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.

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14 Comments

  1. 1
    Eric Dondero says:

    He has a perfect 100 voting score from the Marxist ADA. I’d say Barack Hussein Obama is the closest Presidential candidate of any major party contender today to a true Fascist.

    He is the very worst of all Republicans or Democrats. He is the complete opposite of a libertarian. He represents virtually everything that libertarians oppose.

    I can only think of one single issue where he’s half-way decent and that’s Pro-Choice on abortion. But even there he wants the government to subsidize abortions, as well.

    Obama? Yuck. No true libertarian could ever support him.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    Thank you. The anti-endorsement of Eric Dondero adds to Obama’s libertarian credentials.

    Besides, someone who supports Rudy Giuliani is hardly in any position to refer to any candidate as being opposite to a libertarian, or anything like a fascist!

  3. 3
    Mark says:

    As I said on my blog, I had a post in the queue that was going to argue much the same as Koffler, though from a somewhat different starting point. When you factor in things like immigration and the issue of individual vs. state rights, there is a fair argument to be made that Obama is actually more libertarian in practice than any Republican, including Ron Paul. However- that argument depends heavily on the issues most important to you. In my view, civil and social liberties have supplanted economic liberties as the top priority simply because Bush has done significant harm in those fields while only slightly reducing economic freedom. This has made personal liberties more threatened than economic liberties, which we have largely advanced over the past 25 years. That Obama would not roll back much of that progress and would even defend free trade more than anyone else (including Ron Paul, I might add) only adds to his appeal.

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:

    The importance of different issues definitely does change with the current political climate. Years when taxes are higher I could see stressing economic matters now. However, with taxes down since the Clinton years, and considering that Bill Clinton was the last one to balance a budget, there is less tendency to oppose the Democrats on libertarian grounds.

    Social issues are much more important this year due to a combination of the strength of the religious right and the balance of the Supreme Court. Issues such as abortion are now back on the table as there is a real chance that we could get a court which would reverse Row v. Wade. Considerations with regards to judges also extend beyond the Supreme Court level.

  5. 5
    John says:

    yes Ron i agree with u….

  6. 6
    Mike L. says:

    I am a libertarian minded liberal leaning voter. When I read Obama’s book last year I came away with this same notion about him. Obama’s hope comes more from a respect for the nations foundational values of liberty and justice not government hand-outs. I wish this was more prominent in his rhetoric. Maybe it will come out more in the primaries. If his book is an accurate portrayal of his views, the he is far more serious about constitutional liberty than most people realize.

  7. 7
    Ron Chusid says:

    Unfortunately candidates tend to concentrate on certain aspects of their views and personality in what they portray on the campaign stump. Looking deeper into a candidate often reveals much more, especially for those of us who are more interested in matters of substance than style.

  8. 8
    Eric Dondero says:

    Talk all you all want. But you cannot change two cold hard facts:

    Barack Hussein Obama received perfect 100 scores from the NEA and the ADA.

    Not 90. Not 95. Not even 99. But 100.

  9. 9
    Ron Chusid says:

    Eric,

    Just like you to avoid the actual issues by falling back on nonsense like this.

    Also just like you to not even get those cold hard facts right. Obama did not receive a perfect 100 score from the ADA:

    http://www.vote-smart.org/issue_rating_detail.php?r_id=3531

  10. 10
    Christopher says:

    Excellent piece, Ron.

    Adding you to my blogroll.

  11. 11
    Ron Chusid says:

    Thanks. I’ll add you here (and fix the link in your comment).

  12. 12
    aeyrhed says:

    at the begining of the race i was certain i would vote for the LP nominee despite having serious idealogical problems with Ron Paul’s personal views.  After really reading through Obamas proposed plans (including how he plans to fund them) it seems to me they are very much in antithesis of traditional democratic up taxes and throw money at it plans.  I could be mistaken but i saw no proposed government subsidies that were not paid for by reversal of bush’s big tax cut for the super wealthy and major revisions in current programs (such as medicare) that would cut out unnecessary spending and eliminate big spending programs that dont accomplish much in favor of cheaper more efficiently run accountable and transparent ones. 

    I encourage every libertarian, democrat, republican, green-party member to visit his official sight and take the time to read through exactly what it is that he is trying to accomplish and how.  I think people who are not happy with the status quo owe it to themselves to be informed and give themselves the chance to see for themselves if his ideas are just more of the same old party policy as so many people seem to think.
    I’m glad I did. 

  13. 13
    Libertarians For Obama says:

    For those who recognize that “libertarian Democrat” is no more oxymoronic than “libertarian Republican,” a solid case can be made for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) as a Leader of the Free World who won’t take that American Exceptionalism conceit as seriously as “Country First” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

    Check out article at:
    http://my.barackobama.com/page/community/post/LibertariansForObama/gGxMcC

  14. 14
    Joe Snow says:

    What is Wrong Withe the President? Could It be ….. » The Libertarianism of Barack Obama: http://bit.ly/gYmKv7

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