Obama, Pragmatism, and Liberal Principles

I’ve looked at Obama’s advisers in the past, such as in quoting Daniel Koffler‘s post at The Guardian where he describes Obama as a left-libertarian. I’ve felt that it is an exaggeration to actually consider Obama to be a left-libertarian, but that he definitely leans in that direction while Clinton and Edwards have views in the other direction. Obama is more libertarian on civil liberties and social issues, while more pragmatic on economic issues. I find this to be a big plus compared to most politicians on the scene.

The problem with politicians and economics is that most take an ideological or partisan view and try twist economic reality to fit their ideology. We see many on the right who argue that any government program is bad, and always manage to fudge the data to show this. I don’t recall ever seeing an article in Reason concede that, even if they might be ideologically opposed, there are situations where government actions are beneficial. On the other hand, many on the left are too quick to accept a big-government solution to problems and ignore the many situations where the free market does work better. Many on the right will twist economics to satisfy their personal goals, such as rationalizing lower taxes and eliminating government regulation. Many on the left do not understand that where ever possible it is preferable to tax people as little as possible and allow them to make their own business decisions with as little regulation as possible.

Moving into the political realm, another problem is that both Democrats and Republicans have their special interests. Democratic politicians will taper their economic views and policies to favor the goals of unions and the poor (or at least the middle class) while Republicans taper their economic views and policies to favor big business and the wealthy. Both sides use economic arguments to support their policies while having little concern for objectivity.

The New Republic has a must-read article on Obama’s economic advisers which does stress their pragmatism over ideology:

Despite Obama’s reputation for grandiose rhetoric and utopian hope-mongering, the Obamanauts aren’t radicals–far from it. They’re pragmatists–people who, when an existing paradigm clashes with reality, opt to tweak that paradigm rather than replace it wholesale. As Thaler puts it, “Physics with friction is not as beautiful. But you need it to get rockets off the ground.” It might as well be the motto for Obama’s entire policy shop.

There are also comparisons to the Clinton years, showing a difference in approach. The point is that the pragmatism doesn’t mean they do not hold liberal principles, but does suggest that the Obama people have a better chance at reaching workable solutions to problems:

Bill Clinton favored what you might call a “deductive” approach–an all- encompassing, almost revolutionary idea, out of which fell lots of smaller proposals. In a series of speeches in 1991, he unveiled the product of all his late-night bull-sessions with people like Reich and Galston, which he called “The New Covenant.” The old model held that government had certain unconditional obligations to its citizens. Under Clinton’s reimagining, many of these obligations would disappear. The government would help only those who fulfilled their responsibilities as parents, workers, and taxpayers. For instance, the government would no longer provide unlimited welfare benefits. It would instead require recipients to work after two years of assistance.

For their part, the Obama wonks tend to be inductive–working piecemeal from a series of real-world observations. One typical Goolsbee brainchild is something called an automatic tax return. The idea is that, if you had no tax deductions or freelance income the previous year, the IRS would send you a tax return that was already filled out. As long as you accepted the government’s accounting, you could just sign it and mail it back. Goolsbee estimates this small innovation could save hundreds of millions of man-hours spent filling out tax forms, and billions of dollars in tax-preparation fees.

Think of the contrast here as the difference between science-fiction writers and engineers. Reich and Galston are the kinds of people who’d sketch out the idea for time travel in a moment of inspiration. Goolsbee et al. could rig up the DeLorean that would actually get you back to 1955.

Like their intellectual godfather Thaler, the Obama wonks aren’t particularly interested in tearing down existing paradigms, just adjusting and extending them when they become outdated…

The Clintonites were moderates, but they were also ideological. They explicitly rejected the liberalism of the 1970s and ’80s. The Obamanauts are decidedly non-ideological. They occasionally reach out to progressive think tanks like the Economic Policy Institute, but they also come from a world– academic economics–whose inhabitants generally lean right…

And yet, just because the Obamanauts are intellectually modest and relatively free of ideology, that doesn’t mean their policy goals lack ambition. In many cases, the opposite is true. Obama’s plan to reduce global warming involves an ambitious cap-and-trade arrangement that would lower carbon emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. But cap-and-trade–in which the government limits the overall level of emissions and allows companies to buy and sell pollution permits–is itself a market-oriented approach. The companies most efficient at cutting emissions will sell permits to less efficient companies, achieving the desired reductions with minimal drag on the economy.

In transcending ideology, and understanding the concerns of conservatives as well as liberals, Obama has managed to find ways to promote progressive goals while avoiding the problems which have made proposals like HillaryCare unable to pass in Congress. Obama’s advisers similarly have a pragmatic streak on foreign policy:

The real difference between the Obama campaign and, say, Hillary Clinton’s, is twofold. First, while many of the Obamanauts had previously served in the Clinton administration, they tended to be younger or less influential than the officials who signed on with Hillary. Clinton advisers like former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke tend to be “more invested in justifying or glorifying” the Clinton record, says one Obama foreign policy hand, whereas the Obamanauts don’t have the same “permanent need to fight for the legacy of your time in government.”

The second difference is that the Obama hands tend to feel less hemmed in by establishment opinion. As one Obama adviser puts it, “Democrats want to be just a little bit different from Republicans, but not so different that they get attacked for being weak.” Like Hamilton, the Obamanauts generally reject this calculus–not because they favor some radical alternative, but because clinging to received foreign policy wisdom can preclude highly practical courses of action.

Some Clinton supporters are twisting this article to support their meme that Obama is too conservative as he is not an ideological leftist. This line of attack has not really worked considering that Obama has received the support of MoveOn and liberals such as Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Russ Feingold, and most recently Chris Dodd. This also ignores the liberal goals which Obama is pursuing. Just as Obama is pursuing liberal economic goals, even if considering pragmatic economic principles, Obama also differs from Clinton on issues such as going to war in Iraq and over banning cluster bombs.

The net result of these pragmatic streaks isn’t pure left-libertarianism, but does lead to less reliance on big government and the nanny state than is seen with Clinton. When combined with Obama’s more libertarian views on civil liberties, social issues, drug laws, and government transparency there is a clear difference between the candidates. There is also far more substance behind Obama’s views than the Clinton supporters would claim.

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  1. 1
    The Charters Of Dreams says:

    “We see many on the right who argue that any government program is bad, and always manage to fudge the data to show this. I don’t recall ever seeing an article in Reason concede that, even if they might be ideologically opposed, there are situations where government actions are beneficial.”

    OK — like what? Can you name a government program, run and/or devised by either party, that actually works aside from those explicitely mandated by the Constitution, e.g., those civil mechanisms that protect life, liberty, & property?

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:


    While it is debatable whether our system of employer-provided insurance works, private plans were totally unable to handle health care for seniors who no longer received coverage from employers. Medicare also provides health care coverage with less over head than private insurance, and with less restrictions on doctors and patients than many private plans.

  3. 3
    The Charters Of Dreams says:

    You’re joking, right?

    In the 40 years since their enactment, Medicare and Medicaid have imposed a large and growing burden on taxpayers and the economy, a burden that soon will become unsustainable. According to the federal Office of Management and Budget, together they will account for one fifth of all federal outlays in 2005 and one-fourth of outlays by 2009.

    Those projections probably understate how much the programs will spend in the coming years. It is an iron-clad rule that government handouts grow beyond expectations . . . and lookie here, in the WSJ today:

    “Government spending on health care could nearly double by 2017 to more than $2 trillion, according to a new federal study, reflecting a surge that promises to complicate the campaign debate about health care,” reports The Wall Street Journal. “Driven by the aging of the baby-boom generation and rising costs of new drugs and medical technology, Medicare, the big federal health program for the elderly, will take up 20.7% of national health spending by 2017, according to the report.”

    If you were running a business and your costs were exploding almost out of control, the endeavor, whatever it is, would be huge failure.

    According to Medicare trustee Prof. Tom Saving, Medicare consumed 8 percent of federal income tax revenue in 2003—in addition to the Medicare payroll tax, beneficiary premiums, and other funding sources. As Medicare’s implied promises come due, the share of federal income tax revenue that will have to be devoted to Medicare will grow, reaching half of all federal income tax revenue by 2042. Maintaining the Medicare program in its current form would require enormous tax increases. As a measure of how much Medicare has promised versus what its current funding mechanisms can deliver, Medicare’s trustees calculate that we would need to deposit
    $61.6 trillion in an interest-bearing account in 2004 to cover all of Medicare’s future deficits. Gosh — huge tax increases. How many of your readers could afford that? Could you?

    Let me ask the question again, and this time give me a “real” answer: Can you name a government program, run and/or devised by either party, that actually works (WORKS, W O R K S) (aside from those explicitely mandated by the Constitution, e.g., those civil mechanisms that protect life, liberty, & property)?

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:

    As I said, ideologues such as you will find ways to distort the facts to claim any government program doesn’t work. Your arguments just don’t make any sense here.

    Medicare has provided health coverage for the elderly and disabled for over 40 years and will be around for a long time to come. Your arguments with regards to increasing costs ignore the fact that private insurance faces the same increases in costs.

    While Medicare has remained affordable for beneficiaries, the cost of private insurance has increased by double digits most years, leading to an increasing number of people who are not covered. The costs to employers has also led to decreased ability to compete internationally, compared to other industrialized nations where there is more government involvement. An increasing number of employers have also either eliminated coverage or switched to plans which provide coverage which is far inferior to the coverage provided under Medicare.

    While those with private coverage have faced a combination of increased out of pocket expenses, decreased coverage, and increased restrictions, Medicare has increased the services it covers.

    By any reasonable measure, Medicare is working better than any private alternatives. This is why many advocate Medicare for All as a solution to the insurance crisis.

    The article you link to provides yet another example. Note that one of the reasons the article cites for increased projected costs is the shifting of people to private Medicare plans which are less cost effective. The plans are a corporate welfare scheme for Bush to reward his big contributors in the insurance industry. Eliminating the private plans would help lower these projected future costs.

  5. 5
    vecene says:

    We won’t get anywhere with these government programs vs privatizaion debates if it’s framed as an either/or issue.
    Certainly government progrms often turn ou to be cumbersome, expensive and difficult to reform, once the deficiencies become apparent. On the other hand, reliance on private companies is no guarantee of success, either. Exhibit A would be the waste and ineffieciency of the Dept. of Homeland Security’s contracted services. Either way, programs get politicized and abused. Either way, programs are managed by people whose character doesn’t change just because the organizational structure changes, and that character will always contain a big dose of short term self-interest and greed.

    I applaud the Obama advisers who are pragmatisits. I only hope that Obama would turn out to be a pragmatist who remembers to look back in order to continually reassess how well implemented policies are working. In order to work well, pragmatism also needs the ability to address unforseen consequences or new developments.

    For my money, his health plan is too timid. I cede, however, the necessity to appease virulent opponents to any and all such plans enough to get something passed.
    We’ll see where to go from there.

  6. 6
    jackpine savage says:

    Very interesting…i never really thought of him as a left-libertarian, but i can see it. I do think that there are a lot more libertarians in America than we think, if only because a lot of people are libertarians and don’t even know it. Once they start explaining how they think government should work, they sound like either right or left libertarians. Or maybe that’s just the social and evolutionary cul-de-sac that i live in…

  7. 7
    Eric Dondero says:

    So, I guess we can expect Obama as President to lead the charge against gun control, and smoking bans in restaurants, and crack downs on gambling, and for legalization of prostitution, and for a repeal of all seat belt laws, and for an end to campus speech codes which do not allow conservative speakers on campuses, or an end to all affirmative action programs, and to come out strongly in favor of school choice?


    After all he “leans libertarian.”

    And when can we see Obama calling for tax cuts for all Americans?

    Isn’t that part of the anti-Nanny State agenda?

  8. 8
    Ron Chusid says:


    Most of what you mention aren’t even things which the president or federal government has anything to do with.

    Some additional examples of how Obama leans libertarian can be seen in a libertarian endorsement he has picked up which I report in this post.

    Note that the Rudy Giuliani, the authoritarian war monger you supported, doesn’t do very well by his criteria.

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