The Libertarianism of Barack Obama

While Paul supporters have made the most noise, Barack Obama has received the support from many libertarians. This has especially been the case as it became apparent that Bill Richardson, who was the first choice of many libertarians, had no chance at the nomination. I’ve often noted Obama’s appeal to libertarians. I’ve argued that Obama is not a libertarian, but with his exposure to free market viewpoints at the University of Chicago and elsewhere he at least shows signs of understanding and respecting views ignored by many Democrats.With Ron Paul finally exposed as a right wing extermist and not a true libertarian, Obama remains the only sensible choice for opponents of the war who lean libertarian. As a former professor of Constitutional law, Obama has stood up for defending the Constitution, including separation of church and state.

Daniel Koffler goes even further than I have in actually calling Obama a left-libertarian, along with noting that those who see little philosophical differences between the Democratic candidates are in error. Koffler finds that “there is a deep and profound disagreement between the candidates on how to approach public policy questions, one that implies highly discrepant visions of governance.”

Obama’s preference for reducing healthcare costs while preserving the freedom to choose whether or not to participate in the healthcare system, as against Clinton’s (and Edwards’s) insistence on mandating participation, is not a one-off discrepancy without broader implications. Rather, Obama’s language of personal choice and incentive is a reflection of the ideas of his lead economic advisor, Austin Goolsbee, a behavioural economist at the University of Chicago, who agrees with the liberal consensus on the need to address concerns such as income inequality, disparate educational opportunities and, of course, disparate access to healthcare, but breaks sharply from liberal orthodoxy on both the causes of these social ills and the optimal strategy for ameliorating them.

Instead of recommending traditional welfare-state liberalism as a solvent for socioeconomic inequalities and dislocations, Goolsbee promotes programmes to essentially democratise the market, protecting and where possible expanding freedom of choice, while simultaneously creating rational, self-interested incentives for individuals to participate in solving collective problems. No wonder, then, that Obama’s healthcare plan is specifically designed to give people good reason to buy in, without coercing them. Likewise, as George Will reported in a column from October, Goolsbee’s proposal for reducing income inequality is to lower barriers to higher education, the primary factor in determining future earnings, and noticeably does not rely on state interventions in the market, which can succeed at equalising income at the price of reducing it across the board.

Goolsbee and Obama’s understanding of the free market as a useful means of promoting social justice, rather than an obstacle to it, contrasts most starkly with the rest of the Democratic field on issues of competition, free trade and financial liberalism. Back in the spring of 2007, when the term “subprime mortgage” was beginning its ascent to ubiquity, Goolsbee composed an impressive op-ed in the New York Times, noting that – fraudulent lending practices aside – subprime products are a powerful tool for democratising the credit market and opening it up to lower socioeconomic strata, and had been substantially successful in reducing financial constraints on working-class people. Crack down on fraud by all means, but don’t cut off an important avenue of economic empowerment for working people, and most of all don’t do so in the name of working people.

The evidence that Obama heeds Goolsbee’s lessons is ample, his healthcare plan being but one of many prominent examples. Whereas Clinton has recently taken to pulling protectionist stunts and rethinking the fundamental theoretical soundness of free trade, and Edwards is behaving like the love child of Huey Long and Pat Buchanan, Obama instinctively supports free trade and grasps the universe of possibilities that globalisation opens up, and seamlessly integrates it into his “audacity of hope” theme. As he remarked in a recent debate: “Globalisation is here, and I don’t think Americans are afraid to compete. And we have the goods and the services and the skills and the innovation to compete anywhere in the world.”

At the moment, Obama’s and Clinton’s positions on trade are roughly equivalent – both deserve credit for taking initial steps toward dismantling the obscene US government-supported agricultural cartels – but the present dynamic is Obama moving more and more in the direction of economic freedom, competition and individual choice, and Clinton wavering if not moving away from it. Obama proposes to address the “actuarial gap” in entitlement programs – actuarial gap being a term congenial to if not lifted straight from Niall Ferguson‘s analysis of generational accounting – in part by raising the cap on payroll taxes, but in part by creating incentives for personal retirement accounts, fostering, if you’ll pardon the term, an ownership society. The idea, as with his approach to healthcare, is to bring individual self-interest and collective needs into harmony, and let rationality do the work from there. (Hillary Clinton, in case you’re wondering, disagrees.)

Similarly, while Obama’s support of immigration and immigrants undoubtedly derives in part from straightforward internationalism and humanitarianism – Obama’s lead foreign policy advisor is Samantha Power, author of A Problem from Hell, under whose guidance Obama has directed far more attention to the Darfur genocide than any other candidate – it’s likely that part of Obama’s embrace of immigration stems from a Goolsbeean view of free movement of labour as inextricable from and essential to a free global market.

Perhaps it goes without saying that Obama’s belief in freedom in labour markets and freedom in capital markets, sets him apart from the Republican field as well as the Democrats. Under ordinary circumstances, one would expect Republicans at least to respect free trade, but alas, they are inconsistent at best. As for freedom in immigration, even in politically propitious times, the modern GOP makes tactical concessions toward its xenophobic wing; in this season of famine, the Republican candidates, even those who have supported immigration in the past, have set up their nominating contest as a race to see who can take the most thuggish and contemptuous possible attitude toward Mexicans (the euphemism for this posture is “out-Tancredo-ing Tancredo”).

Ironically, the nativist lunacy sweeping through the GOP underscores the conceptual connection between free trade and immigration, as mutually supporting pillars of economic freedom. Obama properly understands economic freedom as the best vehicle for accomplishing the historic goals of the left, which Irving Howe and Lewis Coser long ago described as wanting “simply to do away with those sources of conflict which are the cause of material deprivation and which, in turn, help create psychological and moral suffering.”

In other words and in short, Obama’s slogan, “stand for change”, is not a vacuous message of uplift, but a content-laden token of dissent from the old-style liberal orthodoxy on which Clinton and Edwards have been campaigning. At the same time, Obama is not offering a retread of (Bill) Clintonism, Liebermanism, triangulation, neoliberalism, the Third Way or whatever we might wish to call the business-friendly centrism of the 1990s. For all its lofty talk of new paradigms and boundary shifting, the Third Way in practice amounted to taking a little of column A, a little of column B, and marketing the result as something new and innovative. Obama and Goolsbee propose something entirely different – not a triangulation, but a basis for crafting public policy orthogonal to the traditional liberal-conservative axis.

If this approach needs a name, call it left-libertarianism. Advancements in behavioural economics, public and rational choice theory, and game theory provide us with an opportunity to attend to inequality without crippling the economy, enhancing the coercive power of the state, or infringing on personal liberty (at least not to any extent greater than the welfare state already does; and as much as my libertarian friends might wish otherwise, the welfare state isn’t going anywhere). The cost – higher marginal tax rates – is real, but eminently justified by the benefits.

Edwards Struggling in North Carolina

It is widely believed that even if John Edwards had decided to run for reelection to his Senate seat he would have lost, and that was when he was a centrist. Edwards was also unable to win North Carolina for Kerry in 2004. Now he is in danger of coming in third place in the primary. Political Wire reports:

A new Public Policy Polling survey in North Carolina finds Sen. Hillary Clinton leading the Democratic presidential race with 31% support, followed by Sen. Barack Obama at 29% and John Edwards back at third place in his home state with 27%.

The margin of error is 3.1%, technically making the race a statistical tie.

Said pollster Dean Debnam: “Momentum is a precious commodity in politics. Right now Clinton and Obama have it and Edwards doesn’t, which is making it hard for him to fare well even in his home state.”

Gary Hart, Ned Lamont, Tim Johnson, and George Miller Endorse Obama

While the big news of the day has been the endorsement of Barack Obama by John Kerry, Obama has also received some other notable endorsements over the past couple of days. Gary Hart endorsed Obama yesterday:

I have personal experience of the Democratic party at a generational crossroads. In the mid-1980s the Democratic party could play it safe and stay with a candidate they knew and with whom they were comfortable and familiar. Or they could take a chance with a new generation of leadership with a new understanding of a new age and new policies and ideas. They chose the former and they lost.

Democrats and Americans are faced with a big decision. Will we play it safe? Or will we embrace the future? This is not a time to put gender or race above what is best for the country or to make superficial choices. We have huge debts and deficits. The climate is rapidly approaching a tipping point. We are stuck in the Middle East. Most of the people in the world do not like us or trust us. Our education system is declining. And the list goes on.

Only a new generation of leaders can solve these new challenges, because only a new generation of leaders is unbound by old policies, old commitments and arrangements, old deals and old friendships. This is a time when America must leave old politics behind. This election is about transition not power. We will either move forward or we will go back.

Ned Lamont has endorsed Obama today:

We have seen that Sen. Obama has the wisdom and judgment to get the big decisions right – as he did on Iraq more than five years ago. And when President Obama steps out of Air Force One in countries around the world, he will represent a fresh start with friends and allies. He will end the war in Iraq, work for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, and start investing in America again – and we will be safer and stronger for it.

We Democrats are fortunate to have had many strong candidates running for President. As you may know, I was proud to work hard for Chris Dodd during his campaign. I have the deepest respect and admiration for Sen. Dodd – especially for his powerful calls to defend our constitutional freedoms by restoring habeas corpus, closing Guantanamo, and living up to the spirit of the Geneva Conventions. I know that Sen. Obama, a former professor of Constitutional Law, has been and will continue to be Chris’ ally in fighting to protect our Constitution.

As Barack often says on the campaign trail these days, “with the challenges we face at this moment, the real gamble in this election is playing the same Washington game with the same Washington players and expecting a different result.”

South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson has endorsed Obama. According to AP, “Johnson says he’s backing Barack Obama because he’s bi-partisan and wants to bridge differences between the two parties.” Obama has also received the endorsement of California Congressman George Miller. These endorsements follow two recent union endorsements.

Barack Obama’s Comments Following Endorsement by John Kerry

Remarks of Senator Barack Obama after receiving the endorsement of John Kerry:

I want to thank John Kerry for his support in this campaign and for his service to this nation.

This is a man who knows how much people who love their country can change it.

This is the man who sacrificed the comforts of youth to fight in the jungles of Vietnam; the young Lieutenant who extended his hand to a brother in arms, pulling him from a river as the bullets screamed by.

This is the hero who returned to a Washington where politicians continued a senseless war day after day; life after life because they were too afraid to challenge the conventional thinking; too consumed with their own careers and ambitions.

This is the patriot who saw all of this and said, “No more”; who posed a question to our leaders that challenged the conscience of a nation; who believed in his heart that change does not come from the halls of power, but from the power of a movement thousands of voices strong.

John Kerry is a man of courage; a man of conviction; and a man who’s life story has given him an intimate understanding of the kind of change we need right now.

This is a defining moment in our history. Our nation is at war. Our planet is in peril. The dream that so many generations have fought for feels as if it’s slowly slipping away.


John Kerry Introduces The Next President of the United States


Video of John Kerry’s endorsement of Barack Obama in Charleston, South Carolina is above and the transcript follows:

Martin Luther King said “the time is always right to do what is right”. And I’m here in South Carolina because this is the right time to share with you my confidence that the next President of the United States should be, can be, and will be Barack Obama.
Four years ago, I began my own presidential campaign here in Charleston at Patriots Point. I committed myself then to fight for “a new era of concern for community and not division.” When the campaign ended almost a thousand miles away in Boston, I congratulated President Bush but I also warned him “of the danger of division in our country and of the desperate need for unity, for finding the common ground, coming together.” I dared to hope publicly that the healing would begin then. It didn’t – but it will begin when Barack Obama is President.

There are other candidates in this race with whom I have worked and whom I respect. They are terrific public servants and each of them could be President tomorrow and each would fight to take the country in the right direction.

But I believe that more than anyone else, Barack Obama can help our country turn the page and get America moving by uniting us and ending the division that we have faced. He has a superb talent, as all of you know, to communicate the best of our hopes and aspirations for America and for the world and that is why Barack Obama has the greatest potential to lead a transformation not just a transition.

He knows that real change only comes when millions of Americans join together and come together in a movement that demands it – when they’re united in common cause and to speak out so loudly that Washington absolutely has no choice but to listen. That’s not just a way to win the election – it’s the only way to change the nation. He understands that we have to force the politicians to feel your power – and I am here because it is Barack Obama who in a unique way brings the lessons of the neighborhood, the lessons of the legislature and the lessons of his own life to that awesome challenge. And my friends those lessons that made him a candidate to bring change to our country they’re same lessons he will bring to the oval office every day to fight for you as President of the United States.

Now, I was proud to help introduce Barack to the nation when I asked him to speak to our national convention in 2004. Obviously, Barack did all the heavy-lifting. But like millions of Americans, Teresa and I were stirred by the way he eloquently reminded all of us of the fact that our “true genius is faith in simple dreams, an insistence on small miracles;” and we were all of us moved by the power with which he shattered the shallow stereotype, reminding people all across America that in Red States and Blue States, we “worship an awesome God.”

At this moment in America — who better than Barack Obama to call us to responsibility for children abandoned in cities and rural communities? Who better than Barack Obama to remind all Americans how much difference it makes to get an open door to a good school? Who better than Barack Obama to bring millions of disaffected young people back to the great task of governing and making a difference, child to child, community to community? Who better than Barack Obama to bring new credibility to America’s role in the world and help restore our moral authority? Who better than Barack Obama to turn a new page in American politics so that, Democrat, Independent and Republican alike can look to leadership that unites to find the common ground?

Mile by mile of the long march of this campaign, the cynics have questioned whether this young leader from Illinois is ready. But you know what? The cynics may have spoken, but it’s the people who will decide. And it’s the people who can prove the doubters wrong and enlist thousands more in a movement for change to restore faith in our government at home and our reputation in the world. In just a few days, right here in South Carolina, you get to do your part to make history and make Barack Obama President of the United States.

Since the birth of our nation, change has been won by young Presidents and young leaders who have shown that experience is defined not by time in Washington or years in office, but by wisdom, instinct and vision. Today we still draw on the “truths” that we believe to be “self-evident”—but how easy it is to forget that Thomas Jefferson was just 33 when he wrote them into our Declaration of Independence. How easy it is to forget that Martin Luther King was just 26 when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, just 34 when he inspired America with a powerful dream. My friends, when we choose a President, we are electing judgment and character, not years on this earth — and it is the moral compass I see in Barack Obama that gives me confidence he will steer our country in the right direction. He was, after all, right about the war in Iraq from the very beginning!

It’s time for South Carolina and our country to take stock of Barack Obama – to understand the strength of a man who grew up without his father, whose mother and grandparents couldn’t give him money or privilege but gave him passion and purpose, values and vision. Measure the character of a young man who graduated from an Ivy League college and could have gone anywhere – but chose the streets of Chicago as a community organizer going door to door to make hope burn a little brighter for the people who had seen the steel mills shut down and the jobs disappear. Measure the character of the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review, who could have found fame and fortune on Wall Street or in a high priced law firm, but who instead chose cause and commitment as a civil rights lawyer giving voice to the voiceless. Measure the character of that young lawyer who chose public service over private gain and went to the legislature where he fought the old divisions and brought people together to put money in the pockets of working poor families; put early childhood education ahead of giveaways for the elected and connected; and brought Democrats and Republicans together to stand up for civil rights and civil liberties. Measure the character of a United States Senator who passed landmark ethics reform to restore faith in government, and who stood up to the bureaucrats to get Illinois veterans the disability pay they were promised, and traveled to the other end of the earth to work to end the genocide in Darfur. That is the true measure of character – character we need in the White House, character we need to help America retake its rightful place in the world starting in 2009.


John Kerry Endorses Barack Obama


John Kerry is endorsing Barack Obama for the 2008 Democratic nomination. The two will be making a joint appearance today in Charleston, South Carolina. I am not at all surprised by this, having long considered Obama to be the most like Kerry of the 2008 candidates, especially when the second tier candidates were excluded. Kerry and Obama both share similar foreign policy views, with both opposing the Iraq war before its start, in contrast to Clinton and Edwards. Both have expressed an intellectual dedication to liberal values which are severely lacking in both Clinton and Edwards. Both have shown a willingness to consider ideas beyond the Democratic Party orthodoxy. The major difference is that while Kerry has more experience, Obama is a better campaigner with a better chance of winning a general election and moving beyond the old blue/red state divide.

It is particularly no surprise that Kerry would not endorse his 2004 running mate, John Edwards. Edwards would not have been Kerry’s choice other than for political considerations and this wound up being one of the more significant errors made by the Kerry campaign. Edwards was a light weight on the campaign trail, and often an embarrassment to the campaign such as in his debate against Dick Cheney. Edwards was not able to bring in southern votes as hoped, and could not even win his home state. Edwards also showed far more concern for his own 2008 run than for the good of the ticket or party. This included refusing to take a forceful line against the Republicans as Edwards wanted to preserve his sunny, nice guy image. Edwards further lost the respect of many Kerry supporters after the election as he attempted to rewrite the history of the campaign to make himself look better at Kerry’s expense.

Update: Kerry’s connection to Obama goes back to Kerry’s choice of Obama to speak at the 2004 convention. Barack Obama’s Keynote Address at the 2004 Democratic Convention is available here. One of the advantages of the endorsement from Kerry is access to his mailing list for fund raising. The following email has been sent: