In Muted Defense of Gridlock

(From pre-election 2008. The more things change… und so weiter. – DAR)

In Mr. Babka’s “Why I Don’t Want United Government,” reader Jeff Hebert makes some very interesting comments, including the following excerpt:

I find it very surprising that anyone seriously concerned with libertarian issues would support a Republican President this time around. The Bush Administration has had a sustained, hard push over the last eight years to make the “Unitary Executive” doctrine the de facto law of the land. It’s hard for me to imagine anything worse for our liberties than a chief executive with the powers and privileges of a monarch, and yet that’s exactly what Cheney, Bush, Yoo, and company have been working steadily towards.

John McCain has surrounded himself with people who hold the most extreme neo-conservative views in the party. He’s not just going to be four more years of Bush, he’s going to be four more years of the worst parts of Bush. If the idea of “anything’s legal if the President does it” doesn’t scare you way, way worse than universal health care (plenty of other Western countries have it and yet shockingly their nations have not imploded), expanded union power (ditto), and some changes to the way the FCC works, then I would respectfully suggest that your priorities are way out of whack.

We’ve been witness to a full frontal assault on the concept of separation of powers and the enshrinement of a monarchical executive, largely unnoticed by the vast majority of the country. When asked what he would do with his first 100 days in office, Obama said “I would call my attorney general in and review every single executive order issued by George Bush and overturn those laws or executive decisions that I feel violate the constitution.” That’s exactly what I want to hear.

I certainly agree with much of Mr. Hebert’s characterization of both the Bush Administration and of John McCain. If we were discussing Obama versus a third Bush term, I’d be more inclined to agree as well with more of Mr. Hebert’s reasoning. As matters stand, however, and subject to change on a daily basis, Democrats are likely to increase their control of both the House and the Senate, so the question becomes not which candidate successfully pursuing his agenda poses the greater threat but which candidate is least likely to successfully push his agenda.

I’m no McCain fan or supporter. The man is an autocrat and, from just about every insider report I’ve ever heard, one of his many homes is in Cloud Cuckoo Land. The question is whether giving McCain yet another residence, this time on Pennsylvania Avenue is more likely to perpetuate or worsen Bush’s imperial presidency versus what sort and how much damage is likely to occur in an Obama Administration.

I continue to believe that what genuinely troubles the Democratic Party is not the immense and increasing power of the presidency but merely the fact that it’s not currently theirs to use. I agree with Mr. Hebert that there are worse things than socialized medicine. Perpetual war, for example, springs to mind. Furthermore, as offensive as a return of the Fairness Doctrine would be, it isn’t exactly like John McCain is a staunch defender of free speech. But, whining from progressives aside, there is absolutely nothing I know about Obama to lead me to believe he would be cautious in his use of executive power once it was given to him or, frankly, that he would not pursue a far more leftist agenda than he has so far proposed. Like McCain, he is not a man who tosses and turns late at night fretting with self-doubt.

Speaking of which, does Mr. Hebert really like to hear a candidate promise to “overturn those laws or executive decisions that I feel violate the constitution”? Feel? Okay, so maybe Obama was speaking somewhat informally or imprecisely. But just how does he plan to go about overturning not merely executive decisions but laws as well? Let’s at least hope not by fiat.

The key to winning the presidential election in the U.S. continues to lie in campaigning sufficiently close to whatever the political middle happens to be to wrest away swing state (electoral) votes from your competition. If Obama announced his intention to press for legislation requiring universal “public service” nonmilitary conscription of 18 year olds and a 50% increase in all marginal tax rates, he’d win Massachusetts just the same but he’d lose Virginia for sure and probably Ohio, too. If McCain announced his intention to reinstate the military draft and abolish the Department of Education, he’d still probably win Mississippi and Arizona but lose Virginia and Ohio. Okay, so maybe my examples can be argued, but there are dead certain red states and dead certain blue states and a slowly shifting handful of swing states where the battle will be waged.

But none of that has anything to do with how the winner governs. Politicians all lie. Maybe not all the time but whenever necessary. If McCain really gave a damn about Obama’s lack of experience he sure as hell wouldn’t have picked Palin as his running mate. If Obama really gave a rodent’s hindquarters about change he wouldn’t have picked long-term Washington insider Joe Biden. They’ll both do and say what they believe they need to do and say in order to get elected. Once elected, they’ll do what they bloody well want to do.

Unless another branch of government stops them.

I hesitate to make the next point, but sooner or later it must at least be put on the table. If it is true, and it is, that Obama’s race is a factor in the election, then it is also almost certainly true that Obama’s race would be a factor in Congress’s relationship with his presidency. I don’t know how that would play out and I am not accusing Obama of anything so crass as “playing the race card” either now or should he be elected. I do think, however, that members of Congress will have to weigh one more factor in any decision to oppose or criticize a President Obama and that is whether such criticism or opposition even hints of racial animus.

Perhaps not. Perhaps even raising the issue shows a disconcerting oversensitivity to such matters on my part. Even so, all other factors being equal, I must believe there is a far greater likelihood of a Democratically controlled Congress standing up to a white Republican president than a black Democratic president regardless of the merits of whatever issue is under consideration.

Libertarians aren’t going to get minimal government any time in the foreseeable future, so minimally damaging government is the best they can hope for. Minimally damaging government tends invariably to be government that does the least regardless of how big it already is, so maximal gridlock is the best possible outcome from a libertarian perspective.

But best possible outcomes can be nearly as far removed from ideal outcomes as worst possible outcomes. I haven’t decided to vote for or otherwise support McCain. Far from it, in fact. But I certainly can understand how other libertarians, perhaps reasoning as I have here, might decide that, contra Mr. Hebert’s comments, voting for McCain is the most proactively libertarian thing they can do this time around. Doubtlessly (well, hopefully, anyway), they’ll be holding their noses as they do so.

This much I do know, though. If monopolies and collusive oligopolies really are bad for the general public, then undivided government and political “bipartisanship” ought to be prohibited on antitrust grounds. And that would still be true even if the president and every member of Congress were self-styled “Libertarians.”

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10 Responses to In Muted Defense of Gridlock

  1. pinky says:

    .
    I don ‘t like to say this; but, the general attitude toward Libertarians is that they’re mostly a pretty good sized box of nuts.
    .
    That’s not my opinion; but, it seems to be what the general public thinks.
    .
    And, it’s easy to see how people come up with that attitude. Sad but true.
    .
    Considering the way politics works–right and left, conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat–it’s easy enough to see how votes are swung in one direction or the other by third parties. So, in what direction does the Libertarian vote swing elections? Doesn’t it take as much from either side and it gives?

    Rather than run candidates, it seems it would be better that they form factions within both the main parties to work their influence where they could do the most good. Politics is a matter of compromise.
    .

  2. Mark Boggs says:

    Somebody help me. Especially given what is written above, wouldn’t it just be best to hope the two major parties implode altogether? Seriously, at this point, isn’t politics in general fast approaching, for much of the population, a football game mentality? Isn’t it more about whether you play for the elephants or the donkeys that ends up being important? And to some degree aren’t members of each party rather pigeon holed into their beliefs by the tribalistic nature of the whole thing, regardless of whether the belief is actual or simply perceived by the public based on party affiliation? I realize that, even with tearing asunder the two party system, something would probably replace it where the same sort of blocs and alliances would coalesce over time, but can anyone see a place where this two party system actually starts to work again?

    And think of what it might do for media and journalism. Instead of framing things in the “he said-she said” narrative where the actual facts are altogether neglected, you might have people start to discuss the issues themselves rather than what party X thinks about party Y’s proposal.

    Or am just an idealistic dolt who thinks that “something could be done to make this better?”

  3. James K says:

    The problem I have with gridlock is that is solves nothing, it just slows down the rate at which things get worse. If there’s a solution it’s better to hope for the solution rather than gridlock. If there’s no solution then you’re doomed. Why not get the inevitable collapse over with?

  4. James Hanley says:

    James K,

    You keep suggesting that the U.S. is following NZ’s path toward an inevitable crash. That may be, but the implication that we can then fix things, as NZ did, doesn’t follow. I think the structural differences between a parliamentary system and a checks-and-balances system like ours may be too substantial to overcome. Additionally, too much of our politics is overlaid with a “God and Country” attitude to allow us to consider how to deal with real problems.

    If I had any confidence that the inevitable crash would result in positive change, I’d welcome it. But if it’s not going to, then perhaps we’re better off delaying it as long as possible.

  5. ppnl says:

    D.A.R.

    ” Gridlock is good.

    It is not, of course, an intrinsic good but merely an instrumental good and not an unqualified good but merely a comparative good given the range of other possible outcomes. ”

    By that criteria small pox may be an instrumental good it you are trying to solve the problem of over population. But that’s a few thoughts short of a plan.

    Many religious people believe in an end times that is followed by the second coming and paradise on earth. This leads some of them to actively root for the fall of civilization since it would validate their beliefs. Libertarians probably should stay away from that kind of thinking.

    ” I don’t recall, btw, Cato ever being all that interested in environmental politics. ”

    My contention is that libertarians don’t do not handle externalities well. Environmental problems are a prime example. Cato cannot be in denial or AWOL and be taken seriously. It’s kinda precious to be talking about taxi cabs, hair cuts and parking spaces while ignoring the big issues. I don’t really disagree about the hair cuts but come on….

    But I think its important to be clear on exactly what I mean by grid lock. I do not mean that the division of powers between executive, legislative and judicial is a bad thing. That is a very good thing.

    I do not mean that there shouldn’t be an adversarial relationship between different parties and factions. That is inevitable.

    But when both sides are so committed to seeing their opponent fail that they will sacrifice any principle to achieve it then you have the worst of all possible worlds. It reduces politics to the moral equivalent of a sports event. You have fans who care passionately but there is no actual moral or political principle involved.

    Try to understand my pain. I have become the party of Sarah Palin, Glen Beck and the return of the John Birch society. We didn’t do that because anyone that matters in the party believes that Beck is anything but a clown. It’s just what you have to do to beat the liberals. If libertarians encourage that kind of principle free hyperpartisan conflict to prevent either side from doing anything then you deserve as much blame for the collapse as anyone. And if you think you will have a better chance at getting people to listen after a collapse you are fooling yourself.

    You cannot kneecap government and then complain that it is lame.

    Before the last election I wondered if McCain would actually do better reversing the Bush excesses than Obama. Obama’s actions since getting elected partly validate that idea. But Jesus Christ Sarah Palin? I really believe that if McCain had picked a solid VP and got rid of his culture warriors he could have won that election. The only problem is he would never have won the party primaries.

  6. James K says:

    James Hanley:
    Perhaps I’m being overly optimistic, but I’ve always believed Churchill’s observation about the US: “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.” I think your government will do a sufficient amount of the right thing when the time comes, if only because they’ll be out of options.

    While Roger Douglas was the proximate cause of Rogernomics, he couldn’t have done anything without David Lange’s support, and Lange was conventionally left wing (which is why he’s still a hero to the left down here, while Douglas is demonised). The reason Lange listened to Douglas is because he had two options: Rogernomics of go cap-in-hand to the IMF. And the US is too big to bail out so your politicians won’t even have the IMF to tempt them. It was only once the bulk of Rogernomics had occurred that the two fell out and the Douglas faction of Labour was purged.

    My point is that I believe that the Rogernomics reforms were driven by the economic realities, and that when the time comes your government will implement at least a bare minimum of reforms because it will have to. And once your electorate has been burned by fiscal collapse it will demand fiscal responsibility, and therefore politicians will supply it. I very much doubt that post-reform US will be a policy analyst’s paradise, but it will be fiscally stable, it’ll have to be.

  7. D.A. Ridgely says:

    “By that criteria small pox may be an instrumental good it you are trying to solve the problem of over population. But that’s a few thoughts short of a plan.”

    Alas, that analogy is more than a few points short of relevant unless your range of options is similarly limited. But you’d have to torture the premises of your hypothesis for that while I need only look to the facts of the matter as they currently exist.

    Partisan politics in the U.S. has been reduced to a sports rivalry, but I’m no fan of either Team Red or Team Blue. I just want them to keep each other from doing any more harm than necessary, and I won’t complain if government is lame. I’ll complain it’s still capable of hobbling.

  8. James Hanley says:

    JamesK–Of course I’m a pessimist.

  9. ppnl says:

    D.A.R.

    ” I just want them to keep each other from doing any more harm than necessary, and I won’t complain if government is lame. I’ll complain it’s still capable of hobbling. ”

    Yeah this pretty much brings us full circle.

    We started at Dispatches from the culture wars where Ed had a post about regulation vs no regulation vs smart regulation. In a comment there I complained that libertarians often let their arguments be use to prevent any possibility of smart regulation. James Hanley quoted part of it in a post here as an example of a common straw man argument.

    Now we have your quote above which is exactly what I was talking about. A government that cannot even hobble cannot do smart regulation of anything.

    So James is it still a straw man?

    I do not agree that there is nothing we can do about global warming. We can’t stop it totally and will have to do some adapting. But the more we do now the less we need to do later and the less we have to adapt to the changes. The earlier we act the bigger the payoff later.

    And the first thing we need to do is get government out of the way of the nuclear industry. See? Actual real smaller government to battle global warming. Not bogus small government designed to kneecap government.

  10. James K says:

    Just out of curiosity, what does your pessimism lead you to think will happen if the US government runs out of money. The most likely trigger is a recession hits, the US government’s debt requirements rise any their either can’t afford the interest or they can’t get enough buyers because their credit demand is too high for the rest of the world to fill.

    I’ve told you what I think will happen. What do you think?

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