We Are Trapped

Charles Krauthammer offers some hard cautions to the “conservative counter-revolutionaries” determined to continue “their containment of the Obama experiment.” While applauding their efforts to contain Obama, saluting them as “remarkable”, and sympathizing with their goal to rollback government, he argues that it “is simply not achievable until conservatives receive a mandate to govern from the White House.”

“Under our constitutional system, you cannot govern from one house alone. Today’s resurgent conservatism, with its fidelity to constitutionalism, should be particularly attuned to this constraint, imposed as it is by a system of deliberately separated — and mutually limiting — powers.”

Back off, then, is his counsel. And take this to electorate in November 2012.

Sound advice. But Krauthammer like too many American conservatives likes to place this battle as the latest in the long-running struggle between “social-democratic versus limited-government” visions. And that is their mistake and also the drawback to left Democrats who fall into the same line of thinking.

Despite what ideologues on either side of this increasingly stark and distorting confrontation like to make out, it is possible to blend both visions. It is what most American voters would like to see. It comes through loud and clear in opinion polls the past few years. When majorities say that they think government is too big on the one hand but don’t want to see massive entitlement reform on the other, they are trying to communicate their belief in a “third way” to a deaf political class locked in ideological prisons and tribal caucuses.

That is why the pendulum swings back and forth between the parties in elections with such regularity. It is the electorate’s way – or at least independents and non-tribal Republicans and Democrats – of showing dissatisfaction with either competing vision. And they don’t believe they are being contradictory by wanting a blend of social democracy and limited government.

And there is nothing wrong with the blend – either in practical terms or intellectual ones. For most classical liberals – as distinct from liberals – it makes perfect sense. Read John Stuart Mill, for example, or even Adam Smith, who despite being hijacked by libertarians, saw a large role for government. Those conservatives who like to cite FA Hayek should remember, if they ever knew in the first place, that he accepted that there are legitimate grounds for government to supply health care without people having to shriek “Marxism.”

And in practical terms combining social democratic and limited government visions has not proven impossible for, say, the likes of Margaret Thatcher, another classical liberal.

But you won’t hear from the left of the Democratic Party or the right of the GOP anything like this. Mention social democracy and the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs of this world morph it all into “socialism.” Mutter the words “limited government” and MoveOn.org and Rachel Maddow react with equal intellectual-distorting horror.

In practical terms, too, both militant sides are blind to their lack of consistency with their visions.

On the right, we have all of this talk about “limited government” and how we can’t afford things but conservatives continue with massive corporate welfare. Cut Social Security and Medicare – those programs Americans have contributed to and are relying on – we can’t afford those, but let’s not cut tax loopholes for the rich or stem the flow of taxpayers’ money to successful agri-business or other corporations. The GOP likes to see itself as the friend of small business but has turned its back on serious health care reform. Health-care costs cripple small business.

On the left, we have lip service paid to enterprise, small business and the American entrepreneur. But little restraint when it comes to over-regulation. And where is the recognition that corporate tax does need to come down for America to be globally competitive?

We are trapped.

 

Libertarians and the Tea Party — Back Off

I have to take issue with my former Cato colleague Dan Mitchell and Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman, someone who I agree with on many issues. Like them I want to see the cost of government curtailed and agree that we shouldn’t live at the expense of future generations. We would no doubt disagree on the priorities for government – I believe in a greater welfare role – but even so on the issue of reducing government we are on the same side.

But I part company with them on whether the Tea Party movement is a net plus for America. Steve and Dan maintain that it is a good thing on the grounds that “there is a growing mass of citizens who think it’s important to restrain government.”  They are prepared to overlook the fact that like any mass movement it has a “few odd characters.” Steve admits in a recent column that his first impression of the movement was: “It’s a rabidly right-wing phenomenon with a shaky grasp of history, a strain of intolerance and xenophobia, a paranoia about Barack Obama, and an unhealthy reverence for Fox News. Any movement that doesn’t firmly exclude Birchers, birthers, and Islamaphobes is not a movement for me.”

But his second impression is that “we are lucky to have them.”

I am afraid I can’t overlook “the strain of intolerance and xenophobia.” I can’t overlook the “Birchers, birthers, and Islamaphobes.” And I think it highly dangerous for libertarians, economic conservatives and small-government Democrats (yes, there are some out there) to do so. You can be for restraining government and fiscal responsibility without aligning with the Tea Party – it isn’t an either/or proposition.

American libertarians have had a tendency in the past to feel that they can ignore the racial blots and social authoritarianism of those who share their limited government/fiscal responsibility positions. It ends in tears though. Should limiting government and curtailing expenditure be more important to a libertarian or smaller government advocate than anything else, than, say, civil liberties? Surely not. The importance of both of those is intertwined with a respect for the individual, with a yearning for individual liberty, with an openness to other cultures and races or as Reason magazine’s tag would have it, “Free Minds and Free Markets.”

This tendency to overlook the bad has a lot to do with aligning with those who might be able to carry out part of the libertarian agenda. The GOP may win control of Capitol Hill in the fall, so let’s be nice to them. Libertarians formed an alliance with the Gingrich Republicans but didn’t get much out of that except Health Savings Accounts. Out of George W. Bush they got a foeign policy they were appalled out, civil liberty abuses that shocked them and the economic nonsense of Cheney’s “deficits don’t matter.”

Similar disappointment awaits them if they carry on flirting with the Tea Party. Brink Lindsay, a former Cato scholar, was right to look to the left for more appropriate allies but alas Washington DC libertarians didn’t follow.