George Will Flirts With Denim Clad Libertarians

By Conor Friedersdorf

America's most widely syndicated columnist says "government and the sectors it dominates have made themselves ludicrous." Can liberals be persuaded that he's right?

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As the most widely syndicated newspaper columnist in America, George Will is tremendously influential, especially among conservatives, who rightly regard him as an elder statesman. He's been turning out paleocon-friendly copy for the Washington Post Writer's Group since 1974, famously helped Ronald Reagan prep for his 1980 presidential debate against Jimmy Carter, and burnished his culturally conservative credentials with a 2009 column lamenting the scourge of blue jeans, calling them a "blight" that are "symptomatic of deep disorders in the national psyche."

But lately there's been a subtle change in Will's columns -- more than ever before, he is edging toward pragmatic libertarianism, going so far as to dedicate a whole column to praising the new book co-written by Reason magazine editors Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie (who is invariably clad in pants of decadent denim). The book's thesis: libertarian-leaning independents can fix what's wrong with American politics. Longtime readers of Will know that he's never been a partisan hack: he criticized Nixon during Watergate and George W. Bush for much of his tenure. It is nevertheless noteworthy that he has endorsed a book that asserts neither the Republican nor Democratic party deserves our loyalty.

Beyond that concession, has his libertarian streak gone too far? That's the argument Scott Galupo has made at U.S. News and World Report. It's been seconded by Andrew Sullivan. Here is the line of argument to which they both object: "America is moving in the libertarians' direction not because they have won an argument but because government and the sectors it dominates have made themselves ludicrous," Will wrote. "This has, however, opened minds to the libertarians' argument."

In response, Galupo declares that this "heavy petting" with libertarianism has rendered Will himself "ludicrous." Claiming to miss the "old, sane" George Will, Galupo digs into the columnist's archives. What follows are a series of quotes. In 1975, Will spoke out in favor of the welfare state. In 1983, he defended sobriety checkpoints against civil libertarians. The same year, he argued that "'strong government conservatism' is not a contradiction in terms," and insisted that both FDR and Reagan "are versions of the basic program of the liberal-democratic political impulse." In 1988, he pointed out that Reagan didn't seem particularly concerned about his deficit raising policies. And in 1990, he made the case for government spending on infrastructure and transportation.

Galupo thinks these columns, all at least two decades old, are in conflict with the assertion that, circa 2011, "government and the sectors it dominates have made themselves ludicrous." I disagree. Will's statement is a perfectly defensible assessment of reality, or so I'll argue. And it's liberals and independents that I hope to convince. There is a strain of libertarianism that is perfectly willing to concede the necessity of smart financial regulation, environmental law, and a safety net that ensures poor people have access to food, shelter, and medical attention, none of which is incompatible with the notion that the status quo in government is "so foolish or unreasonable as to be amusing." In failing to understand that perspective, liberals lose potential allies who are defecting from the Republican Party, but scoff at the idea of becoming Democrats.

Let's begin by defining "government and the sectors it dominates." As I see it, those sectors include a Defense Department that is more accurately described as the Department of War, other agencies in the federal bureaucracy, Social Security, Medicare, domestic law enforcement including federal, state, and local police, public education, the U.S. Postal Service, and transportation bureaucrats. Note that I am not calling for these agencies and programs to be abolished, or asserting that they're unnecessary, or that they do no good work, or that their employees are malign. My claim is that there are absurdities in each of these areas, and obvious reforms compatible with libertarian thought would help. If nothing else, let this be an explanation, for those who can't conceive of this viewpoint, of why some people regard government with such skepticism.

THE DEPARTMENT OF WAR

What do George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton have in common? All backed the Iraq War. President Obama opposed it, but he is breaking his promise to remove U.S. troops from that country, has invested billions on the dubious notion that we can build civil society in Afghanistan, has launched an illegal war against Libya, and is waging an undeclared drone war in numerous countries that may well create as much extremism as it destroys. Both major parties agree that spending on the military should exceed Cold War levels, despite the fact that none of our enemies pose anything approaching the threat represented by the Soviet Union. And what politicians are the most consistent critics of the status quo?

Ron Paul, Rand Paul and Gary Johnson, a long with anti-war Democrats like Dennis Kucinich, who is likely being drawn out of his Ohio Congressional district for his trouble. Unless President Obama faces a challenger for the Democratic nomination, or Paul or Johnson wins the GOP nomination, none of which is likely, voters who dissent from the bipartisan foreign policy consensus in Washington DC won't have any candidate to back. In a country where a lot of rank-and-file Democrats, Republicans and independents are averse to an America that is the world's policeman, and who last elected a Democrat who ran on an anti-war platform, that's absurd.

DOMESTIC LAW ENFORCEMENT

In airports, we're subject to naked scanners and intrusive pat-downs that reduce some air passengers to tears. Minorities are imprisoned for drug infractions at significantly higher rates than white people, though they are no more likely to use drugs. In order to bust people for possession of marijuana, paramilitary squads are kicking down doors in the dead of night, tossing flash grenades into family homes, shooting pet dogs, and tasing suspects. Though legal in some states, the federal government continues to raid medical marijuana dispensaries, despite the fact that the current president promised as a candidate that he'd put a stop to such raids.

In many cases, a warrant is no longer required to spy on American citizens, who've given up unprecedented amounts of privacy in the name of being safer from terrorism. Naturally police use these new-found powers even when investigating matters other than terrorism. Hysteria about sex offenders has led to registries that include people whose only crime was having sex with their high school girlfriend, or forwarding a sexually explicit text message sent to them by a middle school classmate, or streaking at a football game. Texas executed an innocent man, and its governor didn't even take the time to thoroughly review the case. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms deliberately sold assault weapons to Mexican drug cartels. Federal prosecutors have spent countless man hours trying to prove that professional athletes lied about using steroids. Police routinely arrest citizens for videotaping them even in states where doing so is legal. 

SOCIAL SECURITY AND MEDICARE

Unlike many libertarians, I don't have a desire to privatize social security, nor do I object to the idea of providing health care to elderly people who cannot afford it. What strikes me as absurd about the status quo is the perpetuation of an ever more expensive social welfare program that spends much of its funds on the wealthy, and redistributes from young to old more than from rich to poor.

There is, of course, a political logic to this arrangement. It's explained with characteristic eloquence by Will Wilkinson at Democracy in America:

The trick to weaving an effective and politically-robust safety net for those who most need one is designing it to appear to benefit everyone, especially those who don't need it. The whole thing turns on maintaining the illusion that payroll taxes are "premiums" or "insurance contributions" and that subsequent transfers from the government are "benefits" one has paid for through a lifetime of payroll deductions. The insurance schema protects the main redistributive work of the programme by obscuring it. As a matter of legal fact, payroll taxes are just taxes; they create no legal entitlement to benefits. The government can and does spend your Social Security and Medicare taxes on killer drones.

But the architects of America's big social-insurance schemes, such as Frances Perkins and Wilbur Cohen, thought it very important that it doesn't look that way. That's why you see specific deductions for Social Security and Medicare on your paycheck. And that's why the government maintains these shell "trust funds" where you are meant to believe your "insurance contributions" are kept. Maintaining the insurance illusion also requires making sure that the rich benefit not much less than the less-rich and that they aren't made to pay terribly more for what they get. Too much means-testing ruins the illusion.

Personally, I don't think means testing would spell the eventual end of Social Security and Medicare, nor do I think the risk of that happening is greater than the risk of ballooning entitlement costs leading to the elimination of  those programs, or else bankruptcy or the crowding out of other legitimate federal spending. We give poor people food stamps, free emergency room care, the earned income tax credit, and Section 8 vouchers, among other things, without making them available to everyone. We can do the same with other social welfare programs.

PUBLIC EDUCATION

One needn't be antagonistic to teachers, or blame them for all our education woes, to observe that members of the profession who assault students should be summarily fired; or that basing pay on seniority, even though gains from experience plateau after five years or so, is counterproductive; or that bonuses for extra masters degrees, even though they don't correlate to teacher performance, makes no sense; or that No Child Left Behind, a bipartisan education reform effort that increased federal control, has done more harm than good. It is absurd that in our biggest cities, New York and Los Angeles, it is so hard to fire even the very worst teachers that some sit in a room doing nothing for years on end, collecting full salary. And that educators in numerous districts have been caught cheating on standardized tests. And that so many education dollars go to administrators, even though, as noted, they have little control over personnel.

U.S. POSTAL SERVICE

As reported in Bloomberg Businessweek, "Total mail volume plunged 20 percent from 2006 to 2010." So the postal service significantly reduced the number of mail sorters and carriers, there being substantially less work to do, right? Nope. Instead, it signed a March contract with 250,000 of its employees that "extends the no-layoff provision and provides a 3.5 percent raise for APWU members over the period of the contract, along with seven uncapped cost-of-living increases." What kind of an organization is prohibited from laying off workers even when their presence ceases to be necessary? And then agrees to raise their pay, even as it faces a multibillion dollar deficit? (UPDATE: I should've noted that USPS has used attrition to cut its staff and did layoff some employees who weren't covered by the union contract to which I object. For a more detailed account of postal service dysfunction see this detailed post by Gregg Easterbrook.) 

TRANSPORTATION BUREAUCRATS

Sidestepping the culture war between highway people and train people -- I'm all for public spending on mass transit, but dubious of plans like the high speed rail line in California that's going to start off connecting two tiny cities in the middle of nowhere -- I just want to rant against taxi cab commissions for a moment. Is there any municipal transportation policy that more effectively kills innovation? Freed of bureaucratic constraints, a savvy entrepreneur could transform a city like Los Angeles by using GPS, cellular technology, and security features like identity verification to build a fluid network of ride-sharing. Everyone could be a taxi driver. Entrepreneurial immigrants could start van pools on well trod routes. Instead, various municipal bureaucracies and truly awful taxi cab companies control a City of Angels duopoly. A license is already required to drive a car. Nothing extra is required to give someone a ride for free. Do we really need complicated regulatory schemes to govern selling a simple trip across town?

Of course, the list of absurdities in government is much longer than that. Take a look at the laws that govern alcohol sales in most states. Or the professional licensing requirements that some jurisdictions impose on folks wanting to open barber shops or give interior design advice or sell bread at a farmer's market. Try building a tree house for your kid, only to be told by the city that you failed to get a permit, and must tear it down. Ponder the complexity of the tax code, the fact that we made Goldman Sachs whole on their investments, the lines at the DMV, the culture of lawsuits and obsession with liability that is a product of tort law, the incarceration rate, and the fact that inmates in our prison system are unconscionably likely to be victims of rape.

Perhaps you don't agree with every last thing I've written. But take another look at Will's assertion: "America is moving in the libertarians' direction not because they have won an argument but because government and the sectors it dominates have made themselves ludicrous."

Does it still seem so unreasonable? 

The excesses of folks from Dick Cheney to Rush Limbaugh to Michele Bachmann have radicalized some on the left, whose attitude is summed up by the assertion that "the other side" is nuts. You'll get no disagreement from me. (I intend neither equivalence nor comparison when I say that from my perspective "both sides" are nuts.) The Republican Party sucks, and the conservative movement is as often a corrupt machine that turns resentment and insecurity into profit as it is a principled ideological movement. But liberals and progressives have failed to confront the fact that President Obama is every bit as bad as his predecessor when it comes to civil liberties violations, that he's taken positions on executive power that are even more extreme, and that special interest groups from large corporations to public employee unions to trial lawyers have corrupted the Democratic establishment right along with the GOP establishment.

In 2012 do I prefer the guy who launched a war of choice without Congressional permission, put an American citizen on an assassination list, and waged a war on whistle-blowers? Or the challenger from the party of torture, hysteria over sharia law, and negotiating ploys that risk our economic health?

Suffice it to say I'm an undecided voter.

The left can resolutely defend government against all criticism, on the theory that its critics are all extremist right-wingers intent on returning America to what it was it was in 1789, except without slavery and with NASCAR. Alternatively, it can recognize that fixing the least defensible excesses of big government would strengthen its political position and improve life in America for rich and poor alike. We aren't locked in an inescapable, zero sum battle between Team Red and Team Blue -- as Welch and Gillespie argue in the book that Will endorsed, Americans are increasingly, prudently, rejecting Team Red and Team Blue. These independents are not swayed by arguments about how "the other side" is irredeemably corrupt.

For whom will pragmatic libertarians and other independents vote in the future? Their support is up for grabs. Thank goodness. In Washington DC, we've been ill-served by Democrats and Republicans alike, and if you think that rule by Team Red or Team Blue would guarantee good governance, I invite you to ponder the state of public policy in the states of Mississippi and California. We're so far gone that even uber-conservative Will is rooting for a shakeup. So am I.


Image credit: Reuters

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/08/george-will-flirts-with-denim-clad-libertarians/243083/