Libertarians Adrift

While it comes as no surprise to me, Republicans are making it official:  After dallying with small government notions in the eighties and nineties, under George Bush they are refocusing themselves on statism.  Going forward, Republicans see themselves locked in an arms race with Democrats over who can spend more and advocate more statist controls.

This news comes to us via conservative David Brooks, via Volokh:

[Brooks] rejects Bartlett's charge that Bush has betrayed conservatism. According to
Brooks, "Bush hasn't abandoned conservatism; he's modernized and saved it." As
Brooks tells the story, "conservatism was adrift and bereft of ideas" until
President Bush came along.

Almost single-handedly, Bush reconnected with the positive and
idealistic instincts of middle-class Americans. He did it by recasting
conservatism more significantly than anyone had since Ronald Reagan. He rejected
the prejudice that the private sector is good and the public sector is bad, and
he tried to use government to encourage responsible citizenship and community
service. He sought to mobilize government so the children of prisoners can build
their lives, so parents can get data to measure their school's performance, so
millions of AIDS victims in Africa can live another day, so people around the
world can dream of freedom.

"Government should help people improve their lives, not run their lives,"
Bush said. This is not the Government-Is-the-Problem philosophy of the mid-'90s,
but the philosophy of a governing majority party in a country where people look
to government to play a positive but not overbearing role in their lives.

Barf.  The last sentence contains a pure contradiction:  There is no way for government to play any role, positive or negative, without being overbearing, at least to some.  There is no way for the government to improve some lives without running others.

Despite what politicians may argue, the government has only one unique quality no one else can match.  They are not uniquely smart, or uniquely capable, or uniquely compassionate, or uniquely efficient, or even uniquely able to run large organizations.  Their only unique capability is to deal with people by force, and to use force and the threat of force and imprisonment to compel individuals to do things they would no choose to do themselves.

This unique ability to use force is necessary to the government in fulfilling its core roles of protecting us from the use of force from outside our borders (military) and protecting its citizens from the use of force or fraud by other citizens (police and courts).  When the government uses its unique ability to coerce in other spheres, there are always winners and losers.  That is because by definition the government is using force to cause an outcome or a decision that people would not have made on their own, based on their own self-interest and of their own free will.  So when politicians blithely say things like "help people improve their lives", what they ALWAYS mean is using force to compel someone to do something they would not have to do in a free society.   

For this reason, there is no such thing as having the government "play a positive but not overbearing role in their lives".  The best you can hope for with such an activist government system is to hope that the government plays a net-positive role in your life, while being overbearing to others.  Which pretty much sums up why politics are so high stakes today - if government is about sacrificing one group to another, I want my guy in there so he can be overbearing to some other group for the benefit of mine.

I dealt with these same themes a couple of days ago in this post, where I said "the entire Republican and Democratic platform each boil down to 'we
support government intervention except where our major donors oppose
it'".  My summary statement on the full range of government interference with free individual decision-making is here.

Update:  While Marginal Revolution is still optomistic for libertarians, they point out that "progressives" see the opportunity now for real expansion of socialism in this country

Democrat Matt
Yglesias writes

If you did have a progressive president, there's no longer a
particularly large amount of popular resistance to expanding the activist state.
Even most Republicans don't especially care about small government.


  1. Brian Yamabe:

    I still have a small bit of hope that this is a product of "D.C. Republicans" and not the true base of the party. I'm hoping that the driving forces of the party emerges from small government conservatives much like the Democrats seem to be driven by MoveOn and that part of their party.

  2. phil:

    Where do you think "DC Republicans" come from? Don Young came all the way from Alaska to raid the treasury. The reality is there is not a big enough, organized constituency for limited gov't to influence the Republican Party. We are going to have to devise some new strategies if we want to accomplish our goals of rolling back the state.

  3. Scott:

    Newt Gingrich with his "Contract with America" attempted to actually reduce the size of government, even going so far as to shut down the government essentially back in the early nineties. His ideas were summarily rejected by American voters of both parties. That is why the Bush team is expanding government; because that is what a majority of Americans want. No matter how absurd or useless a government program may be, there will always be an outcry if a proposal to kill it is brought forward.