Lesser of Two Evils: A Final Shot – Article by Charles N. Steele

Lesser of Two Evils: A Final Shot – Article by Charles N. Steele

The New Renaissance Hat
Charles N. Steele
October 26, 2012
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Mr. Stolyarov has responded to my twopart 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.

Conclusion

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.

2 thoughts on “Lesser of Two Evils: A Final Shot – Article by Charles N. Steele

  1. Dr. Steele,

    Thank you for your response. I do think a more general essay from me on moral responsibility in the context of voting would be a reasonable addition from me to this discussion. I hope to write such an essay sometime in very early November (ideally prior to Election Day). In the meantime, I do have a much older essay from 2008, which is a response to another discussion that was prompted by a video of mine where I explained my reasons for voting Libertarian then.

    I may also respond to some of your issue-specific points in very brief posts as time allows.

  2. I read your 2008 essay and agree with you. The “Stolyarov Condition” — the freedom likely will triumph if we can even just stop the expansion of govt tyranny — is an important insight. I would add to it that halting this expansion can’t happen instantly, hence slowing it by supporting the lesser of two evils could be warranted.

    My arguments here have of course been that I think Romney would slow expansion of govt power in important dimensions, compared to Obama.

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