Sunday, October 31, 2010


It’s election time again, and once again people like me are looking at the choices and heaving great sighs.

Who do I mean by people like me? I’ll try to explain without flattering myself too much. One one hand I mean people who are repelled by the stunning levels of invective, distortion and pandering to ignorance that characterize our political campaigns. Attack ads dominate the airwaves, and they are not designed to make viewers pause in thoughtful reflection on the issues. The Democratic approach is to insist that Republicans are all heartless corporate shills that want only to increase their takings while reducing the lower classes to penury; meanwhile the Republicans are feverishly trying to convince the electorate that a Bolshevik coup is just around the corner, masterminded by the secret Muslim in the White House.

Campaign managers will tell you that of course they realize things are more complicated than that, but that they have to go for the lowest common denominator because that’s how elections are won and lost: most people are too unsophisticated or too lazy to give the issues the consideration they deserve.

What does it tell us about our society that political campaigns are pitched to the most ignorant members of the electorate? To me it suggests that among the many failings of our school systems is a complete failure to teach elementary logical analysis and economic literacy.

That’s an issue for another rant on another day. The other aspect of my dismay at our political circus is the fact that the poles around which our two major parties have coalesced leave me without a good choice.

I’ve been voting Libertarian for years. Yes, I’m aware of all the baggage—the creepy lunatic fringe, the easily caricatured minimalism, as captured in the New Yorker cartoon depicting a homeowner cheerfully waving away the fire department as his home burns behind him, saying “No thanks, I’m a Libertarian.”

Believe me, I’d love to vote for a nice mainstream party. The problem is that each of our major parties has put half of its money on the wrong horse. The Democrats embody some honorable strains in our political epic, like the struggle for civil rights and principled opposition to dubious wars. (And they hold themselves in correspondingly high regard.) However, the Democrats let FDR lead them down the path toward statism, producing outcomes that are a little less high-minded, like punitive taxation, clumsy interventions in the market economy and metastasizing bureaucracies. The Democrats are the party of the nanny state, the regulatory nightmare and the rush to legislate, heedless of unintended consequences. In addition, their civil rights heritage has calcified into an unreflective, adversarial approach to the complex problems of African-American disadvantage.

The Republicans, meanwhile, claim to be the party of small government and yet somehow under the second Bush managed to vaporize the budget surplus and create huge new entitlements and onerous federal mandates like No Child Left Behind. If failure to live up to their principles was their only problem, they might be redeemable, but unfortunately not all of their apparent principles inspire confidence. The Republicans are too often prone to a belligerent patriotism, a tendency to try to trump a reasonable argument by waving the flag. Patriotism is a fine thing (and properly a non-partisan one), but not when used as a substitute for thought. The Republicans are more likely to see a military solution for complex geo-strategic problems and, of course, they are obdurate boosters of the futile and corrupting Drug War.

So each of the major parties has it half right; the Democrats know that we all have to live together and that warfare is a tool best used as a last resort; the Republicans know that the free market is the best provider of material goods and that individual responsibility is the only basis for a healthy society. Unfortunately, they also each have it half wrong. The Democrats think a few keen policy wonks, if we just give them enough power, can legislate our problems away, while the Republicans think that a few strong men, if we just give them enough power, can lock up all our problems or leave them a smoking ruin.

So I vote Libertarian. People tell me that’s a cop-out, that I’m wasting my vote and abdicating my responsibility to choose the better of the only two realistic alternatives. I don’t agree; I think you always vote your principles. It sends a message even if you know your guy has no chance to win. Another option often suggested is for people of my views to pick a party and jump in and try and change it; move the major party of your choice closer to your principles.

That would mean getting the Democrats to find a clue about market economics or getting the Republicans to jettison xenophobia and gunboat diplomacy; don’t hold your breath. I think the best hope is to keep trying to persuade Americans that there’s a political party that is already mostly there where they want to be. I think most Americans are natural libertarians; we want the government to protect us against force and fraud but we don’t think it owes us a living; we are personally tolerant and appreciate our live-and-let-live culture; we respect our military but want it used carefully, and we know there’s no future in trying to seal the borders.

And neither of the two big parties represents us; we’re orphans. So take a look at the Libertarian option next Tuesday; the more votes the Libertarians get the more mainstream they will become, shedding the lunatic fringe, raising standards and assuming responsibilities. And maybe some day there will be a major party that is in tune with our natural, small-L libertarian instincts.

Sam Reaves