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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Will President Rand Be Good for Liberty?

History and politics are impossible to predict

“Do you think supporting Rand Paul for President is good for liberty?”

Here is my incredibly unsatisfying answer: I don’t know.

Truly, I don’t. Neither do you. Why can’t we just admit this?

There is something about politics that elicits a faux sense of certainty. No matter how many times that political action contradicts political promise, we still mostly pretend as if we know for certain what will happen when so and so wins. We know that Jim would be better than Jane, that Joan will be better than John, and so on. How do we know? By what they say in the campaign and nothing more. But the truth is that rhetoric is not decisive.

I’m not saying that all politicians are liars (even if most are). No doubt many of them believe what they’re saying. The problem is more fundamental. No single elected official has the power to change the system. The system is, in fact, largely unelected and unappointed. The bureaucracies are massive. The cumulative regulations and legislation that empowers them are monumentally complex, impossible for any single mind or any one generation to comprehend. The process of reform is messy, structured so that the special interests with the most to lose get to decide where it goes. It is highly unlikely that this process will result in an overall net good for the cause of human liberty.

This is why there seems to be so little relationship between promised results and actual results. Reagan was going to cut the budget. It doubled and then tripled. Bush was going to have a humble foreign policy. Instead, we went empire-building. Obama was going to break down the prison state and empower minorities. Instead, he grafted the surveillance state to the existing architecture of oppression.

No matter how far you look back in time, you see a massive disconnect between the platform and the policies that emerged. The presidency of FDR is the paradigmatic case: a guy who ran on frugal government and peace gave us corporate fascism and entry into the Second World War.

In the postwar period, there was one slice of time where good things all happened in a bundle. Trucking, airlines, and telecommunications were all deregulated. Oil price controls were abolished. Monetary policy shifted from loose to tight. We still benefit from these reforms today. Who was the impresario of these changes? The liberal Democrat Jimmy Carter, working in Congress through the offices of the liberal Democrat Teddy Kennedy. Who expected that? How many Carter voters expected that?

Politics produces counterintuitive results. Under whose rule did we get the repeal of the national speed limit, plus welfare reform, plus a nearly balanced budget? That would be Clinton.

Maybe you disagree with me. You can say, as bad/good as so and so was, the alternative would have been worse/better. Maybe. Maybe not. We’ll never really know because, in the world of politics and human action, there is no way to do a controlled experiment. One person’s opinion about what “would have happened” is as good as any other.

As for Rand Paul, I have no problem granting that he believes he has figured out the right way to make America a freer place for everyone. On paper, he looks better than any other candidate, so far. It’s wonderful that he is accepting Bitcoin. His economic program is sound. His outreach to diverse demographics: brilliantly overdue. His proposed foreign policy seems slightly better than the alternatives.

But will he get his way? That’s an open question. The “deep state” is not going to respond well to a temporary manager who swears to put it in its place. The result could be the opposite of what Rand intends.

People who invest themselves in the presidency somehow never come to terms with the reality that under the democratic nation state, no man or woman is a dictator. In fact, real dictators are not even dictators. Even Nikita Khrushchev at the height of Soviet power privately expressed nothing but frustration about his own inability to control or change the system. He once compared the system with a huge tub of dough. You punch it, squeeze it, manipulate it, but it pretty much stays the same.

There’s no doubt that most presidents feel the same.

Clarity about presidential reality comes with realizing the first big responsibility that a president has. He or she has to appoint 800 employees — subject to Senate confirmation — to pretend to run the government (pretend because lifetime bureaucrats mostly ignore political appointees).

Where do these people come from? To get them through the process and assure no scandal, they are drawn from 1) a pool of D.C. politicos who specialize in the affairs of government, 2) prominent and vetted supporters during the campaign, 3) big shots among the special interests that the new president favors. Immediately, all these new employees start receiving a government check, and suddenly have a stake in perpetuating and even expanding the institutions for which they work.

It’s a particularly weird job for a libertarian to accept, to say the least. Imagine, too, the potential downside to putting hundreds of the best libertarian minds going to work in government. Maybe some good will result. Or maybe the result is a brain drain out of the productive sector into the parasitic sector.

One way to think about government is as a giant corporation with its own interests to better its position and power. The president is the CEO. How do you do a good job and earn the support of the stockholders and customers? Not by cutting the budget, driving down the stock price, and pulling back its market share. Everything that hurts government as an institution will be resisted at all levels and in every conceivable way. You win by boosting the prospects of the state.

This is why it is such an enormous and implausible effort to use the presidency to enhance liberty. Everything we know about government pushes against this.

To see this reality requires that we look much more deeply at the problem than any debate or campaign can reveal. As entertaining as this season may be, we do well to keep in mind that politics is more about cosmetics than reality.

Those people who say that a President Rand Paul will save us or doom us are both wrong. We are all guessing, including Rand Paul himself. Let’s cool it on the saint making and witch burning and let the process play itself out.

In any case, politics is most likely a lagging indicator of cultural, technological, and economic change — and in these sectors, there are very good reasons to be optimistic about liberty, regardless of whomever is ostensibly in charge.