled Clinton’s spending urges, and federal spending actually went down….”

“Only as a percentage of GNP, not absolutely,” YoungMan says, glancing at the bar menu.

“Right. But to vote for Kerry you have to assume the Republicans will control Congress and be willing to limit his desire to expand government. That means you are voting for a president you don’t agree with at all, but you hope someone else will stop him from doing the things you disagree with but have nonetheless empowered him to do. Who’s supposed to stop him? The Republicans in Congress. The same people that have been spending money like drunken sailors. And that assumes they hold on to Congress. The House Democrats are way further left now then they were in 1994. If they win a majority in the House….”

“So you’re going to vote for Bush?” YoungMan interrupted.

I looked up at the bar’s TV. Europeans were running around in shorts playing kickball. The world seemed strange. It was time to change the subject again.

John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.

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