Friday, May 29, 2009

Bruce Bartlett says libertarians should join the in crowd

Back when Bob Dole used to be somebody, he was once tagged by New Gingrich as "the tax collector for the welfare state" for his bad habit of suggesting that government books could only be balanced by mugging the citizenry, not by cutting spending. Dole has moved on to a happy retirement touting boner pills, but his place has apparently been gleefully assumed by Bruce Bartlett, a supply-sider policy wonk who became persona non grata on the right after going public with his (accurate and well-informed) criticisms of then-President George W. Bush. Bartlett has made something of a second career for himself peddling the idea that those of us who favor personal freedom and restrained government should learn to love high taxes, drop our silly ideas and become more like the crowd that happens to be in charge at the moment.

It's an old meme. When Republicans hold the reins of government, libertarians are urged to forget about drug legalization and free speech and focus on taxes and deregulation. When the nativist surge of recent years picked up steam, libertarians were criticized for their prevailing sentiment in favor of looser immigration.

Now the Democrats are in power, and Bruce Bartlett, in the pages of Forbes, bemoans libertarians' supposed obsession with economic issues -- lowering taxes, in particular -- and calls for libertarians to dedicate themselves to civil liberties and a non-interventionist foreign policy.

Ummm ... What the fuck?

My "what the fuck" is said with some conviction, since I write a column on civil liberties issues and only secondarily address economics. I could just as easily point to Radley Balko, formerly of the Cato Institute and now of Reason, who has built a career that dwarfs my own on advocacy of personal freedom and the exposure of abusive officials and militarized law enforcement.

Or I could point to the claim in some prominent quarters that "drug legalization is the new barometer for Libertarians."

But instead, I'll just say, here we go again.

Bartlett's contention, published in Politico, is that free-marketeers win political power in the United States only "by accepting the fact that Americans mostly like government spending. Rather than make a futile effort to take away something most voters want, Republicans have instead worked to make the welfare state function efficiently, target benefits to those that play by society’s rules and finance those benefits without additional debt. "

Tax collector for the welfare state, indeed.

Says he, "It is simply unrealistic to think that tax cuts will continue to be a viable political strategy when the budget deficit exceeds $1 trillion, as it will this year."

But isn't there always a reason (as far as politicians are concerned) to spend money and then soak taxpayers for the bill? Reducing the burden on taxpayers will come in some unknown future when no more spending is necessary, about the time the North Korean regime withers away, in good communist form.

But that reduction never comes. Instead, as the Tax Foundation points out, the total tax burden in the U.S. has risen as a percentage of personal income over the past century from 5% to about 30%, where it's been hovering since 1970. Paying off the current spending binge would seem to require raising the burden to record levels.

So, why shouldn't it be true of libertarians (and everybody else) that "they don't like paying taxes."

But, even so, it's not obviously true that, as Bartlett claims, "most self-described libertarians are primarily motivated by economics."

Libertarians, after all, have been closely involved in such pressing matters as medical marijuana, the debate over same-sex marriage, privacy and, of course, the right to bear arms.

The last Libertarian presidential candidate was formally nominated by the head of the Marijuana Policy Project.

And the libertarian-oriented has been rallying objections to overseas interventionism under presidents of both major parties.

Well ... Bartlett concedes the point on guns, but isn't impressed. He seems to think of some libertarians (the wrong kind) that "their libertarianism doesn't extent much beyond not wanting to pay taxes, being paid in gold and being able to keep all the guns they want. Many are survivalists at heart and would be perfectly content to live in complete isolation on a mountain somewhere, neither taking anything from society nor giving anything."

Bartlett prefers the D.C.-dinner-party-going libertarians, though he thinks they're too economics-oriented, too.

Whatever. I own lots of guns and live in the rural West, but I also speak French (well, I used to) make my own pasta, listen to opera and old punk, have a wife and child and participate in my community. Also, I have yet to fortify my compound (I have to build the back patio first).

I bet I don't feature in a Bartlett column anytime soon.

But, of course, Bartlett's criticisms aren't about reality. Like the pundits who insisted during the rein of George W. Bush that principled advocates of liberty should make their peace with the security state, the drug war and imperialism, Bartlett is calling on freedom-minded folks to join the in crowd.

But the in crowd won't be in forever. And some of us think that opposing the damage being done is a little more justifiable than joining in the feeding frenzy during their tenure in office.


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