There is a strange dialectic at work in Western society, or so it seems to me, between political apathy on the one hand and political rage on the other. In the recent French elections, for example, the rate of abstentions was the highest ever seen, more than half in the second round of the election of the legislature. But in the first round of the presidential election, the candidates of the extreme Left and extreme Right, both of whom drew their supporters by appealing to subliminal rage, had more votes than the eventual winner, a man previously almost unknown.
It has been a disorienting year for classical liberals. The presidential candidate of the more classically liberal of the two major parties took some positions wildly at odds with classical liberalism, like opposition to freer trade, enthusiasm for government intervention in corporate decision making, and hostility to some civil liberties. He won the Presidency in part because of some of those positions.
But then the same candidate announced the nomination of a substantially better cabinet from the classical liberal perspective than those Hillary Clinton would have appointed. It is through these generally decent appointees that he must largely govern, not by twitter.
He also shows every sign of following through on his commitment to appointing a justice sympathetic to enforcing the constitution as written and thus better implementing a charter broadly reflecting the classical liberalism born in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, although not of modern libertarianism. Once again the relative success of classical liberalism is made even clearer if potential nominees are not evaluated against a standard of utopian perfection, but compared to the result-oriented justices(s) that Hillary Clinton promised to appoint.
Here then are a few classical liberal resolutions for this strange era.
It is a theme of fiction: when someone dies, people line up to steal from him or her—estranged relatives and strangers alike. The deceased cannot protect himself. This is a reason that we should expect that death may be a time for the state to work some injustice too.
Thus, we should begin with a healthy suspicion of a tax levied at death. Hillary Clinton’s recent call for a 65 percent federal tax on large estates signals to Bernie Sanders supporters her Leftwing bona fides, but it should signal to the rest of us her lack of a sense of justice. When one adds in taxation from states like New York, the government could then confiscate more than four-fifths of a decedent’s property.
To be sure, our basic intuitions about justice are often hard to justify, but there seems to be a large difference between taxing people’s income at a reasonable rate and taking a large portion of their assets. We think of income as a flow, into which the government may dip, whereas assets constitute a fixed bedrock that is wholly our own.
Our difference in intuition about assets and income might suggest that all estate taxes are unjust. But one plausible justification for sound estate taxes is that they can be a proxy for other uncollected income taxes.
Democratic members of Congress recently staged an around-the clock sit-in to demand that gun-control legislation (their slogan was “No bill, no break”) be passed by the House of Representatives. This unification by Democrats reveals how, with a few Republican exceptions, they have owned the issue of gun control, pardon the pun, lock, stock and barrel. They proudly point to an honorable tradition of gun-control measures extending back to FDR, and continued by LBJ, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.
Situated at the corner of Fairfax and Wilshire in Los Angeles, the iconic Johnie’s Coffee Shop was where Mr. Pink plotted a diamond heist in Reservoir Dogs and where Walter offered to obtain The Dude a toe in The Big Lebowski. But it has never witnessed malfeasance like the villainy that has unfolded there over the last few weeks. Johnie’s has been converted into a hub of unregulated advocacy for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.
The American Left generally welcomes immigration, but opposes foreign trade. There are exceptions of course, but generally the further left one moves this combination of policy preferences is even starker. Bernie Sanders seems wholly opposed to free trade and yet favors immigration. Indeed, he wants to make citizens of immigrants, even if they have come here illegally.
What explains this divergence? It cannot plausibly be concern for low-wage workers in the United States. It is true that trade, while being generally beneficial, can depress the income of low-wage workers (at least in the short term), because they must compete more with low-skilled workers elsewhere. But the effect of low-skilled immigrants is the same. It puts pressure on the wages of low-skilled Americans.
It can’t be concern for the poor abroad.
The presidential primaries have been a bad time for campaign finance reformers. Their basic claim is that money has a uniquely powerful and disproportionate influence in politics. But this campaign season shows that there are many other sources of influence—celebrity, academia, and the media—that can be even more potent.
The Republican party’s initial front runner, Jeb Bush, collected more money early on than other Republican. Allies also established a SuperPAC—Right to Rise—that had more money than any other associated with a competing candidate. Yet Bush exited without winning a single primary. And his candidacy also showed that money in his allied SuperPAC was no substitute for contributions directly to the candidate, as the Bush campaign had to cut back on operations after initial setbacks.
Trump, in contrast, spent little money and showed the power of celebrity, particularly in combination with media access. Studies have shown that he got more free media than any other candidate—$1.9 billion worth, by one estimate.
Is Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump a greater long term threat to the principles of classical liberalism? Trump’s program is antithetical to classical liberalism. He wants to follow protectionist trade policies. He has disclaimed any interest in reforming the burgeoning entitlements that are the principal engines for growing the state. He seems to quite content to praise authoritarian leaders abroad, like Vladimir Putin. He wants to make it easier for public figures to sue private citizens for their criticism. And he is so vulgar and gratuitously offensive that he undermines the culture of self-restraint necessary to the classical liberal order.
Of course, Sanders is worse on many of these axes. He not only wants to preserve all entitlements but add to social security and to create an entirely new entitlement to higher education. He also is a protectionist. He would destroy the private provision of health care. And he would raise tax rates sky high. As for authoritarianism, he seems to have trouble condemning any regime, such as Cuba, so long as he can entertain the false belief that the regime has been good for the social welfare of its citizens.
American exceptionalism may be disappearing. American exceptionalism posits that the United States is fundamentally different from other nations, particularly those in Europe. The United States was founded on a commitment to principles whereas other nations were founded on ties of blood. Moreover, our principles were those of the Enlightenment, embracing individual liberty and the rule of law.
One of the results, as Seymour Martin Lipset noted, was that the United States has never had a serious socialist party. But in this election cycle a serious socialist has come close to winning the Democratic nomination. Indeed, Sanders would be winning except for the loyalty Clinton enjoys among African American voters. But as the votes of the congressional Black Caucus show, African American voters are the most left-wing bloc economically. Next time they would be likely vote for the socialist candidate who imitates Sanders.
We have also never had a major nationalist party, like the National Front in France. Such parties run not only on protectionism and xenophobia but on preserving an unreformed entitlement state. But Trump’s platform is a somewhat paler version of such virulent European parties.
The combination of Trump’s and Sanders’ rise shows that the candle of liberty by which American exceptionalism glows may be flickering out.
Public choice theory, which applies to the realm of politics the rational-actor postulate of economists, rightly enjoys a high regard among advocates of liberty. From voting habits to inefficient, Kafkaesque bureaucracies, to the strength of special interest lobbies and rent-seeking behavior, public choice has shined a bright light on the need to affirm limited government and political freedom. It is politics, to use James Buchanan’s phrase, “without romance.”