It does not matter that Donald Trump will win the Republican Presidential nomination. In his new video, Mr. Stolyarov emphasizes that you should vote your conscience and support the candidate closest to your personal ideals, not the candidate who has an “R” next to his name.
Were it not for the deeply fallacious and self-defeating mindset of voting for the “lesser evil”, the rise of a demagogue such as Trump would have been impossible in the United States.
Though it may be alleged that economic fascism has characterized America’s “mixed economy” since at least the New Deal of the 1930s, the resurgence of cultural fascism would have been unthinkable even during the 2012 Presidential Election. Yet it is here in the form of Donald Trump’s campaign. Mr. Stolyarov considers what made possible this frightening resurgence of the worst tendencies in American politics. He concludes that the biggest underlying facilitator of Trump’s frightening rise is the very two-party political system in the United States and the “lesser evil” trap it engenders in the minds of many voters.
– “The US Two-Party System Made Donald Trump’s Fascist Campaign Possible” – Article by G. Stolyarov II
– “Why Republicans Deserved a Crushing Defeat in the 2012 Presidential Election” – Article by G. Stolyarov II –
– “Black students ‘outraged’ after being escorted from Trump rally” – Article by Lindsey Bever – The Washington Post and Chicago Tribune
– “Technically, it is illegal to protest inside of Trump rallies” – Article by Colin Daileda – Mashable –
– “Rejecting the Purveyors of Pull: The Lessons of Atlas Shrugged: Part II” – Article by G. Stolyarov II
– “Trump is Phony, a Fraud” – Speech by Mitt Romney – PBS NewsHour
– “Hating the Establishment Is Not the Same as Supporting Liberty” – Article by Jeffrey Tucker
– “On Moral Responsibility in General and in the Context of Voting” – Article by G. Stolyarov II
– “The Importance of Zoltan Istvan’s Transhumanist Presidential Campaign” – Article by G. Stolyarov II
It is disconcerting to watch as the front-runner for the 2016 Republican Presidential nomination in the United States espouses a genuinely fascistic agenda – not just in terms of protectionism, economic nationalism, militarism, and the desire to centrally plan economic greatness – but also in terms of the overtly uglier sides of historical fascism: the xenophobia, racism, advocacy of torture and blood guilt, desire to silence political opponents, and incitements to violence against protesters and dissenters. Yet this is precisely what Donald Trump has done, unleashing the long-dormant worst tendencies of American politics. He has emboldened the crudest, least enlightened, most hide-bound enemies of tolerance, cosmopolitanism, and liberty to emerge from well-deserved disgrace to fuel the campaign of a cynical, unprincipled opportunist who thrives by pandering to their lowest impulses. Trump is vulgar, volatile, and unhinged. He has already turned his rallies into miniature versions of the police state he would create if elected – evicting even protesters who simply stand there with signs or clothing that express disagreement with Trump, or even individuals who attract the ire of the frenzied Trumpists for having the “wrong” color of skin or the “wrong” incidental expressions. Because of a bizarre law (H. R. 347, enacted in 2012), it is illegal to protest inside Trump rallies (or rallies of any candidate that receives Secret Service protection), so Trump is already utilizing coercive police powers to suppress dissent.
Though it may be alleged that economic fascism has characterized America’s “mixed economy” since at least the New Deal of the 1930s, the resurgence of cultural fascism would have been unthinkable even during the 2012 Presidential Election. Mitt Romney, who seemed to me at the time to represent a paradigm of crony capitalism that inched toward overarching totalitarianism, now appears to be a gentleman and an intellectual – a voice of reason, class, and prudence in his eloquent denunciation of Donald Trump. Romney, as President, would have been unlikely to avert an incremental descent into fascism (although, in retrospect, he seems to be a decent human being), and his own candidacy was marred by manipulations at various State Republican Conventions, but, compared to Trump, Romney is a model of civility and good sense. Romney, if elected, would primarily have been the next status-quo President, overseeing a deeply flawed and deteriorating but endurable economic, political, and civil-liberties situation. Trump, however, would plunge the United States into an abyss where the remnants of personal liberty will suffocate.
And yet the manipulations that occurred in 2012 to aid Romney paved the way for a Trump candidacy and its widely perceived “unstoppable” momentum. (Let us hope that this perception is premature!) I was a delegate to the Nevada State Republican Convention in 2012, where I helped elect a pro-Ron Paul delegation to the Republican National Convention. However, upon learning of the events at the National Convention, I became forever disillusioned with the ability of the Republican Party to become receptive to the advocacy of individual freedom. I wrote after Romney’s electoral defeat that
the rule change enacted by the party establishment at the National Convention, over the vociferous objections of the majority of delegates there, has permanently turned the Republican Party into an oligarchy where the delegates and decision-makers will henceforth be picked by the ‘front-runner’ in any future Presidential contest. Gone are the days when people like me could, through grass-roots activism and participation at successive levels of the party conventions, become delegates to a state convention and exert some modicum of influence over how the party is governed and intellectually inclined.
The Republican Party establishment intended its rule change to prevent the ability of motivated grass-roots activists to elect delegates at State Conventions who would vote against the “presumptive nominee” and in favor of an upstart – presumably more libertarian – contender such as Ron Paul. Little did the establishment expect that this rule change would prevent its own favored candidates from effectively contesting Donald Trump’s nomination if Trump continues to win popular votes, especially in “winner-take-all” primaries, and approaches a majority of the total delegates. The most that the Republican Party elites can hope for now is that a candidate such as Ted Cruz eventually overtakes Trump, or that the remaining candidates – Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich – split enough of the delegates to deny Trump the majority and lead to a brokered convention. But as the narrative of inevitability continues to be spun in Trump’s favor and he amasses prominent endorsements and even promises from the other candidates that they would support him if he were the nominee, these damage-control plans seem quite vulnerable. Blind party loyalty, combined with a bandwagon mentality, appears to be driving the Republican establishment to a reluctant capitulation to Trump – which would be political suicide, but they are apt to do it anyway.
If Trump trumps the old Republican Party establishment, however, this would be nothing to cheer. It would be a replacement of a defunct, cronyist, and backroom-dealing oligarchy – but one considerably tempered by satiation from its own decades of comfortable dominance and the remaining checks and balances of the political system – with a vicious, crass, completely unrestrained new oligarchy headed by Trump himself, and fueled by populistic pandering to masses about whom Trump personally could not care less. Trump asserts that he is incorruptible because he is funding his own campaign. However, the truth is that he does not need to pay anyone off for special political privileges, because he is the special interest that would be garnering the favors during “normal times”. If elected, he will simply do so without the intermediaries of the traditional political class. As Jeffrey Tucker eloquently explains,
many have fallen for Donald Trump’s claim that he deserves support solely because he owes nothing to anyone. Therefore, he is not part of the establishment. Why is that good for liberty? He has said nothing about dismantling power. […] He wants surveillance, controls on the internet, religious tests for migration, war-like tariffs, industrial planning, and autocratic foreign-policy power. He’s praised police power and toyed with ideas such as internment and killings of political enemies. His entire governing philosophy boils down to arbitrary, free-wheeling authoritarianism.
Yet the biggest underlying facilitator of Trump’s frightening rise is the very two-party political system in the United States. Had the ballot-access laws not been rigged against “third” political parties and independent candidates, and had representation been determined on a proportional rather than a “winner-take-all” basis, there would have been genuine alternatives for voters to choose from. At present, however, every recent election season has degenerated into a spectacle of demonizing “the other side” – even if that side is just a different wing of the same political establishment. Far too many people vote for “the lesser evil” in their view, rather than the candidate with whom they agree most (who will most likely be a minor-party or independent candidate, since both the Republican and Democratic Parties are widely perceived as ineffectual and misguided once actually in power). Instead of evaluating specific candidates based on their stances on the issues as well as their personal record of integrity (or lack thereof), too many voters have learned to viscerally hate “the other” party’s brand and exhibit unconditional loyalty to their own. During the primary process, even voters who prefer the candidates who did not become the nominee will often capitulate and embrace a deeply flawed frontrunner. If too many Republican voters come to believe that Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders would be intolerable choices for President, then they may come to rally behind Trump even if they personally would have preferred Rubio, Cruz, or Kasich – and that is how a fascistic campaign could elicit the support of even the many non-fascists who simply cannot distance themselves from the “R” next to a candidate’s name.
The only way in the long term to defeat Trump and those like him (because, in the wake of Trump’s bewildering popularity, others will emerge to imitate his tactics) is to renounce the two-party political system and judge each candidate solely on his or her policies, record, and personal merits or demerits. As I pointed out in 2012 in “On Moral Responsibility in General and in the Context of Voting”,
The most reliable way to avoid adverse moral responsibility in voting is to vote for a candidate whom one considers to be an improvement over the status quo in absolute, not relative, terms – and without regard for how others might vote. Morality is not based on consensus, but on objective truth. One’s own understanding of objective truth, and the continual pursuit of improving that understanding, is the best path to moral action and the habits of thought that facilitate it.
More recently, in 2015, I explained that
voters who are caught in the expectations trap will tend to vote for the “lesser evil” (in their view) from one party, because they tend to think that the consequences of the election of the candidate from the other party will be dire indeed, and they do not want to “take their vote away” from the slightly less objectionable candidate. This thinking rests on the false assumption that a single individual’s vote, especially in a national election, can actually sway the outcome. Given that the probabilities of this occurring are negligible, the better choice – the choice consistent with individual autonomy and the pursuit of principle – is to vote solely based on one’s preference, without any regard for how others will vote or how the election will turn out.
Had Trump been one candidate among tens of independent contenders, he would have been rightly recognized as a demagogue whose base of support is a xenophobic, poorly educated fringe. Had numerous political parties been able to compete without major barriers to entry, today’s “moderate” establishment Republicans and movement conservatives would have had no need to fight with Trump over a particular party’s nomination, since they – having little in common – would have likely fielded multiple candidates of their own from multiple parties. As it stands now, however, the two-party system has destroyed the checks that would exist in a truly politically competitive system to prevent a fascistic demagogue’s meteoric rise. Only the consciences of voters stand between Trump and the Republican nomination, as well as the Presidency. Now, more than ever, it is imperative to vote solely on principle and escape the “lesser evil” trap, lest the greater evil of untrammeled illiberalism trap us forever.
This essay may be freely reproduced using the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike International 4.0 License, which requires that credit be given to the author, G. Stolyarov II. Find out about Mr. Stolyarov here.
If ever there was a party that deserved a thorough electoral defeat, it was the Republican Party in the 2012 United States Presidential election. The party’s abandonment of any semblance of principle, combined with suppression of its principled and intellectual elements, was responsible for the crushing defeat dealt to it by Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. While I am no supporter of, or enthusiast for, Obama and the Democrats (I was part of the 1% who voted for Gary Johnson), I must confess that my intense love of justice is satisfied by the extent to which the Republican Party has been punished at the polls. Here, I aim to enumerate the primary reasons why the Republicans lost, and deserved it.
Reason 1: Suppression of libertarian ideas and people. If ever there was a political movement in the United States that captured the minds and passions of wide segments of the population, it was the movement spearheaded by Ron Paul, which began to pick up momentum in 2007 and which greatly intensified during the 2011-2012 campaign season. The massive enthusiasm generated by that movement among young people and typically non-Republican constituencies would have been enough to result in an electoral landslide for the Republican Party, had it not been ruthlessly combated by the party establishment and its allied news media’s rhetoric, as well as underhanded, fraudulent, and sometimes even violent actions at state primaries, state conventions, and the Republican National Convention.
Indeed, the rule change enacted by the party establishment at the National Convention, over the vociferous objections of the majority of delegates there, has permanently turned the Republican Party into an oligarchy where the delegates and decision-makers will henceforth be picked by the “front-runner” in any future Presidential contest. Gone are the days when people like me could, through grass-roots activism and participation at successive levels of the party conventions, become delegates to a state convention and exert some modicum of influence over how the party is governed and intellectually inclined. In addition to the suppression of Ron Paul and his supporters, the Republican establishment marginalized and denied debate access to Gary Johnson, one of the most principled and successful Republican governors in history – leading Johnson to favor a Libertarian run for the Presidency instead. Johnson, too, could easily have garnered the sympathies of voters who favor civil liberties, limited government, and an end to wasteful, reckless foreign-policy interventionism.
Reason 2: Creation of an alternate reality. In the words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” The Republican Party, however, constructed around itself an alternate reality where facts did not matter. Instead, an entirely parallel universe of “facts” was constructed in accordance with party orthodoxy. How ironic it is that the party that was supposed to denounce political correctness in universities and culture has itself fallen prey to the most massive form of politically correct delusion imaginable – a way of thinking where no facts are admissible unless they cohere with a certain preconceived worldview! It is one matter to have a set of normative positions about what is desirable – even if they are wrong or damaging positions but still based on the data of reality. It is entirely another matter to begin to make short-term empirical predictions based on ideology and wishes, rather than the evidence of the senses and the general factual inferences that can be drawn from such evidence. This is why, on the eve of the elections, virtually the entire Republican punditry was predicting a landslide win for Mitt Romney and accusing objective election observers who anticipated an Obama win of exhibiting a left-wing bias. But the malaise goes deeper than that. The entire advertising and rhetorical strategy of the Romney campaign was based on outright, publicly debunked falsehoods – from the claim that Obama “gutted welfare reform” to the easily refutable allegation that Jeep was relocating its plants from Ohio to China. But when fact-checking services from all over the political spectrum (including truly neutral ones) called Romney out on these outright lies, the fact-checkers themselves were branded as biased by the Republican punditry. The Romney campaign’s blatant distortion of the truth is a leap beyond the typical promise-breaking prevalent in American political campaigns. As David Javerbaum put it, Romney engaged in “quantum politics” – e.g., “Mitt Romney will feel every possible way about an issue until the moment he is asked about it, at which point the many feelings decohere into the single answer most likely to please the asker.” The Romney campaign was based not on the reality of facts, but the “reality” of political polls and interest groups, the question not of what is true but what will please whom. This is what Ayn Rand termed a social metaphysics, and a key reason why I compared Romney to James Taggart in Atlas Shrugged.
Reason 3. The “lesser evil” mentality. It is interesting, also, that the Republicans never embrace a candidate with more energy, and never behave with such intensity of vitriol toward any doubters or critics, as when the candidate is a man whom they themselves consider a candidate of dubious conservative credentials. Mitt Romney, the oft-styled “Massachusetts moderate“, was surely such a candidate, as numerous conservative Republicans did not hesitate to admit, until Romney seemed likely to secure the nomination. But once the nominating process was trending Romney’s way, many of those same Republicans reacted with every possible tactic to undermine Romney’s opponents and critics. Perhaps the hatred of Obama (and the irrational inflation of Obama as the Evil Communist Atheist Muslim Kenyan-Born “Community Activist” Who Threatens to Destroy the Very Fabric of America by many Republicans) led the reluctant Romney supporters to consider absolutely anybody to be preferable to the strawman Obama they had built up in their minds – and also any means to be acceptable for achieving Obama’s defeat, including lies, fraud, voter suppression, and violence against peaceful critics. It is often the case that the mentality of supporting the “lesser evil” causes people to behave with the greatest evil. Surely, in their behavior on the campaign trail in 2012, the Republicans were by far the more evil party.
Reason 4. Refusal to differentiate based on true principle. While Romney continued to attack Obama on the basis of factually false trivialities, the substantive principles of Obama’s governance did not come under attack. Completely absent were any criticisms of drone assassinations of American citizens and foreign civilians; the threat of indefinite detention of Americans on US soil; repeated attempts to control the Internet in the name of “cybersecurity” or “intellectual property”; political favoritism and bailouts directed toward large financial institutions; a bizarre and perverse surveillance and “security” state, exemplified by the Transportation Security Administration’s backscatter X-ray machines and grotesque full-body pat-downs; the continuation of bloody and unsustainable foreign entanglements; an increasingly impoverishing fiscal and monetary policy; and the escalating devastation caused by the War on Drugs. Of course, Romney did not wish to criticize any of these policies, because he would likely have supported their escalation were he elected. The substantive policy differences between most Republicans and most Democrats have been narrowing over the past three decades. This election cycle, they have been reduced to virtually nil – even as the political rhetoric achieved levels of virulence and polarization unprecedented over the same time period.
Reason 5. Xenophobia and demonization of “the other”. It is truly unwise for a party seeking to win elections to brand entire vast categories of peaceful persons as undesirable. Yet, in their rhetoric, this is precisely how many prominent Republicans portrayed immigrants, homosexuals, the non-religious, and people whose income is below the threshold for a positive income-tax obligation. Is it any wonder that many such individuals chose to vote against the Republicans, if only because they wished to secure the defeat of the party that so vocally advertised its intent to oppress them and restrict their rights? Perhaps the lessons of this election will teach the wiser among the Republican pundits and politicians that collectivistic demonization of large numbers of people not only fails to win elections, but it is a generally sordid practice to engage in. Commentators such as Sean Hannity seem to have already shifted their positions on immigration. One can hope that others will follow suit – though I suspect the changes in attitude will be too little, too late, especially with other pundits, such as Bill O’Reilly, decrying the demographic changes and the alleged decline of the “white establishment” in America – a mild expression of the not-so-latent racism and xenophobia that, unfortunately, still plague too many in the Republican Party.
Fundamentally, the Republicans lost the election because many of them lost touch with any semblance of truth, liberty, and basic human decency. It would be a welcome outcome if the results of this election chasten the Republicans to cease suppressing libertarian ideas and to instead embrace a full-fledged advocacy of civil liberties – especially including the right to engage in peaceful behaviors of which many Republicans may personally disapprove. The success of ballot initiatives permitting same-sex marriage in Maine, Maryland, and Washington, as well as legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, should teach Republicans that their advocated intensification of crackdowns on personal freedoms will find only ever-dwindling support, particularly among young people. Unless the Republican establishment dramatically changes its ways, it will increasingly sink into irrelevance (though not without inflicting tremendous damage in the meantime). And, unless it changes its ways, it will be justified to say of that irrelevance: “Good riddance!”
Hispanics are about one sixth of the U.S. population and account for more than 50% of population growth. Good luck selling them on the idea that Spanish accents and not-quite-white skin are cause for further police inquiries.
In fact, illegal immigration ought to be something conservatives support. The primary reason people enter the country illegally is to work. Serious academic work dating at least to Julian Simon’s excellent book (available here for free!) have found that immigration, including illegal immigration, is on net beneficial for an economy. Immigrants work harder and take less in government benefits. Their work raises wages for non-immigrants. They have higher rates of entrepreneurial activity. In the recent financial crisis, illegal immigrants who were subprime borrowers had far lower rates of mortgage default than citizen subprime borrowers. One would suppose that these would be the sort of people one would want to welcome, not drive away. One would think these people would be prime constituents for a free-market message.
Certainly there are problems of crime, of crowding of public services, etc., associated with immigration, but many of these are at heart problems of the welfare state, rather than immigration. Fixing these makes sense; fixating on immigration doesn’t.
If the nativists got everything they wanted on immigration — iron control over impervious borders, strict limits on who can enter, and deportation of 100% of all illegals — no important economic or social problem would be solved and the economic situation would be worse, not better. But this wish list is impossible; economic forces cannot be legislated away, and neither can the human spirit.
The current Republican position on this issue is best described as stupidity, and one more reason they drove away potential voters.
Dr. Charles N. Steele is the Herman and Suzanne Dettwiler Chair in Economics and Associate Professor at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan. His research interests include economics of transition and institutional change, economics of uncertainty, and health economics. He received his Ph.D. from New York University in 1997, and has subsequently taught economics at the graduate and undergraduate levels in China, the Russian Federation, Ukraine, and the United States. He has also worked as a private consultant in insurance design and review.
Dr. Steele also maintains a blog, Unforeseen Contingencies.
Here, I aim to briefly outline the general nature of moral responsibility as well as its implications for how a person ought to approach voting in an election.
Moral Responsibility in General
The source of all morality is the life of the human individual. As I explain in my video series, “Life as the Origin and Basis of Morality” (see Part 1 and Part 2), the life of the individual is the necessary precondition for any moral system, and therefore the preservation of that life is the foremost moral principle. The principle has to be universalizable to all individuals, or else one’s claim to the legitimacy of protection for one’s own life would be arbitrary and simply a matter of “might making right” (that is, if one can protect oneself against stronger individuals who do not recognize this legitimacy). If, however, one recognizes that the moral primacy of life is an abstract principle that can be applied to every person, then one can justly claim the moral high ground in defending one’s own right to life as an implication of this principle.
The existence of moral responsibility arises from two facts: (i) human beings can choose their actions, and (ii) various human actions can have varying degrees of beneficial or harmful consequences to human life. An action is moral if it benefits the life of any human being (including the actor) without harming any other human being. An action is immoral if it directly and unavoidably harms the life and infringes on the legitimate prerogatives of any human being – even if some other party might benefit from the action. Because each individual human being is an end in him- or herself, no action that “benefits” some people by harming others can be considered moral. The deliberate and direct infliction of harm upon any person trumps any possible benefit that can be gained from an action. Furthermore, in reality (contrived hypothetical “train-track” scenarios notwithstanding), it is causally impossible for a harm to result in a benefit and for genuine benefit to be unachievable without harm.
Moral responsibility can be a source of both praise and criticism. A person should be praised if he is morally responsible for a beneficial action. A person should be criticized if he is morally responsible for an accumulation of sufficiently harmful actions. It is possible for a generally good person to be morally responsible for a harmful action. This alone does not make the person evil, and a person may compensate for a harmful action through restitution to its victims. Once appropriate restitution has been made, the harmful action should cease to adversely affect our judgment of the perpetrator. However, restitution to persons other than the victims would not suffice, because the benefit of one person cannot outweigh the harm done to another. If irreversible harm has been done, the moral wrong cannot be fully righted, and therefore the perpetrator must always bear some degree of moral responsibility. However, the adverse judgment of the perpetrator can be mitigated if the victim remains alive and decides that the perpetrator can confer a certain alternative benefit that would compensate for the harm without undoing it.
To clarify, this principle does not prohibit or denounce the use of force in order to defend oneself against harm or to punish a wrongdoer who has inflicted harm, as long as the punishment is proportional to the harm and has the effect of preventing future harm committed by such a wrongdoer. However, the retaliatory use of force is only appropriate if directed against genuine wrongdoers, exercised with extreme care for its proportionality, exercised lawfully, and performed without “collateral damage” to innocents. Infliction of harm upon an innocent person is never morally justified, for any goal.
A person is only morally responsible for actions directly within his or her control. A person does not bear any share of “collective guilt” for the actions of others whom somebody deems to be “similar” to that person in some respect. Neither does a person bear any “blood guilt” for the actions of ancestors or descendants. Sometimes a person’s actions may contribute to a larger harm – as when large numbers of people make poor decisions that result in a combined substantial damage to the lives of some innocents. In that case, each person whose actions directly contribute to the harm bears some degree of moral responsibility, in proportion to his or her contribution to the harm. However, in such cases, it is extremely difficult to isolate the contribution of any particular individual, and so the most practical remedy is not restitution, but rather the persuasion of individuals to desist from continuing to contribute to the harm.
Because moral responsibility relates to actual benefit and harm to human beings, there can be no moral responsibility for “victimless” actions, though one can bear moral responsibility for either benefiting or harming oneself. The moral responsibility for harming oneself can only be compensated for through reparations to oneself – i.e., through performance of actions that benefit oneself and undo the harm. Thus, actions that harm oneself alone cannot be undone by adhering to the dictates of others, and so no prohibition or external punishment can ever be appropriate for such actions. This is why a legitimate legal system would only prohibit and punish harm inflicted by an individual upon others and would allow an individual to harm himself without legal penalty. In this way, a class of immoral actions (harms to oneself) ought to be entirely legal. If an action does not damage the life of either oneself or others, then it can be neither illegal nor immoral.
While morality ultimately focuses on consequences, an individual’s intent in carrying out an action can have long-term effects on that individual’s moral standing. It is possible to have ill intent in carrying out an action but, through good fortune, to end up harming no one. In that case, no moral responsibility can exist because no one has been harmed. However, a person who continues to act upon ill intent is extremely likely to cause actual harm through repeated action. Therefore, acting with ill intent is like a game of Russian roulette as far as moral responsibility is concerned. One might escape moral responsibility any given time, but the probability of incurring it in the future is close to certain. Furthermore, acting with ill intent ultimately damages the individual’s capacity to choose morally, as it results in the reinforcement of habits of thought which oppose the preservation of human life and the cultivation of human civilization. Likewise, good intent can assist an individual in committing moral actions by cultivating habits of thought that render moral choices easier. However, good intent must be reflected in benefits to human life before an action can be considered moral. Good intent cannot absolve a person of moral responsibility for a harmful act, though it should (if aided by an understanding of cause and effect) assist the person in avoiding similar harmful acts in the future.
Moral Responsibility and Voting
In any scenario of voting, the individuals who participate are numerous, and the outcome results from an aggregation of individual votes. No given person can be said to specifically be responsible for the outcome of the election being one way or another, even if the outcome results from a difference of one vote (because anyone else’s one vote would have had the identical impact). Nonetheless, if the outcome of an election is the rise to office of politicians who perpetrate harmful actions, then the people who voted for those politicians share some of the moral responsibility in the harms – since, without the vote, those politicians would most likely not have come to power (unless they staged a coup). A clear case of this is the moral responsibility of the Germans in 1933 who gave Hitler’s Nazi Party the plurality of the vote. Were it not for this moral sanction, the harms committed by the Nazi Party would never have come to pass. Of course, the moral responsibility of the typical German voter who supported Hitler was slight compared to the moral responsibility of the actual Nazi leaders and their followers who actually partook in carnage and destruction. Nonetheless, by committing an action that clearly demonstrated support for the Nazi Party, even the otherwise peaceful Germans who voted for it helped to make its atrocities possible.
A person who does not vote for a winning candidate (either by voting for a losing candidate or by not voting at all) cannot have moral responsibility for what transpires when the winning candidate is elected, because he did not grant support to and sometimes explicitly opposed the winning candidate. He can therefore justifiably say, of what transpires afterward, that it did not transpire with his approval or assistance. In electoral situations, it is seldom the case that a single person can make all the difference (unless he is exceptionally good at persuasion of vast numbers of people), but a single person can choose not to be part of the problem. This is why a person should always vote his conscience (if he votes at all) and should never support a candidate who might commit incremental harm relative to the status quo, in that person’s view. However, a person could justifiably support a candidate who might bring about incremental benefit, even if that benefit is not as comprehensive as the voter might desire.
It is important to note that voting for a candidate who would commit incremental harm is not justified by the presence of a candidate whom one expects to commit even greater harm. Because harm can never bring benefit, it should follow that the infliction of lesser harms can never avert greater harms. The person who actively supports a move in the direction of harm (relative to the status quo) simply legitimizes the political system’s infliction of harm upon himself and others. By signaling to the political system that he will tolerate a certain degree of incremental worsening of his situation, he invites politicians to gradually ratchet up the degree of harm they cause, as long as they can claim (justifiably or not) that their opponents would bring about even greater harm.
In this case, what is the nature of the moral responsibility of the person who votes for a “lesser evil” in his mind? If the “lesser evil” loses, then there is clearly no moral responsibility if the person did not otherwise engage in harmful behavior to promote the “lesser evil” or to damage those who criticized the “lesser evil.” However, support for a losing “lesser evil” can lead to unfortunate habits of thought that would leave one vulnerable to the entreaties of politicians who intend to inflict harm. Just like ill intent in committing an action leaves one vulnerable to committing harm in the future, voting for a losing “lesser evil” leaves one vulnerable to voting for a winning “lesser evil” in the future. If one votes for an incrementally harmful candidate who wins, then one does share in the moral responsibility of those actions which a reasonable person could have anticipated on the basis of the candidate’s past record, rhetoric (including any tendencies for duplicity and lies contained therein), and character. This moral responsibility is clearly not of the same caliber as the moral responsibility of the politician who actually inflicts the harms, or the enforcers who act on his behalf. Furthermore, because the moral responsibility of voters is always highly dispersed, it is impractical to design appropriate restitution for it. Rather, the sole practical remedy is for the voters in question to recognize the mistake of their prior actions and, in the future, to work to the extent of their abilities to undo the harms of the winning candidate’s actions in office. For instance, a person who recognizes that he was deceived into supporting a “lesser evil” who won can focus his efforts on defeating this politician or similar politicians as the next election approaches. This person could also work at persuading others not to make similar mistakes.
The most reliable way to avoid adverse moral responsibility in voting is to vote for a candidate whom one considers to be an improvement over the status quo in absolute, not relative, terms – and without regard for how others might vote. Morality is not based on consensus, but on objective truth. One’s own understanding of objective truth, and the continual pursuit of improving that understanding, is the best path to moral action and the habits of thought that facilitate it.
As the ISideWith.com survey of voter preferences shows, if voters truly voted in accordance to their understanding of the most preferable courses of action, the American electoral landscape in 2012 would be quite different. For one, the 2012 Presidential contest would clearly be between Gary Johnson and Barack Obama, rather than between Obama and Mitt Romney.
Mr. Stolyarov has responded to my two–part essay on Mitt Romney as a lesser of two evils. Here I comment on his response . I don’t want to rattle on endlessly, so this will be my final “shot” in the debate, unless Mr. Stolyarov asks for my response on specific questions. I am grateful to him for the opportunity to discuss these issues in this forum. I’ve found it useful, and hope others have as well.
Mr. Stolyarov’s part 1, “The Imperative of Libertarian Rejection of the Two-Party Trap,” is a reply to my part 1 “Is it Evil to Vote for a Lesser Evil?” in which I express doubt about his assertion that “in casting one’s vote” [one earns a] “share of moral responsibility in what would transpire if one’s candidate of choice (even half-hearted choice) gets elected.”
I’m suspicious of this “moral responsibility.” My piece explores whether someone who votes for a candidate has moral responsibility, and if so, what is the nature of that responsibility. I take pains to keep it a general argument and avoid discussion of the 2012 election. Unfortunately Mr. Stolyarov doesn’t really answer the questions I raise and instead addresses details of the current presidential candidates. To the extent he does mention the moral responsibility of a voter, he simply asserts it. At some points he asserts that a voter provides “moral sanction” in voting for a candidate, but this is something I directly challenged. Elsewhere he claims to be a consequentialist, and that one bears responsibility only for contributing to actual harms. I think this conflicts with his “moral sanction” argument. It also fails to explain how a non-swing voter who votes for a winning candidate shares any moral responsibility at all, since his vote didn’t matter. In short, I don’t think Mr. Stolyarov’s “Imperative” adequately addresses the philosophical issues I raised, and I remain skeptical of the “moral responsibility” one allegedly bears in voting for a lesser evil.
In part 2, “Why Mitt Romney Will Not Benefit Liberty,” Mr. Stolyarov really lets Mitt Romney have it (and does a good job of it). We agree in our dislike for Romney. I also share Mr. Stolyarov’s disgust at Romney’s unwillingness to attack Obama on important matters of principle. But the question at hand isn’t “Is Romney bad?” but rather which candidate – Obama or Romney – is a lesser evil, or are they equally bad? I gave four areas of fundamental importance in which Romney easily surpasses Obama, in my view. I don’t think Mr. Stolyarov succeeds in showing that Romney and Obama are equivalent in these four areas. Allow me to revisit them.
1. General Vision
Mr. Stolyarov discounts the differences between progressives and conservatives, and argues that conservative skepticism of government is a thing of the past. This can’t be correct. The Tea Party phenomenon is explicitly an anti-big-government phenomenon. It was behind a crushing electoral blow to progressive and moderate Democrats and Republicans in 2010. Regardless of any inconsistencies, confusions, or errors expressed by Tea Partiers, one can’t sensibly argue the movement isn’t exceedingly skeptical of government, often quite hostile to it. Conversely, one can’t sensibly argue that progressives aren’t overwhelmingly enamored of ever more government solutions to problems in almost every aspect of life. Mr. Stolyarov repeatedly refers to the Republican Party establishment. It’s true that this “establishment” hasn’t welcomed the Tea Party, but the bulk of the support that exists for the GOP today is from people skeptical of big government, not people enamored of the Republican leadership. To miss this is to miss one of the most important political developments of the last ten years.
Mr. Stolyarov missed my point about the “Peoples Rights Amendment” (PRA). The PRA isn’t about campaign finance reform. It is about ending all constitutional protections for all rights of any organization: a business firm, a non-profit organization, a church, a labor union, a political party, anything. Among other things, it would mean that news organizations, publishers, internet service providers, YouTube, etc., would no longer be protected by any part of the Bill of Rights, and certainly not by the First Amendment. Under PRA, Mr. Stolyarov will be free to stand on a soapbox in the city park and speak, but You Tube will have no legal protection if legislators decide to ban Stolyarov’s videos. He’ll be free to publish The Rational Argumentator on a home printer, but his internet service provider will have no legal protection if legislators decide they disapprove of his essays. Democrats have actually introduced this totalitarian nonsense in the House, with the endorsement of Nancy Pelosi; it’s not simply some pipe dream. They are promoting similar proposals at the state level. I cannot think of anything that Republicans are proposing that would so fundamentally change America’s political system to enable totalitarianism. Regarding the examples Mr. Stolyarov provides (NSA, SOPA), I’m unaware of how Obama and Romney (or Democrats and Republicans) differ. If Democrats aren’t demonstrably systematically superior, then it can hardly be said that these are relevant.
Regarding gun control, Mr. Stolyarov is simply misinformed. The fact that no new gun-control legislation has been passed is beside the point. The Obama administration has worked to undercut private firearm ownership, not through legislation but through regulation, subterfuge (“Fast and Furious,” for example), and international negotiations (which are on hold pending the outcome of the election). And the proposals for a renewed assault-weapons ban (AWB) are more draconian than the Clinton version, not less. Proposed restrictions on ammunition sales, handgun ownership, semiautomatic weapons, etc., are more restrictive than anything we’ve previously suffered under, not less. And Heller is not settled law, if Obama is able to appoint one more progressive to the Supreme Court. Progressives would like to eliminate most privately owned firearms. Their attacks on the Castle Doctrine/Stand Your Ground laws show that this hostility is directed at honest citizens and is not about crime prevention.
My examples suggest that progressives are seriously working to eliminate the Bill of Rights. On the other hand, Mr. Stolyarov responds that he’s concerned about “Occupy” protesters being pepper-sprayed at UC Davis. I’m uncertain what this event has to do with the Romney v. Obama choice, but he and I have very different definitions of “peaceful.” My definition of peaceful does not include forcibly blocking public thoroughfares and occupying public spaces so that others cannot exercise their legitimate rights to use them. It’s shameful that taxpayer money is now going to these “victims.” But again, how does this indicate anything about the differences in the candidates or the issues I’ve raised? I think it’s irrelevant.
2. Health-Care Reform
Mr. Stolyarov is probably correct that for Romney and the Republican leadership think of the political base primarily as a means for winning elections. That’s exactly why Romney wouldn’t veto a PPACA repeal, were it presented to him. It’s crazy to think he’d veto it against the will of everyone in the GOP and then “rely on political amnesia” to get him by in 2016. He’d have nothing to gain, and everything to lose.
I didn’t discuss specifics of the PPACA, but I don’t believe the mandate is the worst part. The mandate isn’t a giveaway to insurance companies. Without a mandate, the requirement to sell insurance without regard for pre-existing conditions and without risk rating would trigger adverse selection that would eliminate private insurance almost overnight. Other bad parts of the law include the Independent Payments Advisory Board (IPAB), a component that has the potential to do great harm to American health care. But then, the PPACA is 2000-plus pages long; there’s lots of mischief in it. (The Romneycare bill was only 86 pages.) But this is all beside the point. The President does not have a line-item veto, so if a Republican Congress repeals PPACA, Romney cannot pick and choose which pieces to preserve. He’ll sign and we’ll be rid of it. There’s no other way this can happen.
3. Supreme Court Appointments
Mr. Stolyarov sees a “clash of interpretations [legal philosophies] as too many steps removed from the outcome of a Presidential election. To be sure, the President may appoint Supreme Court justices, but that is all. How the justices subsequently rule is out of the President’s hands.”
It’s true but completely irrelevant that how justices rule is out of the president’s hands. From a libertarian standpoint, progressive legal theories are worse than libertarian legal theories, obviously. It’s also obvious to those who study the matter closely that Romney is far more likely to appoint justices sympathetic to libertarian theories than is Obama. The two candidates are not even roughly similar in this regard. This alone is sufficient to make Romney the lesser evil, and is a place where he might well do positive good. Alternatively, if Obama appoints three Ginsburg clones, it will be a very dark day indeed.
4. Economic and Fiscal Issues
I’ll admit that this is the weakest part of my argument. But still, on environmental regulation, Obama is clearly worse. It even appears that EPA may have put new energy regulations on hold until after the election. It’s very likely that an Obama victory will lead to much heavier regulation of one of the bright spots in our economy, the boom in hydrocarbon production.
On fiscal policy, neither candidate (and neither party) has seriously grappled with America’s looming sovereign-debt crisis. It’s quite obvious, though, that Democrats would be much happier seeing government take a greater share of the economy in revenue than Republicans would – the recent battles over the debt ceiling are evidence of that.
I’ve made two very distinct lines of argument in this exchange. Concerning the philosophical issues of a voter’s moral responsibility, I think Mr. Stolyarov has largely talked past my arguments. In the end, I don’t think a voter should worry about “moral responsibility.” My advice to a libertarian voter: study the principles, issues, and candidates carefully, and then vote (or abstain) according to whatever you think will do the most to further liberty. Don’t waste any additional effort contemplating the moral responsibility you’ll allegedly bear.
Concerning whether Mitt Romney is the lesser evil, Mr. Stolyarov provides lengthy critique of Romney, a case for voting for a libertarian alternative such as Gary Johnson, and blistering scorn for the Republican leadership and their treatment of Ron Paul’s supporters. In each case, he does so eloquently. But these are tangential to the question at hand – is Mitt Romney the lesser of two evils? I think that I’ve made a strong case that from a libertarian standpoint, Romney, bad as he is, is superior to Obama. In the end, we’ll never know, of course.
Dr. Charles N. Steele is the Herman and Suzanne Dettwiler Chair in Economics and Associate Professor at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan. His research interests include economics of transition and institutional change, economics of uncertainty, and health economics. He received his Ph.D. from New York University in 1997, and has subsequently taught economics at the graduate and undergraduate levels in China, the Russian Federation, Ukraine, and the United States. He has also worked as a private consultant in insurance design and review.
Dr. Steele also maintains a blog, Unforeseen Contingencies.
Here, I continue my exchange with Dr. Charles Steele regarding the 2012 U.S. Presidential election and the question of whether either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney have any merit as candidates or whether one can be preferred to the other. In “The Imperative of Libertarian Rejection of the Two-Party Trap”, I addressed the question of whether it can be morally legitimate to vote for a lesser evil, and concluded that it is not – particularly where a fundamentally dishonest and deceptive ticket such as Romney/Ryan is concerned. (Readers can also see the aforementioned article for a list of links to the previous installments of this exchange.) Here, I respond to Part 2 of Dr. Steele’s previous response: “Romney v. Obama: Tweedledum and Tweedledee?”.
I will first say that I have no intention of defending Barack Obama or claiming that his second term would not be “as bad” as Dr. Steele portrays. Barack Obama has, in many ways, been responsible for a massive growth of the American police and surveillance state, as well as an expansion of militaristic interventionism abroad. His economic policies have, likewise, been highly damaging to liberty and prosperity alike. Drone attacks on innocents, molestation at the airports, an escalating War on Drugs, persecution of whistleblowers, attempts to conflate Wikileaks with crime and terrorism, health-insurance mandates, bailouts and subsidies to political cronies, inflationary monetary policy, reckless deficit-spending fiscal policy, support for draconian “cybersecurity” legislation that would fundamentally curtail Internet freedom and subject billions of individual communications to monitoring by error-prone algorithms, continuing maintenance of CIA torture facilities (a.k.a. “black sites”) abroad, and the “audacity” to insists that the President of the United States has the authority to assassinate any American citizen abroad, or indefinitely detain any American citizen in the United States, based on his mere say-so – all that (and more along similar lines!) has been the legacy of Obama’s first term. I have absolutely no intention of defending Obama – except in cases where the accusations against him are simply factually untrue, or where his administration happens to have stumbled upon a decent and reasonable policy.
One important question to ask is, “Why has Mitt Romney not emphasized virtually any of the above tremendous harms of the Obama administration?” At the Free and Equal Third-Party Debate, all four of the participants (Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, Rocky Anderson, and Virgil Goode) had scathing criticisms of Obama’s administration in some (or, in the case of Gary Johnson, most) of the areas mentioned above. Ron Paul’s criticisms of Obama were similarly severe, and similarly on target. The perceptive observer, then, is left to wonder why Mitt Romney’s campaign completely ignores the actual harms caused by Obama during his first term and instead focuses on criticisms that are trivial at best or disingenuous and dishonest at worst. Is it, perhaps, that Romney would himself perpetrate the travesties discussed above, and perhaps intensify them? Is it, perhaps, that Romney’s political base actually insists that he attack Obama for not being “tough” enough with regard to certain military engagements and infringements on civil liberties? (One must remember that Romney himself stated during the Republican debates that he would have signed the indefinite-detention provision of the NDAA. Furthermore, Romney expressed strong support for SOPA and the Protect IP Act before reversing his stance once it became apparent that continued endorsement of these bills would be politically ruinous.)
Rather than defend Obama or contrast him favorably to Romney, I will respond to each of Dr. Steele’s points by following a general theme: that Mitt Romney is cut from the same cloth as Obama policy-wise, and is even worse personality-wise. Obama, for all of his erroneous and dangerous views and actions, at least seems to have an ideological system that he endeavors to realize, however imperfectly and however subject to political maneuvering and backtracking. Romney, on the other hand, seems beholden to no principles. David Javerbaum has aptly characterized Romney as engaging in “quantum politics” – e.g., “Mitt Romney will feel every possible way about an issue until the moment he is asked about it, at which point the many feelings decohere into the single answer most likely to please the asker.”
This, then, can be seen as my response to Dr. Steele’s point regarding the “general vision” of the two candidates. Dr. Steele wrote that “This presidential election is not so much a choice between Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama as it is between two competing visions of the role of government.” I respond that the two parties do not represent competing visions, because the Republicans – by nominating Mitt Romney – have shown that they do not represent any vision whatsoever, or at the very least that their “vision” is a blank to be filled by the expediencies of the day. A left-progressive vision, however erroneous or even dangerous in some respects, is at least relatively predictable – though even many left-progressives (e.g., Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party) are themselves disgusted at the course the Obama administration have taken and strike me as a lot more honest and at least capable of doing good in certain areas (e.g., civil liberties), as compared to either the Democratic or the Republican establishments.
I certainly do not see in Romney/Ryan or the Republican establishment the barest shred of “the view that government is limited by the rights of the individual, and that most of civilization is built by free people acting in the market.” Romney’s incessant ads in Nevada about how he opposes Barack Obama’s “threats” to Social Security and Medicare are a case in point; he is just another establishment campaigner who tells various segments of the electorate what they want to hear, and portrays his rival as a terrible menace. But more importantly, the Republican establishment has shown that it not only cares little for individual rights in theory – but it is ready to trample upon them in practice, through the fraudulent and sometimes violent manner in which supporters of Gary Johnson and Ron Paul were effectively disenfranchised during the nominating process and – at the Republican National Convention – were met with a “rule change” (adopted over the loud objections of the delegates) that will effectively bar grassroots delegate selection in perpetuity. The Republican Party, by preventing even their previously most ardent grassroots supporters from rising to positions of prominence in future elections, has closed itself off from any connection with individuals or the free market. It has become the party of oligarchic elites – the party of crony corporatism and entrenched political favoritism. To be sure, the Republican Party does need its “useful idiots” to mobilize mass fervor against the Democrats and win elections. Hence, the Republican establishment fails to quell xenophobic, theocratic, and racist bigotries (e.g., the oft-repeated claims that Obama is an atheist Muslim who was not born in the United States). Even though the Republican elites are too intelligent to fall for such nonsense themselves, they are too callously manipulative and devoid of principles to discourage sentiments that may be politically useful to them.
Dr. Steele writes that “conservatives are far more skeptical of government than are progressives” – but this refers to a conservative movement that was perhaps of this sort some thirty years ago during the Reagan era (in rhetoric at least), but not at all today. While Dr. Steele asserts that “the Republican Party is the party of skepticism about government”, the Republican Party gave us unprecedented expansions of federal-government power during the George W. Bush era. Indeed, a principal observation regarding the Obama administration’s deleterious effects for liberty is that Obama has built upon the foundation that George W. Bush created, with few material departures. Today’s Republican Party is a mix of neoconservatism, theoconservatism, crony corporatism, and pop-conservatism. Libertarianism is not a material component of the Republican agenda – other than occasional lip service to libertarians during election years – just to get their vote. Every election season, the Republican Party courts libertarians, and every time it has electoral success, it simply discards any pretense at pursuing even a quasi-libertarian agenda. When was the last time that a Republican victory has brought about any policy shifts in a remotely libertarian direction? In the face of such repeated bait-and-switch tactics, how many times does it take to learn not to fall for them again? How many times do good libertarians need to be deceived by entrenched political elites who have no intention of diminishing the scope of their power?
Dr. Steele contrasts the Democratic and Republican platforms, but even the shreds of pro-liberty sentiment in the Republican platform were hard-won from the establishment by the tireless activity of Ron Paul’s supporters on various Republican committees. These friends of liberty were faced with procedural manipulations and threats from the establishment for attempting to introduce pro-liberty platform planks, and it is certainly salutary that they succeeded. But they were able to plant a few saplings of liberty into extremely hostile soil. The Republican establishment will never accept libertarians and will try, at every turn, to undo these hard-won gains. Attempting to accommodate the Republican establishment will turn libertarians into mere tools for specific establishment aims – as exemplified by the case of Rand Paul, who was largely ignored by Romney after achieving the useful (to Romney) goal of splitting the Ron Paul movement by endorsing Romney. Rand Paul was merely given a speech at the Republican National Convention – but that was largely it in terms of his “gains” from the endorsement. The liberty movement certainly did not gain even that much, as no policy victories were won by Rand Paul’s action. Another potential approach, that of overruling the establishment and “taking over” the party, has become close to impossible after the National Convention, and so the only reasonable course of action left to libertarians is to abandon any connection to the Republican Party and act entirely outside of its confines.
On the matter of free speech, Dr. Steele writes about the threat of Jim McGovern’s proposed “People’s Rights Amendment”, which would overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. While this proposed amendment is certainly problematic, I do not see a direct connection between it and Barack Obama. Certainly, some high-profile Democrats support it, but that is no guarantee that it would pass or that Obama would endorse it if he received a second term. As an analogy, numerous Republicans have voiced support for overturning the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision on abortion (including through the means of “right to life” Constitutional amendments – and Republican candidates for President have often endorsed this course of action far more vocally than Obama has ever commented on the Citizens United decision. Yet Republicans elected to office are virtually powerless to do anything about Roe v. Wade, due to the vestiges of the separation of powers that remain. There are dire ways in which free speech is being eroded in the United States, but campaign finance is one of the least concerning areas in this respect. I am far more disturbed by the violent suppression of peaceful political protests (e.g., the pepper-spraying incident at University of California Davis in November 2011, for which the University has now offered to generously compensate the victims), as well as the overarching surveillance state which is emerging due to the domestic “War on Terror”. Internet monitoring of the sort contemplated by CISPA and the National Security Agency’s planned data center in Utah would surely have a chilling effect on free expression online. Likewise, the intimidation and harassment that some of Romney’s supporters have directed at supporters of Ron Paul and Gary Johnson certainly are not helping the cause of free speech. As someone who personally experienced such attacks, I would certainly not trust the attackers’ candidate of choice with safeguarding my rights under the First Amendment.
Dr. Steele is also concerned about the purported Democratic opposition to the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment. Yet the right to bear arms is one area in which liberty has actually made progress over the past decade – and this progress has largely been untouched by Obama during his first term in office. While the Democratic platform may call for some restrictions on gun ownership, even this language is mild compared to the rhetoric of the gun-control movement in the 20th century (particularly prior to the decline of crime rates in the 1990s). Due to Supreme Court decisions such as Heller and concealed-carry laws in various states, widespread gun ownership has been subject to fewer legal restrictions in recent times, coinciding with the continued drop in rates of violent crime. This recognition that liberalization of gun laws did not lead to crime increases, combined with the extreme strength of interest groups such as the National Rifle Association, should keep at bay any attempts to limit Second Amendment rights at the federal level – no matter which party controls the Presidency. The greatest threat to gun-ownership rights remains at the local level, particularly at educational institutions that attempt to impose “gun-free” zones where not even teachers and administrators can bring weapons that could deter potential shooters and immediately disable any who are not deterred.
Regarding PPACA/Obamacare/federal Romneycare, Dr. Steele responds to my argument that Romney would not veto it by stating that “the PPACA is much hated by the Republican base (for that matter the majority of Americans dislike it). A repeal would be extremely popular. It’s simply incredible to think that a President Romney would defy his party and practically 100% of his supporters in order to save Barack Obama’s hallmark program. “ Dr. Steele “can’t imagine anything else he could do that would make him more likely to lose the GOP nomination in 2016.” This assumes, however, that the political base matters to Republicans like Romney to any greater extent than as vessels for whipping up sentiment and winning elections. It is much more likely that the Republican Party strategists will rely on the perceived political amnesia of the masses and will hope that the public in 2016 will have forgotten any promises to repeal PPACA. Romney has already anticipated this behavior and publicly backtracked on his promise to repeal PPACA and stated that there are many portions that he would retain. Most likely, the worst part of PPACA – the individual mandate – which Obama initially opposed but was persuaded by politically powerful health insurers to include, will be among the parts that Romney – being the representative of corporate cronyism that he is – will retain. It is true that Romney might support some partial reforms to PPACA, but if the individual mandate remains, then these reforms would amount to a mere reorientation of PPACA in an even more corporatist direction, rather than a repeal or a movement toward a more free-market outcome. Under Romney, there might be fewer requirements and restrictions regarding the behavior of health insurers – but, in the status quo, those mandates and restrictions largely have the effect of partially (and, in the fashion of Mises’s “dynamic of interventionism”, with severe unintended negative consequences) compensating for the pernicious effects of the individual mandate. A Romney-style amended PPACA might simply enable health insurers to exploit their new captive clientele with few limitations or checks.
Dr. Steele writes that “it’s not clear that Romneycare and Obamacare really are the same thing, despite a similar basic framework. The Massachusetts bill signed by Romney was different from that which was implemented. Romney used his line item veto on a number of the more draconian parts of the bill. The Democratic legislature overrode these vetoes, and the bill was implemented by a Democratic governor who further altered it. Furthermore, at the time Romney signed the bill, the situation in Massachusetts insurance markets was far worse than perhaps anywhere else in the United States. In this context, Romneycare – at least Romney’s version of it – was arguably an improvement over the status quo in Massachusetts. Thus when Romney argues that the reform might have been right for Massachusetts but not for America in general, he’s not necessarily being disingenuous.”
The best way to determine how similar or different Romneycare is from Obamacare is to consult the economist who designed both, Jonathan Gruber, who recently stated regarding the individual mandates of the two systems in particular, that “They are very similar […] They aren’t the same exact mandate, but they have the same basic structure.” Because the individual mandate is by far the most pernicious part of PPACA, this is enough of a similarity to make Obamacare and Romneycare fundamentally more alike than not. It is also appropriate to consider the statements made by Romney. As is typical with Romney, he vacillates on the matter of whether Obamacare does or does not resemble Romneycare, but he did praise Obama for incorporating elements of Romneycare into PPACA. In April 2012, Romney even explicitly praised the individual mandate! The distinctions that Romney makes are that (1) Romney’s plan was state-based rather than federal (as if he had a choice as Governor of Massachusetts – and besides, bad ideas have to start somewhere, and Massachusetts was Gruber’s training ground), (2) that Romney’s plan did not raise taxes (which is false; Alex Seitz-Wald points out that the penalties for failing to purchase insurance, which the Supreme Court has now ruled to be taxes, were higher under Romneycare), (3) that Romney’s plan did not cut Medicare (again, a defense of the Medicare status quo on Romney’s part), and (4) that Romney’s plan did not include price controls (but Massachusetts does impose price controls now, as Ben Domenech points out – and this may have been Romneycare’s logical evolution).
Dr. Steele also writes regarding the possibility that Obama would appoint “democratic constitutionalist” justices to the Supreme Court, which would result in the spread of “the notion that our Constititutional rights should not be considered “absolute” sense, but rather subject to international norms.” Dr. Steele believes that “Romney is unlikely to draw from this crowd, and far more likely to draw from judges with at least some sympathy for the new federalism.” While I certainly prefer the interpretation which Dr. Steele calls the “new federalism” over “democratic constitutionalism”, I see this particular clash of interpretations as too many steps removed from the outcome of a Presidential election. To be sure, the President may appoint Supreme Court justices, but that is all. How the justices subsequently rule is out of the President’s hands. Indeed, it was the George W. Bush appointee John Roberts who cast the deciding vote to uphold the constitutionality of PPACA’s individual mandate. The 2005 Kelo v. City of New London eminent-domain decision was joined by George H. W. Bush appointee David Souter and Ronald Reagan appointee Anthony Kennedy. And, as I previously pointed out, the Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders decision of April 2012 was entirely the doing of the “conservative” bloc (including Anthony Kennedy). If the “new federalism” of these judges considers strip searches without criminal suspicion or material risk posed by the individual being searched to be constitutional, then perhaps it is not that strong of a safeguard of our liberties after all. But largely, my point is that any given Supreme Court justice is too much of an unknown quantity upon appointment for one to be able to make any decisions regarding the appointer on the basis of whom he might potentially, conceivably appoint – that is, if a vacancy appears in the first place and if the Senate would confirm that appointment.
Regarding which candidate is more anti-entrepreneur, Dr. Steele writes that “Mr. Stolyarov suggests that Romney is anti-entrepreneur in practice, but it is small entrepreneurs who are most hurt by regulation. Large established firms have teams of lawyers and accountants and frequently can benefit from gaming the rules; in practice, Obama is a greater threat to entrepreneurship.” But it is precisely the large established firms that will be explicitly favored by a Romney administration – as evidenced by Romney’s support for the various bailouts and “stimulus” plans of 2008-2009. (Incidentally, it was Romney who said during the first Romney-Obama debate that “You couldn’t have people opening up banks in their — in their garage and making loans.” This is clearly a statement of opposition to small entrepreneurship and an expression of desire to protect entrenched large financial firms from competition by innovative startups.) The only difference between Obama and Romney is that, while Obama supports subsidies to “alternative” businesses (and financial firms), Romney supports subsidies to “traditional” businesses (and financial firms) – combined with a heavy dose of mercantilist protectionism (evidenced by numerous Romney campaign flyers sent out in Nevada about how Obama is allegedly “selling out” the United States to China by endorsing foreign-made products). Romney is the candidate of politically connected Wall Street firms and large banks (who also hedge their bets by donating large amounts of money to the Democratic Party). If he is elected, these entities will be free to continue to enrich themselves at taxpayers’ expense, while socializing their losses. Bailouts and labyrinthine federal rules are key to the continuation of this exploitation of taxpayers by connected financial firms – and Romney is virtually certain to encourage the proliferation of such measures.
Dr. Steele writes that “Romney and Ryan have been willing to put forward the idea that entitlement programs as they exist are unsustainable and must be radically restructured. Obama assures us this won’t happen.” Yet it is Romney/Ryan whose ads continually denounce Obama for “threatening” Social Security and Medicare and promise that Romney/Ryan will not take those benefits away but will rather “strengthen” those programs. Gary Johnson, when observing the first Romney-Obama debate, repeatedly pointed out that the two candidates were in competition regarding who could make more extravagant promises to preserve Medicare. I agree that the federal entitlement programs are unsustainable, but Romney, like Obama, is happy to argue for their perpetual existence as a way of gaining votes in the short term – at the expense of long-term prudence.
On taxation, Dr. Steele writes that “Obama has stated a clear preference for increases in marginal rates on higher income earners, higher corporate taxes, and an increasing number of tax breaks, this last for purposes of social engineering (a.k.a. buying votes). Romney has endorsed a reduction in marginal rates and a broadening on the base by eliminating deductions and exemptions. The latter approach reduces the economic distortions of taxation and also returns it to the purpose of collecting revenue, rather than shaping citizens’ behavior to match politicians’ goals.” While I certainly do not support Obama’s approach (or any tax increases at all), it is not at all clear that Romney’s approach is preferable – especially since, as Dr. Steele acknowledges, we do not know quite what it entails, and Romney keeps contradicting himself regarding its contents. What we do know for certain, though, is that Romney’s planned massive increases to military spending are mathematically irreconcilable with any sensible fiscal policy or any description of Romney’s tax plan. If fiscal responsibility is to be the deciding issue of this election, then Obama might even be preferable to Romney because while Obama’s budget plan aims to increase military spending very slightly, Romney’s plan would lead it to skyrocket. Ultimately, unsustainable foreign entanglements have led to the United States’ budget surplus from the late 1990s turning into a massive deficit. Without significantly curtailing American military spending and engagements abroad, resolving the current fiscal mess is impossible. The Economist points out that, more generally, Romney’s statements are mathematically incoherent, and his tax plan, as publicly presented, would not be able to solve the United States’ fiscal problems without significant tax increases on middle-income-earners.
Dr. Steele concluded his essay with some thoughtful caveats, and I would also like to mention a few of my own, though they cannot be said to arise from any virtues on Romney’s part. First, a Romney victory could galvanize Democrats to behave in a manner more reminiscent of the George W. Bush era, during which many of them actually opposed American foreign entanglements and expressed outrage at violations of civil liberties. As Glenn Greenwald points out, Obama’s election has led many of Obama’s supporters to become blind to the administration’s abuses of civil liberties at home and abroad. Perhaps, if the Democrats again become the party of the opposition, the old civil-liberties sentiments could be revived and strengthened (even if only to be used as a tool of political convenience against the Republicans). Second, Romney and Obama might both be mere figureheads of a larger political establishment: the “bipartisan” consensus – implemented by a federal bureaucracy whose operations do not shift due to a change in leadership, and existing to serve elites whose real power arises from connections and does not depend on particular formal titles. If this is the case, then Obama’s or Romney’s individual presence or influence in office might not amount to much at all. Therefore, the outcomes in terms of policy might be the same irrespective of which one of them wins. Third, interestingly enough, a similar irrelevance might be anticipated if Dr. Steele is correct in stating that “If elections and political processes do anything in this regard [expanding liberty], it will be simply to respond to and formalize advances made by civil society.” In that case, a politician who seeks to retain office would have little choice but to succumb to the pressures of civil society sooner or later, and the party in power does not matter so much, except possibly with regard to the timing and tone of that acquiescence. (An example of this is the recent initially reluctant but subsequently strong expression of support for legalized same-sex marriage by Barack Obama, who originally campaigned against it, but whose hand was essentially forced by the public discourse of the issue.)
Yet, with all this said, I can anticipate one major harm of a Romney victory that might outweigh all possible incidental benefits. That harm is the normalization of lying in American politics. As I discussed above and in Part 1 of my response, Romney is a different breed of politician, in that he does not have a shred of consistency on virtually any issue – and is willing to lie even when lying is not necessary to gain him political advantage. A Romney victory would convey a clear signal to the electorate and to political pundits and strategists that facts do not matter and honesty does not matter in politics. Of course it is true that many politicians today make false promises and selectively portray the truth; Romney is far from the first. But the overt factual falsehoods stated by Romney and Ryan are a different and more egregious sort of lies from the false promises, vague generalities, and dissembling characteristic of more “traditional” American politicians. A Romney victory would complete the transformation of American elections into reality shows with much rhetoric and fanfare, but no substance; it would finalize the disconnect between the basis for the people’s decisions in electing a candidate and the actual policies that candidate implements (based, presumably, on consideration of more reliable and accurate information than the nonsense disseminated on the campaign trail). A Romney victory would cement the unfortunate conviction of many on the political Right in the United States that they are entitled not just to their own opinions, but also to their own facts (which may, in Orwellian fashion, morph into their diametrical opposites based on the political agenda du jour). I am reminded here of Mises’s discussion in Human Action of the errors of polylogism. A Romney victory would create a peculiar sort of “Republican logic” or “conservative logic” that employs “Republican facts” or “conservative facts” that differ from the objective facts which, well, happen to be true. Already, the derision aimed at fact-checking organizations by many on the Right today foreshadows this unfortunate possibility – which would render the entire conservative movement (and any libertarians who ally with it) a historical irrelevancy and laughingstock, but not before it inflicts tremendous human suffering in the manner of virtually every major polylogist movement in history.
This brings me to the last point of discussion with Dr. Steele, the matter (discussed in the comments of my Part 1) of whether the Romney campaign has misrepresented the Obama administration’s approach to work requirements for welfare eligibility. I note that this is a matter on which a wide spectrum of sources are unanimous – including The Washington Post (which leans Republican), ABC News, and NPR. PolitiFact (which also leans rightward) has called the Romney campaign’s statements on this matter “pants on fire” lies.
Dr. Steele writes that “Robert Rector, one of the authors of the original reform act, has given a detailed and careful argument for why he considers the move by Obama’s HHS move a gutting of the requirements.” It seems that Rector actually originated the claim that the HHS memorandum of July 12, 2012, would “gut” welfare reform. This is his blog post of the same day, making that claim. It is clear that, akin to the dynamics of the game of “telephone”, the Romney campaign took Rector’s statements and exaggerated them further to claim that Obama’s administration has already “announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements” – when in fact no such plan has been made, no waivers of any nature have been requested or granted, and the HHS memorandum specifically cautioned against dropping work requirements. Rector (unlike the Romney campaign) at least provides some details for his interpretation, but it appears to be one remote hypothetical possibility among many, at best, and it is at odds with the explicit statements of the Obama administration that work requirements will not be dropped. Another of the authors of the TANF program, Ron Haskins, stated to NPR that “There’s no plausible scenario under which it [the HHS memorandum] really constitutes a serious attack on welfare reform.” The NPR article perceptively observes: “So why continue beating this drum? Partly because people believe it.” This is a prominent illustration of the cynical and manipulative conduct of the Romney campaign. Facts do not matter to Romney and Ryan; the public appeal of any particular message – even if it is factually false – does.
Dr. Steele also writes that “GAO has declared that contrary to what the Obama administration has argued, HHS has overstepped its bounds in this matter and by law must submit the proposed changes to Congress.” Yet the GAO letter does not comment on the practical effects of the HHS’s waiver authority on work requirements. It simply states that the HHS’s attempts to exercise such authority constitute a “rule” under the Administrative Procedures Act, and that this “rule” must be submitted to Congress for its approval. Perhaps it must. Yet this is not, per se, support for the contention that Obama has “gutted” welfare work requirements.
Furthermore, the American Conservative Union article linked by Dr. Steele states that “No state has submitted a waiver request. Nor have any been approved. The GAO report has effectively blocked all Sebelius-led changes to TANF work requirements, but what would have it have done [sic]? The specific changes would vary from state to state, depending on whether a state requests a waiver and whether HHS approves the proposed new methods.“ This is precisely the opposite of the Romney campaign’s contention that the Obama administration “gutted” welfare work requirements. First, no actual waivers have even been granted, so any “gutting” is hypothetical only. Second, if any waivers are to be granted, the specific changes would vary by state and would largely depend on what a particular state requests. Again, it is entirely unwarranted to leap from the ability of a state to request a waiver of certain specific methods to the presupposition that the waiver would entail an elimination of work requirements altogether (which elimination is contrary to federal law in any case).
To conclude, I reiterate my question of why Romney is even emphasizing this non-issue so strongly – when there is a myriad of actual atrocious infringements of liberty by the Obama administration which could be used to legitimately denounce Obama’s first term? The only reason that suggests itself is that Romney would commit more of the same infringements, and any differences with Obama are superficial only.
Here I offer the first installment of my response in an ongoing exchange with Dr. Charles Steele regarding the merits (or lack thereof) of various candidates in the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election, as well as the question of whether or not it is justified for a libertarian to prefer Mitt Romney over Barack Obama.
Incidentally, this weekend, I had the opportunity to vote early in Nevada and to cast my vote for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian nominee for President. My hope is that, in this election, Gary Johnson will beat all records in terms of the total votes received by a Libertarian candidate. (See the historical record of votes received by Libertarian candidates here.) This would send a strong signal to the establishment that Americans who love freedom are displeased and outraged at the directions in which both major parties would like to take the country.
For the benefit of my readers, I provide below a list of links to prior installments of this exchange in chronological order.
* “Is Mitt Romney Truly a ‘Lesser Evil’?” – My article of September 6, 2012
* “Is It Evil to Vote for a Lesser Evil? Steele’s Response to Stolyarov – Part 1” – Dr. Steele’s article of October 2, 2012
* “Romney v. Obama: Tweedledum and Tweedledee? – Steele’s Response to Stolyarov – Part 2” – Dr. Steele’s article of October 17, 2012
I begin by addressing Dr. Steele’s response in Part 1 to the philosophical argument regarding the impropriety of voting for a lesser evil. In my next installment, I will discuss in greater detail the specific differences between Romney and Obama that Dr. Steele addressed in his Part 2. Dr. Steele stated that most of his questions are not rhetorical, so my purpose here will not be to disagree with any real or perceived implications of such questions – but rather simply to elaborate upon my answers to them and my related views and understandings of the present political situation.
Dr. Steele writes: “When we vote, we vote under conditions of uncertainty about what the candidates will do should they win. Two reasonable people might differ in their expectations over what opposing candidates might do if elected, even if the candidates are truthful.“
I respond: It is true that people vote under conditions of uncertainty. However, a candidate’s historical record of adherence to his or her promises is a decent indicator of whether this candidate will adhere to his or her promises in the future. Furthermore, a candidate’s record of intellectual consistency can serve as a decent indicator of whether that candidate will flip-flop on issues in the future.
Dr. Steele writes: “And candidates are often less-than-truthful about what they will do if elected; sorting out what is and isn’t true is not necessarily straightforward. Consider a presidential election between A and B. If candidate A wins the election and what subsequently transpires is counter to what the voter in good faith expected, what is the voter’s moral responsibility?”
I respond: This is precisely why it is essential not to support candidates with a record of being untruthful, disingenuous, or prone to reversals of their positions. With a candidate like Gary Johnson or Ron Paul, one knows what one is getting, because these men have not materially altered their views or policy recommendations over the course of decades. This is true, also, of certain politicians with whom I have many fewer ideas in common but whom I nonetheless respect for their integrity and consistency – such as Dennis Kucinich, Bernie Sanders, and Ralph Nader. Furthermore, these men have histories of actually trying to put their views into practice. The extent of their success may be outside of their full control (because it is subject to the responses and often the resistance of others), but at least they try honestly, and this is apparent to anyone who studies their records.
Sometimes it may also be acceptable to give an untried candidate (for instance, a young and seemingly intelligent and honest politician with little experience in office) a chance if he or she presents a well-supported impression of competence, knowledge, productivity, and integrity. However, in the long term, the records of those people will also speak for them more clearly than their initial presentations, and they are deserving of continued support only if they show through their deeds that they actually meant what they promised.
On the other hand, a person such as Mitt Romney has a record of repeatedly changing his rhetoric to directly contradict statements he made in the past. Romney is, in essence, a political “weather vane” – seeking to reflect what he and his political handlers consider to be the predominant attitudinal currents of the particular time and place. Furthermore, Romney has a decidedly un-libertarian policy record as Governor of Massachussetts, a candidate, and a private citizen (in his advocacy of bailouts, Medicare expansion, indefinite detention of Americans, and ever-expanding military interventions abroad). Romney’s problem, furthermore, is not so much that he pursues a non-libertarian set of principles (as some respectable politicians might), but that he does not appear to act on any set of universalizable principles whatsoever. Mitt Romney at time X is quite willing to pursue the opposite set of views and policies from Mitt Romney at time Y. Moreover, RomneyX will deny the existence of RomneyY’s views, and vice versa. Thus, reasonable observers should not expect him to keep his word, or for his word to be worth much in terms of an indicator of his actual views and planned behavior.
Observation and experience have taught me that honesty and dishonesty are fundamental character traits of individuals. Some people find it extremely difficult morally and even inconvenient practically to lie, as it requires the invention of an entire parallel reality that must continually be kept up in order to prevent others from detecting the lie. Others make lying (in either a blatant form or in the form of half-truths) a way of life. People who achieve a measure of material success by means of lying or presenting false impressions will tend to escalate such behavior until it becomes a pervasive, personality-swallowing, and ultimately self-defeating compulsion. Occasionally, good people may justifiably lie in order to protect themselves against hostile forces that would use the truth as a tool to unjustly and illegitimately harm the truth-teller. However, such situations are rare in the normal course of events, and good people would lie in such situations as an uncomfortable emergency measure of self-defense whose recurrence it is hoped to avoid.
The mark of a compulsive liar is that he lies even when he does not have to – when telling the truth would be fully consistent with his best interests and even his public image. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan both have shamelessly distorted facts in their campaign speeches, advertisements, and debate performances. Due to the Internet, these distortions can be readily identified, and the facts can be brought forth to correct them – but Romney, Ryan, and their handlers do not appear to be cognizant of this reality. When their untruths are pointed out to them, they either continue to assert them with a straight face (as in the case of the Romney campaign knowingly using false statements in its advertisements regarding Obama’s non-existent elimination of the work requirement for unemployment-benefits eligibility) or they deny that they made such statements in the first place despite video evidence to the contrary (as in the case of Ryan denying ever expressing praise and admiration for Ayn Rand, or Romney repeatedly asserting that his tax plan either does or does not reduce the tax obligations of the highest income-earners and expressing bewilderment that anyone ever thought that Romney had said the opposite of the assertion du jour). What is astounding is that Romney/Ryan would not have lost an iota of public support by accurately and transparently representing both their own intentions and Obama’s record in office. There are numerous valid criticisms of the Obama administration – enough to occupy any challenger’s time. There is no need to invent facts or engage in distortion in order to address Obama’s genuine blunders in the realms of economic policy, foreign policy, and infringement of civil liberties. Likewise, a full representation of Romney/Ryan’s actual proposed policies would have been far more salutary than a vague set of incoherent and mutually contradictory generic assertions that try to mean everything for everyone.
In short, the problem with Romney and Ryan is not so much what they stand for, but the fact that they can stand for anything and nothing and that integrity and consistency cannot be expected of them based on their campaigning tactics and policy records. More generally, even a halfway-decent judge of character will be able to distinguish between a person of integrity and a habitual liar in politics. All that is needed is a look at the facts – precisely what the habitual liars in politics consider unimportant.
Dr. Steele writes: “Further, we also don’t know and will never know what B would have done. Does that matter? Might not a vote for what proved to be A’s bad policies have prevented B’s worse ones? In many cases these issues are small, but not always. And certainly in times of major institutional transitions, or economic crises, or other important changes, they are likely to loom large.”
I respond: This presupposes that A and B are the only genuine alternatives. In fact, since voting is ultimately the result of an aggregation of individual decisions, the conceivable alternatives are numerous, if only people would see them that way. One might consider two-party politics in the United States to be a sort of collective reverse prisoners’ dilemma – in the sense that the political situation would be much better if people simply did not care about how others plan to vote and would simply vote their conscience – based solely on their independent evaluation of the views and records of the candidates running. It is only because voters try to anticipate one another’s preferences and adjust their own accordingly that the two-party oppression of the status quo has come about.
Over the years, the difference between the “greater” and “lesser” evil has become ever harder to distinguish, either in magnitude or in the identity of the “greater” and “lesser”. This is because the strategists in the two parties know that they do not need to present candidates that differ materially in practice anymore. All they need to do is to put up a show and engage in polarizing but utterly vacuous rhetoric – in order to get the electorate to think that enough of a difference exists to justify voting for one wing of the establishment or for the other. The reality behind the scenes is that we are governed by an elite “bipartisan” consensus where there exist occasional minor policy changes because of the shifting dynamics among the myriad pressure groups comprising the elite. However, the fundamental assumptions of that consensus – including massive corporate welfare, systemic restrictions on upward economic mobility for most, the cartelization of much of the economy, various boondoggles for special interests (including military interventions, “homeland security,” and the War on Drugs), and the need to obtain elite permission to make major innovations that depart from the status quo – remain unchallenged within the two-party establishment. This continuity of policy despite rotations of the parties in power has been strengthening over the years. Thus, it has often and justifiably been remarked that Obama’s first term in office is essentially indistinguishable in practice from a third term for George W. Bush.
At the same time, the gulf between the elite consensus and the possibilities of emerging technologies is becoming ever wider – particularly as the elite is composed predominantly of people who do not understand those technologies and try to operate according to assumptions that only work in a pre-Internet world. The elite reaction to the hyper-empowerment of individuals through personal technology is to crack down ever harder. Hence, we have seen in the past decade and especially in the past several years both an accelerating pace of technological improvement and a flurry of bills (COICA, SOPA, Protect IP, CISPA) and treaties (ACTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership) attempting to restrict Internet freedom. Ultimately, this interplay of trends can result only in the amazing liberation of individuals or a more totalitarian tyranny than any which came before.
With regard to Dr. Steele’s reference to major institutional transitions and economic crises, we are indeed in such a time period, but the essence of the transition is precisely the manner in which technology tends to yank influence away from the power elites (often without an explicit design to do so) – and the essence of the economic crisis is precisely the power elites’ reaction in attempting to entrench old, failed institutions (through techniques such as bailouts, inflation, subsidies, modern-day guilds, and barriers to competition) and bar the majority of people from prospering due to the unleashing of technology’s full potential. Neither Obama nor Romney stands on the right side of the institutional transition. Especially in this pivotal time, it is imperative to side with those who aspire for individual hyper-empowerment and to reject the two-party elite. A key part of individual hyper-empowerment is to vote independently of one’s expectations of how others might vote. Setting an example through one’s own decisions (and one’s vocal discussion thereof) can persuade increasing numbers of people to extricate themselves from the trap of pernicious assumptions created by the “bipartisan” consensus.
Dr. Steele writes: “If one votes for a candidate who wins, does one then share responsibility for everything the candidate does? When we vote for candidate A, we get the ‘entire package.’ We can’t limit ourselves to voting for her/his positions on some issues but not others. Suppose one agrees with candidate A on fiscal policy, but disagrees on foreign policy, and conversely supports B on foreign policy and opposes his fiscal policy. In order to decide between candidates, our voter must judge which issue is more likely to be of central importance in the next term, as well as which one is more important for the voter’s overall vision of what should be done. For that matter, the voter might think that B’s fiscal policy is a more serious flaw than A’s foreign policy, but also believes institutional barriers (e.g. Congress) will largely block B’s fiscal policy while nothing would block A from pursuing the bad foreign policy, and hence reasonably vote B.”
I respond: While it is true that some degree of unpredictability exists with every candidate, there is a major difference between whether that unpredictability is a result of unforeseen contingencies beyond that candidate’s control (e.g., major external events that change the incentives, constraints, and pressures facing a politician) or whether it is a result of the politician simply never intending to form a strong connection between what he says and what he does. Thus, while a person who supports a particular candidate may not be morally responsible for every particular action by that person in office, that person is responsible for helping to elect either a fundamentally honest person or a fundamentally dishonest one. By knowingly electing a fundamentally dishonest person, one essentially writes a blank check for that person to do as he pleases in office, without much connection to any particular intellectually coherent platform or set of ideals.
With regard to weighing the importance of various policy issues, I agree that this assessment may differ based on a voter’s factual expectations as well as his subjective assessment of various areas’ relative significance. However, a fundamentally dishonest politician cannot be expected either to have the same priorities as any given voter, or to fulfill his promise to address particular issues he represents as priorities. In essence, the credibility of a dishonest politician like Romney in communicating particular priorities has already been shattered, and he is therefore an almost unknown quantity in how he would address issues. I say that he is almost an unknown quantity, because whatever Romney does is likely to be strongly biased toward preserving the perverse dynamics inherent in the status quo – i.e., the political trend toward totalitarianism and the further entrenchment of the pressure groups that predominate in today’s “bipartisan” consensus.
Dr. Steele writes: “How much difference does one’s vote make, anyway? The quote from Mr. Stolyarov suggests that if candidate A wins, a person who voted for him shares some responsibility for what transpires. But suppose A wins with a very large margin of the vote. In that case, there’s nothing the voter could have done to stop what transpires. What is her/his responsibility then?”
I respond: While any given voter’s moral responsibility may be minor in this case with regard to any particular outcome, there is still some moral responsibility in the sense that the voter permitted himself to be one of the masses who supported the winning candidate despite strong initial indications that the candidate is dishonest, prone to engaging in deleterious policies, or both. The greater moral responsibility is not even so much for casting one’s vote a certain way, but for abrogating the independence of thought and fortitude of character needed to cast a vote based on an assessment that does not take into account what “everyone else” is doing. In other words, the moral responsibility is for allowing the pressures of social conformity to determine one’s decision even though the conformity does not entail an element of physical compulsion and the individual is fully free in theory and practice to make an entirely independent decision based on principles. In the United States, there is unfortunately a widespread entrenched mentality of supporting “the winning team” – irrespective of whether that “team’s” agenda is in one’s best interests. All too many Americans are so frightened of “losing” in any area where they have invested time and effort, that they align themselves with their very destroyers simply to avoid being in the minority.
Dr. Steele writes: “Conversely, suppose instead A loses, so nothing transpires from the vote and presumably no moral responsibility attaches to the voter. How does anything differ in these two cases, with respect to the voter’s culpability? I can’t see that the voter has behaved differently in the two cases; shouldn’t moral responsibility be the same? Perhaps not, but then why not? And how would the responsibility differ in either case had the voter instead stayed home and not cast a ballot?”
I respond: As a consequentialist, I do not believe that a person can have moral responsibility for hypothetical events; only actual harms count. Therefore, a person who voted for a losing candidate can have no responsibility for the decisions and actions of the winning candidate. However, voting for a losing candidate from one of the two major parties may per se be an imprudent action even if there is no moral fault arising from it – because this action shows that one continues to fall into the two-party trap and to expect a decent outcome from supporting one party or the other, despite a long train of disappointments and broken promises going back for decades.
As an analogy, consider two people who drive at extremely fast speeds on the highway. One person causes an accident, and the other does not. The second person may simply have been lucky in that his reckless behavior did not cause an accident, so I do not think that he should have any criminal or even moral culpability. The first person, on the other hand, is morally culpable because his behavior actually resulted in harm to others. However, it can be said that the second person was greatly imprudent and should improve his behavior and assumptions about the world in order to minimize the risk of causing harm in the future.
That being said, the behavior that a person exhibits while campaigning for or against a particular candidate can result in moral culpability irrespective of the outcome. For instance, the disgraceful, dishonest, and sometimes outright violent ways in which supporters of the Republican establishment have treated supporters of Ron Paul and Gary Johnson render the establishment supporters culpable no matter whether or not Mitt Romney wins the election.
As a general rule, people only have moral responsibility for their active decisions which result in harm to others. Because one part of this two-part test is contingent on external circumstances and events, it is quite possible that the same motivations and even the same physical movements by two different individuals may result in different degrees of culpability (or even culpability in one case and lack thereof in another). Furthermore, inaction, while it may be sub-optimal or even callous at times, does not rise to the level of immorality. A person who does not vote therefore cannot be held morally responsible for the actions of the winning candidate. However, he may also justifiably consider it sub-optimal or imprudent not to vote if he could have had an incremental impact in averting some of the negative consequences of the winning candidate’s victory. For instance, some libertarians believe that they should not vote because they do not want to “legitimize the system” in any way. I do not agree with their view, but adherence to it is not immoral, and libertarians of this persuasion maintain their integrity by behaving in a manner consistent with their view. However, the outcome would have been superior if these libertarians had supported Gary Johnson or Ron Paul – signaling to the establishment that the discontentment with the status quo is more widespread than originally anticipated.
Dr. Steele writes: “Similarly, in every presidential election in which I’ve voted, I voted in Montana. In none of these was the vote close enough for mine to have mattered, but that’s irrelevant. Montana’s three electoral votes simply do not matter for the national outcome, so no matter what happened, my vote had no connection at all to what subsequently transpired. Does this mean that I’m exempt of all moral responsibility when I vote in a presidential election? Why or why not?”
I respond: Except in extremely unlikely circumstances, no person’s single vote can make the difference in the outcome of a national election. Thus, one’s vote practically matters only to the extent of contributing to the “pool” of votes for a particular candidate. What is more important is the signal that one’s vote sends with regard to whether one is willing to morally sanction an establishment candidate or whether one is willing to voice one’s independent preferences no matter what the social or media pressures might be. Whether one votes in a “swing state” or in a state whose electoral votes are unlikely to make a difference is not so material to this question. Ultimately, one can only control one’s own behavior, and this behavior should be based on adherence to objective principles, rather than the expectation of what others faced with a similar choice are likely to do.
Dr. Steele writes: “It’s clear, then, that Mr. Stolyarov is not committing the Nirvana fallacy. But I still find his point quite problematic. It is not always obvious what constitutes ‘incremental good/evil’ on net, or how we identify an overall reduction in liberty. Let’s simplify this case by assuming there’s only one voter and no uncertainty about what candidates will do if elected, so that there are no disconnects between the vote cast and the political consequences. Again, the voter faces a choice among presidential candidates, but now her/his vote determines the election and s/he knows exactly what political consequences will transpire. If A’s positions on issues X and Y reduce liberty, and his position on issue Z increases it, how is the voter to weight A’s net effect on liberty? (Assume for sake of argument there are no other issues.) Is A automatically disqualified because of his position on X and Y? Or could his position on Z conceivably be sufficiently beneficial for liberty to outweigh the harm done on the first two? I would think so, and I suspect Mr. Stolyarov agrees. (Again, I should note that in some cases any reasonable person should be able to weigh these relative harms and benefits and get the same answer. But in some real world cases reasonable persons might strongly differ.)”
I respond: I agree that it is difficult sometimes to evaluate the net effect on liberty of an honest candidate who espouses mixed principles. For instance, if someone like Dennis Kucinich had run for President, I would be greatly concerned about most of his stances on economic policy, but I could see tremendous benefits for civil liberties (in particular, with regard to “airport security” and the misguided “War on Terror”) and foreign policy if he were elected. Which are more important? Because I so greatly care about the physical integrity of my person and property while traveling (much more than I care about my monetary holdings), I am more likely to focus significantly on the civil-liberties aspect. However, an extremely wealthy businessman (who, in this example, earned all of his wealth legitimately) might be able to afford to travel in his personal airplanes and might therefore not care as much about airport security as he does about his economic opportunities. He might justifiably weigh the benefits and costs differently than I do.
However, all of these sophisticated and reasonable discussions about how to weigh relative benefits and harms disappear when the candidate running for office is fundamentally dishonest and has a record of continually shifting his positions and violating his promises. In that case, attempting to anticipate relative benefits and harms is akin to using a wooden ruler to measure the spatial position and diameter of a tornado.
Dr. Steele writes: “But also, doesn’t it matter against whom A is running? If candidate B is worse, much worse, on all three issues, should not the voter choose A over B, regardless of whether the net outcome from A is positive? (I would think so.) Alternatively suppose instead candidate B drops out of the race to be replaced by C, and C is superior on all three issues. Shouldn’t that lead our voter to reverse himself and support C?”
I respond: The problem with choosing A over B in a situation where both bring about incremental evils is that this concedes the premise that it is sometimes acceptable for a person to actively participate in an incremental evil, if the alternative is perceived to be even more evil. This is precisely the attitude that, when shared by sufficiently large numbers of people, allows politicians to commit evil in the first place, by creating a false dichotomy in the eyes of the people between a moderate amount of increased evil and a more significant amount of increased evil. My view is that one should compare not two hypothetical futures, but any proposed future and the status quo. If a given proposed future is a marginal improvement over the status quo, then one should support it, despite possible imperfections. However, if the status quo is superior to both of the two “mainstream” proposed futures, then one should refrain from supporting either and seek a third way. The people who vote for third parties are attempting to voice support for such a third way. The people who refuse to vote at all are, implicitly, preferring the status quo over either major candidate’s vision of the future. Either of these non-mainstream approaches is preferable to actively embracing a future that is worse than the status quo.
Dr. Steele writes: “In our one voter example, suppose candidate A will take the nation slowly towards a totalitarian state, and B will take it very rapidly. Would it not be preferable to choose A over B, to buy time for countervailing processes to act? All of these examples suggest – at least to me – that a voter might reasonably and morally vote for a candidate who will minimize damage to liberty, even if the voter has only reasonable expectation of this.”
I respond: I do have some sympathy with this argument, as – especially in a time of rapid technological advancement – enabling innovation to occur more freely for even a few years can make a tremendous difference to how free people are in practice. However, in practice, I do not see the two parties as taking us to totalitarianism at different rates. Rather, I see them as taking us toward marginally different flavors of totalitarianism at the same galloping pace. The Republican totalitarianism is more theocratic, militaristic for purposes of “national glory,” and focused on corporate cronyism toward “traditional” industries (including large financial firms). The Democratic totalitarianism is more politically correct, militaristic for purposes of “humanitarian” intervention, and focused on corporate cronyism toward “alternative” or “emerging” industries (as well as large financial firms). Both forms of totalitarianism entail extreme violations of civil liberties, though the Republican form is likely to be more targeted toward minority groups of whom many among the Republican base disapprove, while the Democratic form is likely to attempt to inconvenience and burden everybody in an egalitarian manner. Both forms of totalitarianism are fundamentally hostile to meritocracy, the enrichment of young people through economic opportunity, and small-scale technologically based institutions rising in a competitive market to replace the politically connected “legacy” institutions. Most significantly with regard to the opportunity for countervailing forces to emerge, the elites of both the Republican and Democratic parties are hostile to Internet freedom and willing to side with totalitarian guilds, such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), to support draconian infringements on indivduals’ use of the Internet. They only subside or backtrack in their support when confronted with massive public outrage.
In this unfortunate situation of competing totalitarianisms, a valid defense of a divided government might be made. If enough friction can be introduced between the two wings of the elite, then neither wing may be able to fulfill its totalitarian vision. In some respects, this is a reason why the march to totalitarianism was slowed somewhat after the election of a Republican House of Representatives in 2010, creating a disconnect with the Democratic Senate and the Obama administration. It has certainly been more difficult for federal legislation of any sort (including the destructive sort) to be enacted in 2011-2012 than in 2009-2010.
Dr. Steele writes [regarding my strategic argument of sending a credible signal of refusing to play along with the establishment]: “Maybe so. I certainly hope so. But note that this is a strategic argument and quite different from the argument about a voter’s moral responsibility. I find the moral argument to be unhelpful in this discussion.”
I respond: I see the two arguments as at least somewhat interrelated, in that a voter’s perception of his moral responsibility may constrain and shape his practical choices in terms of strategy. For instance, if a person is held captive by a totalitarian regime – does he choose to appease his captors or to escape? If he believes that he has a moral responsibility not to give into his captors, then he will be more likely to plan an escape and to succeed. In the same way, it is more likely for Americans to escape the two-party trap if they believe that they have a moral responsibility to do so and set up their strategies for doing so accordingly. While the moral and strategic arguments are technically separate, embracing one may aid in the efficacy of implementing the other.