Libertarian Support for Barack Obama

(This post for The Carpetbagger Report reviews recent posts here on libertarian support for Obama and on left-libertarianism).

When I was guest blogging at The Carpetbagger Report in January I wrote a post on Ron Paul which demonstrated (especially from the comments many wrote in response to the post) that there is a lot of irrationality in the libertarian movement. Fortunately the Paul supporters represent only one segment of libertarianism. I also noted that many libertarians were outraged by the racism expressed in Paul’s writings, while others also disagreed with some of his other conservative views. In other words, not all libertarians are irrational, regardless of whether you disagree with them, despite the impression given by those backing Ron Paul.

There is also a wide amount of variation in views among libertarians, with some libertarians even supporting Barack Obama. I’ve recently pointed out that a Rasmussen poll showed that libertarians preferred Obama over McCain by a margin of 53% to 38%. Of course many libertarians, even regardless of whether they prefer Obama or McCain, will wind up voting for Bob Barr, who has acted to repudiate the racists who backed Ron Paul.

I’ve been tracking posts from both libertarians and conservatives which show support for Obama at Liberal Values. Earlier this month the San Francisco Chronicle looked at libertarian support for Obama which I noted here. Bruce Bartlett has also written on this topic in an article at The New Republic:

The largest group of Obamacons hail from the libertarian wing of the movement. And it’s not just Andrew Sullivan. Milton and Rose Friedman’s son, David, is signed up with the cause on the grounds that he sees Obama as the better vessel for his father’s cause. Friedman is convinced of Obama’s sympathy for school vouchers–a tendency that the Democratic primaries temporarily suppressed. Scott Flanders, the CEO of Freedom Communications–the company that owns The Orange County Register–told a company meeting that he believes Obama will accomplish the paramount libertarian goals of withdrawing from Iraq and scaling back the Patriot Act.

Libertarians (and other varieties of Obamacons, for that matter) frequently find themselves attracted to Obama on stylistic grounds. That is, they believe that he has surrounded himself with pragmatists, some of whom (significantly) come from the University of Chicago. As the blogger Megan McArdle has written, “His goal is not more government so that we can all be caught up in some giant, expressive exercise of collectively enforcing our collective will on all the other people standing around us in the collective; his goal is improving transparency and minimizing government intrusion while rectifying specific outcomes.”

I’ve previously quoted more from both Megan McArdle and David Friedman on their preference for Obama over McCain. In The Los Angeles Times, Megan wrote:

Obama is the right man for his party, and McCain is the wrong one. Obama is not only personally inspiring, but he also seems to have a deep understanding of the value of markets and transparency; he aims to fix outcomes, not tinker with the process. McCain, on the other hand, shows little respect for spontaneous free order or suspicion of expanded state power; he seems to think that the main problem with the government is that the wrong people are pulling the strings.

David Friedman answered questions about why he prefers Obama to McCain:

McCain strikes me as a nationalist, likely to be comfortable with retaining and even expanding on the increases in executive authority claimed by Bush. He is also the one pro-war candidate. War, as observed long ago, is the health of the state. While there may be circumstances where all other alternatives are worse, I do not think this qualifies.

Perhaps I am too optimistic about Obama, but I do not think he is going to turn out to be an orthodox liberal. There is a group of intellectuals connected with the University of Chicago who have accepted a good deal of the Chicago school analysis but still want to think of themselves as leftists. They are, as I see it, trying to construct a new version of what “left” means. Examples would be Cass Sunstein and Austan Goolsby, both at Chicago, and Larry Lessig, who used to be there.

Sunstein describes himself as a libertarian paternalist, meaning that he wants to take advantage of elements of irrationality in individual decision making to nudge people into making what he considers the right decisions, while leaving them free not to if they so wish. Goolsby, judging by webbed pieces of his I’ve read, is a pro-market economist who happens to be a Democrat, rather like Alfred Kahn, who gave us airline dereguation under Carter. He is also Obama’s economic advisor. I do not agree with all his views—for details of one disagreement see an earlier post—but I like them better than the views usually supported by Democratic politicians and their advisors.

Obama himself, while obviously constrained by the fact that he is trying to get nominated, has occasionally let things slip that suggest a more libertarian view than typical of liberal senators. At one point he said something mildly favorable about school vouchers, retreating rapidly under pressure from the teachers’ unions, and similarly with marijuana decriminalization. His most visible disagreement with Clinton is over her plan to force everyone to buy health insurance. He appears uncomfortable with that degree of coercion, even though he is willing to use the less direct version—taxation to subsidize the insurance that he thinks people ought to have.

Bush was elected on a pro-market, small government, platform and proceeded to greatly expand the size of government—and not only in the form of military spending. His view of the legitimate power of the executive branch, including the authority to deliberately violate federal law, I find frightening. Perhaps, if we are lucky, Obama will turn out to be the anti-Bush.

For those who are interested in reading more on some of the items mentioned by Friedman, I’ve quoted more from Cass Sunstein‘s writings on Obama’s views here and had a recent post on libertarian paternalism here.

Barack Obama is not a libertarian, but others have found libertarian aspects of his views which could explain why many libertarians back him. Back in January I’ve quoted from Daniel Koffler who labeled Obama a left-libertarian. After a lengthier discussion of his thoughts on Obama’s views, he concluded:

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.

Just as there are many different types of libertarians, there is no single definition for left-libertarianism.  This does provide a clear distinction between the types of libertarians who back Obama and those whose views are closer to Ron Paul.  I recently quoted from Marcus Westbury, writing in The Sydney Morning Herald, who wrote about the growth of left-libertarianism and the adoption of such views by many progressives:

When did left-leaning libertarianism become the significant and perhaps even dominant ideology among progressives?

A generation or two ago the dominant left-wing ideology was decidedly authoritarian socialism. But only right-wing commentators and museum-piece communists seriously think anyone really believes in socialist-style central planning any more. So who, exactly, are these libertarian lefties? The best I can offer is anecdotal observations mixed with tenuous extrapolations about how they may differ from the socialist left and the libertarian right.

They value diversity. They recognise it both as an innate right and a precondition to innovation. They are committed to social justice but less inclined than their socialist forebears to achieve it by trying to make all things constrictively equal.

They’re sceptical of highly centralised, bureaucratic and inefficient structures. However, most of them see that up close in the corporate sector rather than as the exclusive problem of government.

They believe in freedom but do not see free markets and freedom as entirely the same. They tend to think governments must play an active role in ensuring freedom is protected from unscrupulous employers or predatory companies, reflected in the choices and opportunities we have in our personal lives, or reflected in the diversity of media available.

They tend to regard choice and competition as generally good and cannot imagine price controls or state-run industries. But they know that the market often fails, and they don’t trust it alone to tackle issues like climate change or health care. They see market power as just as likely an impediment to freedom as governments.

They are sceptical of over-regulation, believing regulation should be proportional to power and influence, and not the other way around. They question why the deregulation of economics has concentrated on the powerful, while nanny-state regulation, politicised micro-management and national security has made life more complex for the poor and the powerless.

Most of all they tend to be both idealistic and pragmatic and unable to accept that we should not try to achieve more.

Others have also argued that left-libertarianism is very similar to contemporary liberalism, which makes an overlap in support for Obama between both libertarians and liberals understandable. Such liberal and libertarian fusionism, or liberaltarianism, has been a common topic of discussion in both liberal and libertarian blogs, which I have posted about several times, including here, here, and here.

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    Gridlock says:

    Excellent post!  Thanks for the insight on this issue.

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