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A perhaps accidental description of why the libertarian perspective beats the major parties’

November 21, 2012 Leave a comment

Amity Shlaes over at Forbes has published an article in the October 22, 2012 issue called “The End of Behaviorism.” (If you’re unfamiliar, Amity Shlaes is the author of the very good “The Forgotten Man,” a realistic history of the Great Depression. She is also the author of a forthcoming biography of Calvin Coolidge, one of my absolute favorite presidents and a sadly all-too-often-ignored figure.)

In this article, Shlaes lays out the contrast between the economic policies of the two major political parties in simplistic terms:

Get the rat to the cheese.

That’s really what each U.S. political party is promising to do if its candidate is elected President. The rat in this analogy is the enervated American worker. The cheese is his reward. If all rats make their way through the maze and to the cheese faster, the economy will grow faster.

The only way that Democrats and Republicans differ is in the manner in which they animate the rat. Democrats take the Habitrail approach: Give the worker the equivalent of a roomy cage with a deluxe wheel, and he’ll be fit enough to pursue his cheese. Republicans focus on incentives: Double the cheddar, and the rat will navigate his turns more quickly. The rat analogy comes from modern economics, a discipline that classes itself as lab science, precious and pure.

Neither approach works particularly well. The article goes on to probe the deeper depths of the human psyche viz. “getting to the cheese.” What is it that really motivates people? I think Shlaes assertion that freedom in and of itself is the goal of many is right on the dot.

But people aren’t lab rats. They are souls, to use a pre-social-science word. Souls, pious or not, make their choices in complex fashion.

Indeed, freedom itself is what motivates many people who are not currently free. We in this country tend to get so caught up in how much money we have, how many things are available to us, whether our material situation is better now than it was four years ago – that we utterly forget to appreciate the necessary condition to material wealth and comfort.

That is freedom.

And thus, I find Shlaes’s article to be a – perhaps unwitting – explication of the libertarian position, and especially of that position’s superiority over the position of the major political parties in this country.

The cheese is not really what matters, although getting rats to cheese is a nice side benefit. What really, truly matters is whether people are free to live their own lives without coercion.

In a world of politics devoid of principle, is picking the “least bad” the best we can do?

February 28, 2012 Leave a comment

In the Wall Street Journal last week, James Taranto interviews Jeffrey Bell, the author of “The Case for Polarized Politics.”  Cutting against the prevailing wisdom on the relative electability of Rick Santorum, Bell makes the point that Republicans tend to win on social issues arguments and lose on economic arguments:

Social conservatism, Mr. Bell argues in his forthcoming book, “The Case for Polarized Politics,” has a winning track record for the GOP. “Social issues were nonexistent in the period 1932 to 1964,” he observes. “The Republican Party won two presidential elections out of nine, and they had the Congress for all of four years in that entire period. . . . When social issues came into the mix—I would date it from the 1968 election . . . the Republican Party won seven out of 11 presidential elections.”

This may be true.  It certainly seems compelling.  However, it also makes me sad.

Ultimately, this seems to be good evidence for the idea that the worst ideas of the Republican Party are the most attractive ideas to Republican voters, and that the worst ideas of the Democratic Party are the most attractive ideas to Democratic voters.  Also, and most depressingly, the swing vote seems to be irredeemably stupid.

Not that anything about the depressing nature of politics surprises me at this point, but it raises an interesting question. Given the choice between Barack Obama, who we know is a terrible president on all fronts, and Rick Santorum, who would at least have a chance to be merely mediocre on a few issues, whom do you pick?  Do vote Libertarian?  Do you run away screaming?  Move to Canada?

In other words, from a small-“l” libertarian perspective, is bad the best we can do?

Make no mistake about it: even on traditional pet issues of the left like civil liberties and war, Obama is nobody’s friend.  Neither would Santorum be,  but we would know that going in. Is it better to roll the dice on a Santorum budget than take the inevitable reaming that would come from four more years of Obama?  Perhaps more importantly, would it be preferable to get another Samuel Alito over another Sonia Sotomayor?

I go back and forth.  On the one hand, the tea party groundswell of the last few years might serve to keep Santorum at least relatively honest on economic issues. On the other hand, Santorum may be a conservative Trojan horse, who like George W. Bush before him gets elected on lower-spending rhetoric and therefore gets a pass from his Republican base when he balloons spending.  Like we saw with George W., the latter circumstance could easily set the stage for a disastrous follow-up act.

Without a crystal ball, I am not sure that there is any way of knowing this for sure.  My hope is that we do not end up with the Hobson’s Choice of Santorum vs. Obama, but I am not so sure we will be that lucky.

I have not made a decision.  Have you?  Feel free to let me know in the comments.

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