October 16, 2012
“He may not be perfect, but at least he is better than Obama.” Even some former Ron Paul supporters have given this line as an excuse for supporting Mitt Romney for the United States Presidency.
The line betrays a deep misunderstanding of what liberty means.
As many libertarians have already pointed out, Romney is not nearly as different from Obama as is commonly supposed. But more importantly, in some vital ways (at least in the short run) he is actually worse.
The “better than Obama” way of thinking implicitly throws the entire anti-war aspect of libertarianism under the bus. The thinking runs as follows: “Romney may be expected to have an even more imperialist foreign policy than Obama, but he is better than Obama on domestic economic affairs, and that is obviously what matters most.”
This is in stark contrast to Ron Paul’s own way of thinking. Ron Paul may be in the same party as Romney. But this by no means indicates that Paul himself would consider Romney an improvement over Obama. In fact, it is probably more likely that the prospect of the neocons returning to full power in Romney’s wake is more frightening to Paul than the prospect of Obama being given a chance to double-down on his domestic agenda.
Ron Paul, unlike some of his supposed supporters, never gave foreign policy a back seat to domestic economic policy: far from it. In his presidential campaign, he talked even more about ending our empire than ending the Fed.
Moreover, Ron Paul wisely included foreign policy as an essential plank within his domestic economic policy, pointing out incessantly that our empire is not only responsible for destruction abroad and insecurity at home, but it is also bankrupting and impoverishing us.
Foreign policy is an economic matter in another way as well. Foreign interventionists are essentially security-production socialists. For far too many conservatives, the same Federal government that is too inept and corrupt to run a television station is somehow miraculously competent and virtuous enough to make the whole world a safer place through centrally planned invasions, occupations, sanctions, regime changes, and CIA ops.
Some may concede this point, but argue that the danger of an Obama “New Deal” is more acute than that of a neocon renascence under Romney. But that is far from obvious, and is in fact rather dubious. What can be more acutely dangerous than an even more belligerent foreign policy that is more likely to lead to nuclear blowback? When Murray Rothbard explained why he had rooted for (which is fundamentally different from endorsing) Lyndon Johnson over the allegedly “pro-liberty” candidate Barry Goldwater, he pointed out that Goldwater’s advisers were crazy and wanted to “nuke Russia”. Rothbard rightly said that problems like price controls “fade away” in significance in the face prospects of nuclear conflict. There isn’t much to price in a nuclear wasteland.
Rothbard, like Ron Paul, placed foreign policy center stage. Just as Ludwig von Mises was the Last Knight of Liberalism, Murray N. Rothbard was the Last Knight of the Old Right. As Mises was a laissez-faire Leonidas surrounded by socialists and money cranks, Rothbard was an anti-war Roland, fighting bravely and almost alone in the rear guard of the Old Right against the Cold Warriors of the New.
Rothbard spent much of the 50s writing an epochal economics treatise that made plain the case for the free market. But by 1959, he was more concerned with matters of war and peace than with domestic economic policy. In that year, he wrote, “…I am getting more and more convinced that the war-peace question is the key to the whole libertarian business…” and that, in the face of an American arms budget exceeding $40 billion, “[t]he fact that we might spend a few billion less on public housing or on farm support no longer thrills me.”
Neither should the prospect of Romney tinkering around the edges of the American welfare state (and probably actually expanding it) thrill, or even appease, libertarians in the face of American military spending which, in 2011, exceeded $700 billion. This is especially true, considering that Romney is explicitly promising to reverse Obama’s defense “cuts”.
Of course this is not to say that libertarians should vote for Obama. For one thing, Obama too is a horrible foreign interventionist. And even though he is somewhat less disastrous than Romney would be in foreign policy, that is only true in the short run.
Similarly, Romney, like Obama, is a horrible domestic interventionist. And even though he would be somewhat less disastrous than Obama in domestic economic policy, that is only true in the short run as well.
In the long run, if either is elected, the above impacts would likely be reversed.
Romney’s big-government economic policies would sow the seeds of further crises and depression. Yet this failure would be blamed on his ostensibly “free market” orientation, thereby giving capitalism a bad rap. This has happened before. The reputation of, and prospects for, capitalism are still reeling from the presidency of George W. Bush.
Similarly, Obama’s continued foreign meddling would sow the seeds of further conflict and global instability. Yet this failure would be blamed on his ostensibly “soft” foreign policy, thereby giving peace a bad name. We have already seen this as well. The current wave of unrest in the Arab world is due largely to Obama’s recent meddling in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere. It is the U.S.-sponsored Arab Spring recoiling, as springs inevitably do. Yet, this Arab Recoil is being blamed by many on America’s failure to “lead” (i.e., meddle even more) under Obama.
And so, the choice between Obama and Romney is even less clear than one might think. With Romney, the cause of domestic economic liberty and abundance is harmed a bit less in the short run, but more in the long run. With Obama the cause of peace and security is harmed a bit less in the short run, but more in the long run.
So, if one were forced to vote for one or the other, the question would not merely be which cause is more important. The choice would also be between the short run and the long run. Are the short-run dangers so acute that they must take precedence, else there won’t even be a long run to speak of? Or would it be foolish and myopic to grasp at a short-run palliative, thereby sealing our doom down the road?
Thankfully, you, dear reader, are not forced to vote for one or the other: at least not yet. And you should not feel obliged to, either. As many have already argued, the chances of your single vote making the difference between Obama or Romney becoming president are virtually zero.
Moreover, even if you do not accept that line of reasoning, you must remember Frédéric Bastiat’s injunction to consider both the “seen” and the “unseen”. You must compare whatever effect you think your vote directly has on this election with its broader and indirect effects.
For one thing, your vote helps provide a mandate for all of the elected officer’s policies, whether you support those policies or not. As one author has said, voting “just encourages the bastards.”
Furthermore, every vote for a federal office is a vote for the hyper-state known as the U.S. federal government, and for hyper-states in general. It is effectively an endorsement of centralized power and a vote of no confidence in localism. And yes, this would be true of a vote for a middling libertarian like Gary Johnson, or even an exceptionally heroic individual like Ron Paul. True progress toward liberty cannot be achieved through the offices of a gargantuan state.
But most importantly, the example you set for your children and friends by voting to place a warmonger, a redistributionist, or any other rights-violator (or anybody, really) into an inherently destructive office at the head of an inherently destructive hyper-state has impacts that will propagate throughout society and posterity like ripples in a pond, and will be far more significant than any direct impact you have on the election at hand.
The most effective way to promote liberty on Election Day would be to choose to abstain from voting and to tell everybody about that choice. If you are going to cast anything that day, cast a few dollars toward a worthy organization like the Mises Institute. Now that would be a vote for liberty.