Ross Douthat summarizes my main reason for fearing what now looks like a near-certain Obama victory. And it has nothing to with with Bill Ayers, Jeremiah Wright, or any of Obama's other personal foibles or past associations. It certainly isn't based on any great love for John McCain, who I have many reservations about. For what it's worth, I like the idea of a black president, believe that Obama is an admirable person in many ways, and have doubts about McCain's temperament similar to those expressed by George Will. Nonetheless, I fear that the conjunction of an Obama victory, a strongly Democratic Congress, and a major economic crisis will produce a massive and difficult to reverse expansion of government:
[W]hile success is never final, some successes are more final than others. The election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 gave birth to an administrative state that has never been rolled back, and seems unlikely be rolled back in my lifetime. So that was a pretty final victory, as political victories go. Or again, while Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 had less enduring consequences than FDR's, at the very least it put its stamp on thirty years of American history in a way that, say, the election of Jimmy Carter or George H.W. Bush did not. And the convergence of an economic crisis and complete Democratic control of Washington should alarm even those conservatives eager to wash their hands of the GOP. The best reason for even the most disaffected right-winger to root for a McCain victory is simple: To the extent that much of the progressive agenda is a program in search of a crisis to justify its implementation, an election that delivers a liberal candidate who's adored by the media to White House, gives him huge majorities in both houses of Congress, and presents him with a worldwide state of emergency in which to govern, has the potential to be not just another loss for conservatives, but a once-in-a-generation defeat.
We know from past history that economic crises are a major opportunity for expansion of government power. Robert Higgs' book Crisis and Leviathan is a good discussion of the basic dynamics. We also know that divided government tends to impede the growth of the state, while united government facilitates it. The combination of united government and a major economic crisis is likely to lead to a great expansion of government, just as it did on several previous occasions such as the 1930s. It only remains to add that Obama - and most of the rest of the Democratic Party - tend to be very pro-government ideologically. As far as I can tell, Obama proposes major expansions of government regulation and spending on almost every big domestic issue, and doesn't propose to retract government in any significant way, except on military intervention in Iraq. Obama's record in the Senate (where he was the 10th most liberal senator) and in the Illinois state legislature (where he was more liberal than 73% of his fellow Democrats) shows him to be a big government liberal, not a relative moderate like Bill Clinton during his presidency.
I say this not so much to rally support for McCain (whose candidacy I think is nearly dead anyway), as to outline my fears about what is likely to happen over the next four years. I understand, of course, that none of this is a problem for those who want a major expansion of government power or are at least indifferent to it. But I do think it should be of concern to those libertarians or small government conservatives who welcome an Obama victory. It should also matter to moderates and liberals who recognize that massive expansions of government power in a time of crisis provide major opportunities for abuses of power and interest group power grabs at the expense of the general public - both of which happened on a large scale during the Great Depression.
Obviously, nothing is certain. It could be that Obama's agenda will be derailed by a massive political blunder on his part or by some unexpected event. It could be that the Republicans will somehow come back strong in the 2010 midterm elections. It could be that the economy will recover very quickly, curtailing Obama's window of opportunity. I'm not certain that a major expansion of government will actually occur if Obama wins. But I do think it's a strong possibility - certainly a greater than even chance.
UPDATE: University of San Diego lawprof Michael Rappaport, who was previously inclined to conclude that an Obama victory was the lesser of the available evils, is now seems to be changing his mind because of concerns similar to those expressed in this post. He writes:
With the financial crisis we are facing, an Obama Presidency combined with a strongly Democratic Congress would be much worse than the situation we were previously facing. Thus, it makes more sense to avoid it, even if it means electing McCain and all the damage that will do.
To put the point differently, before the financial crisis, there was a realistic chance that electing Obama and a Democratic Congress would be Jimmy Carter in 1976 or Bill Clinton in 2000 [correction: presumably he means 1992 - IS] — presidencies that soon led to Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich. But with the financial crisis, there is a much greater chance that electing Obama and the congressional Democrats will be like electing FDR in 1932. Obama could use the emergency to transform the country in a very bad way. And, given the crisis and Obama's political skills, it is quite possible that the country would reelect him, even if he does badly — which, after all, is what happened when FDR was reelected during the New Deal in 1936. (In 1936, the unemployment rate was still 17 percent.)
I haven't made up my mind yet. After all, McCain really is awful. But that is the way I am leaning.
Related Posts (on one page):
- The Coming Explosion of Federal Spending:
- Larry Summers Channels Gordon Gekko:
- Obama Chief of Staff Hopes to Exploit the Economic Crisis to Expand the Growth of Government:
- Richard Epstein on Obama:
- Fear Itself, Con't:
- Exploiting Crises to Expand Government and Curtail Civil and Economic Liberties:
- Fear Itself.
- Why I'm Concerned About an Obama Victory: