Libertarian Voters:

Interesting article by Ryan Sager on Reason about the libertarian vote:

The Cato Institute has done excellent work over the last few years tracking the shift in the libertarian vote—the roughly 10 percent to 15 percent of the American public that can be categorized as fiscally conservative and socially liberal.

Based on an analysis of the American National Election Studies, Cato found that between 2000 and 2004, there was a substantial flight of libertarians away from the Republican Party and toward the Democrats. While libertarians preferred Bush by a margin of 52 points over Al Gore in 2000, that margin shrank to 21 points in 2004, when many libertarians—disaffected by the Iraq war, massive GOP spending increases, and the campaign against gay marriage—switched to John Kerry.

Polling on libertarian voters is somewhat sparse during elections, but there are a couple of data points and some broad trends that can give us an idea of where things stand now. An early October Zogby Interactive poll found that self-identified libertarians (about 6 percent of the poll's sample) give McCain only 36 percent of their vote, lower than the 45 percent and 42 percent Zogby found them giving Bush in the last two elections. The libertarian voters claim to be defecting mainly to Libertarian Party candidate Bob Barr and other third-party candidates, not to Obama. A Gallup poll conducted in September, which identified libertarian-minded voters with a series of ideological questions about the role of government in the economy and society (pegging them at around 23 percent of the electorate), found that only 43 percent of these voters plan pull the lever for McCain, slightly fewer than did for Bush in 2004. The Gallup poll also finds a significant uptick in libertarians planning to vote third-party, with 3.5 percent supporting Barr.

What I think is going on here is a general perception among libertarians that there is really no difference between McCain and Obama, so you may as well vote for Barr. McCain and Obama both are pretty statist, Obama moreso on the economy, McCain moreso on foreign policy. And McCain-Feingold is a true abomination. In which case it is a toss-up, or may as well vote for Barr (or I've also heard that Chuck Baldwin guy that I don't know anything about). Several of the libertarians in the American Conservative's issue on "Who are you voting for?" take this position as well.

One reason I speculate that this is what I "think is going on here" among libertarians is that until fairly recently this is exactly what I was thinking, even until relatively recently, and I was genuinely on the fence between McCain and Barr (acknowledging that Barr is both a bit of a nut and has some statist tendencies himself). But one reason why I linked Pete duPont's sobering WSJ column the other day is that I have slowly come to the conclusion that as bad as McCain is, Obama really is much, much worse than I realized for a long time. Maybe I'm just slower at this than others, but it really took a long for it to sink in to me exactly how far left Obama really is. On every single issue that I am aware of, he seems to be at the far left end of the Democratic Party spectrum. I mean really out there.

I think that my slowness to really pick up on this was due to several factors. First, Obama's demeanor is essentially moderate--he doesn't come across as a Howard Dean crazy type. I think this leads one to assume his policies are moderate. Second, my resistance to McCain was really quite strong--I've criticized him here before, especially for the way it seems that he approaches problems. Third, until recently McCain has really run a terrible campaign in terms of explaining the differences between himself and Obama in terms of illustrating exactly how far left Obama is. Fourth, because of media bias, the media has tended to reinforce the idea that Obama is a moderate and not to highlight the embarrassing parts of his message.

Perhaps most fundamentally, given the history of the world over the past 25 years I think I just had assumed that no serious politician or thinker would in this day and age hold the sorts of views that Obama seems to hold. Raising taxes in a recession, protectionism, abolition of the secret ballot for union elections, big spending increases, nationalized health care, and most appallingly (to my mind) the potential reimposition of the "Fairness Doctrine"--I mean this is pretty serious stuff. And when combined with a Democratic Congress, I think we may be talking about (to use Thomas Sowell's recent phrase) a "point of no return." I guess I just assumed that Obama would be sort of Bill Clintonish--"the era of big government is over" and all that stuff. That he would have absorbed the basic insights of recent decades on taxes, trade, regulation, etc.

What could we expect from McCain? Not much--but holding the status quo on some areas and perhaps a few improvements in others. Perhaps an end to the incontinent spending of the past few years. Elimination of earmarks. Free trade. No fairness doctrine (campaign finance reform is bad, but I think the Fairness Doctrine is much worse). A much better health care insurance policy. I'm not as optimistic as some of my friends that McCain's judges will be good, but I think Obama's judges likely would be really bad.

So what does this add up to? I totally can appreciate the view of libertarians who fundamentally don't see any real difference that matters between McCain and Obama and so will vote for Barr or another third-party candidate. I think that is a completely reasonable position.

But as I've looked at the actual policy positions of the two more closely, it seems to me that Obama really seems to be pretty far out there. He is no Bill Clinton. And from what I can tell none of those libertarians or conservatives who are Obama supporters are attracted to because of his positions (other than those who care strongly about the Iraq war and foreign policy), but rather because of who he is. Obama is a compelling personality. But in reading these encomiums to him, I haven't seen any explanation as to how Obama's policies on tax, trade, spending, or regulatory would be friendlier to individual liberty than what is likely to be McCain's (as weak as those will be). As someone observed somewhere recently, this is about the first time in history that you have endorsements from people who endorse Obama on the hope that he won't do what he says he'll do rather than because of what he says he'll do.

Thomas Sowell described the choice the other day as "a choice between disaster and catastrophe" which doesn't seem that far off for someone who believes in limited government and individual liberty.

Anyway, after really exploring their policies a bit more closely, I have finally come to the conclusion that as bad as they both are, there really is in the end a pretty significant difference between the two of them. Especially when you throw into the mix a Democratic Congress, perhaps with a veto-proof majority.

I can see why other libertarians may not see a big enough difference between them to really matter and will vote for Barr (or no one). And I think that is an eminently reasonable position in this election. But having read the Reason article, and having been in the same spot until relatively recently, I figured I'd mention my thinking.


In my initial post I had misplaced my phrase about what I am most appalled about--the reimposition of the fairness doctrine, which I have now corrected.


How Should Libertarians Vote?

It's a good question. Like many, I am quite disappointed by Republicans and no big fan of John McCain, but also quite concerned about the combination of an Obama presidency with large Democratic majorities in Congress. I fear the result will be a significant increase in taxes, spending, and economic regulation, with little offsetting decrease in government nannyism or regulation of social mores. I am also particularly concerned about a potential Obama Administration's trade policies and judicial nominations.

Richard Epstein echoes some of my concerns in this Reason symposium on Obama:

The Obama campaign is rich in contradictions for those who approach politics as defenders of strong property rights and limited government. On the positive side, I applaud Obama for showing a willingness to improve the procedural protections afforded to persons detained at Guantanamo Bay, and to cut back on the hostility toward immigration into the United States. And I hope that on key matters of race relations, he would be able to defuse many lingering historical resentments.

Unfortunately, on the full range of economic issues, both large and small, I fear that his policies, earnestly advanced, are a throwback to the worst of the Depression-era, big-government policies. Libertarians in general favor flat and low taxes, free trade, and unregulated labor markets. Obama is on the wrong side of all these issues. He adopts a warmed-over vision of the New Deal corporatist state with high taxation, major trade barriers, and massive interference in labor markets. He is also unrepentant in his support of farm subsidies and a vast expansion of the government role in health care. Each of these reforms, taken separately, expands the power of government over our lives. Their cumulative impact could be devastating.

My friends at the University of Chicago pooh-pooh my anxieties. They insist Obama will be a "pragmatic" president whose intelligent economic advisers will steer him far from the brink of this regulatory folly. His liberal Senate voting record leaves me no confidence in their cheery view. I wish he would back off publicly from these unwise policies. I would be thrilled if he supported dismantling even one government regulatory program. But he is, unfortunately, a prisoner of our times. The large back story of this campaign is that both parties have abandoned any consistent defense of limited government.

Relatedly, the staff and friends of Reason reveal their individual voting preferences here. Some of the answers are squirrelly or indeterminate, but Barack Obama was the clear winner with a plurality of the votes. Bob Barr came in second, followed by "not voting" (because it's irrational). John McCain barely tallied 10 percent of those polled.

By comparison, Obama wins overwhelmingly among a poll of the folks at the decidedly less-libertarian Slate. In that crowd, McCain and Barr only get one vote apiece from the 58 who are eligible, with Obama capturing the rest. I'll post the results from the NYT staff poll when it is available.


The Libertarian Vote:

In past election cycles, I really haven't had a strong preference among the candidates. I voted for the Bernstein/Bernstein ticket in 2004, and can't really remember who I voted for, or for that matter whether I voted, from 1988 to 2000. But I'm much more of a Republican partisan this time, for a few reasons:

(1) Libertarians have been heavily involved in some of the most important constitutional Supreme Court litigation of the last two decades, either in terms of bringing the case, being among the most important advocates of one side's constitutional theory, or both. Among the cases in this category are Lopez, Morrison, Boy Scouts v. Dale, U.S. Term Limits, Grutter, Gratz, Kelo, Raich, Heller, and probably a few more that I'm not thinking of offhand. With the minor exception of Justice Breyers' vote in Gratz, in each of these cases, the ONLY votes the libertarian side received were from Republican appointees, and all of the Democrat appointees, plus the more liberal Republican appointees, ALWAYS voted against the libertarian side. The latter did so even in cases in which their political preferences were either irrelevant (Term Limits), or should have led them to sympathize with the plaintiff (Lopez, Kelo, Raich).

The only exception to this pattern is Lawrence v. Texas, in which Justice Kennedy seems to have been influenced by the Cato Institute's brief. But if the liberals had been able to muster five votes without Kennedy, I'm sure the opinion would have been quite different, less libertarian and more about "tiers of scrutiny" and whatnot. I'm a law professor, teach constitutional law, and the subject is dear to my heart. I'd much rather have the side that tends to take my ideological compatriots' constitutional arguments seriously on the Court. And Raich and Kelo, respectively, suggest that the liberals on the Court not only don't take libertarian arguments seriously, they don't believe in (a) any limits in federal regulatory power, whatsoever; or in (b) property rights, even when big corporations are using the political process to screw over the little guy.

(2) I'm not exactly a huge McCain fan. Indeed, other than Huckabee, he was probably my least-favorite choice in the Republican field. But as things have turned out, and despite some absurd, statist, campaign planks, in the home stretch he's running the most rhetorically libertarian presidential campaign I can remember since Reagan's 1980 campaign. Every time I hear a clip on the news, he's denouncing Obama for being a big spender and a taxer. He pledges to freeze most federal spending, and to take on entitlements and the grotesque reverse Robin Hood farm programs that Obama and almost all Congressional Democrats support. If he pulls out a victory, it will be seen as a stunning come from behind victory for those ideas. If he loses, and especially if loses badly, it will look like Americans are okay with "spreading the wealth."

(3) I think there are two great moral issues in American politics today, the disastrous War on Drugs, and free trade. The War on Drugs, for now, is hopeless. Free trade though, is not. Over the past couple of decades, a (statistical) billion people, more or less, have moved from poverty to the local middle-class because of globalization and free trade, far more people than have been aided by all the liberal do-goodism Obama, or any else, has or can muster. McCain is the candidate of free trade; Obama is the candidate of "fair trade," which in practice means protectionism. McCain's policies have the potential to rescue tens of millions of additional people from poverty, who will stay mired there under Obama. (And I always had at least one soft spot for Bill Clinton, for standing up to the unions and the know nothing wing of his party in favor of free trade and NAFTA).

(4) Nancy Pelosi. Harry Reid. Filibuster-proof majority. 'nuff said.

(5) I really still don't have any idea of what Obama is about. Is he the moderate, utilitarian, empiricist that Cass Sunstein raves about? Or is really quite far to the left ideologically, as various aspects of his biography suggest, but just skilled at hiding it for electoral advantage, with his very steady, moderate personality serving as a mask? The last thing the U.S. needs is a left-wing Ronald Reagan, but that might well be what we get.


A Vote for Divided Government:

My belief that John McCain is the lesser of the available evils in this election is largely based on the advantages of divided government. As I have explained in the past, divided government places important constraints on the growth of the state. Congress is more likely to increase federal regulation and spending if the president who gets to do the regulating and spending belongs to their own party. The president is less likely to veto or oppose congressional extensions of government power if those extensions are produced by his own partisan allies. Libertarians justly complain about the vast growth of government under George W. Bush; but that growth was largely a product of Republican united government from 2001 to 2006.

If Obama wins, he will have a strong Democratic majority in both houses of Congress to work with. This state of affairs is likely to lead to a significant expansion of government even in the best of times. However, now is clearly not the best of times. It is a time of economic crisis. And economic crises are also excellent opportunities to expand the powers of government - opportunities that politicians rarely let slip.

Obama's ideological orientation also plays a role in my thinking. While I believe that his foremost objective is to get elected and reelected, I think he's also an ideological big government liberal. His record in Congress and in Illinois reflect that. Obama might be willing to set aside ideology for the sake of political self-interest if the two conflict. But if he takes office at a time of crisis with large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, there won't be any such conflict between political self-interest and his big government instincts. The two will in fact be mutually reinforcing.

Once enacted, extensions of government power are very difficult to reverse, even long after the crisis that allegedly justified them has passed. For example, we are still saddled with the perverse system of farm subsidies and price cartels established by the Depression-era Agricultural Adjustment Act.

The combination of united government, economic crisis, and a president with big government instincts is likely to produce a major, permanent expansion of federal power.

Whatever his other flaws, McCain's election is likely to impede this process, at least to some extent. Moreover, although McCain has some statist tendencies of his own, he does have a pro-market side as well. He is pro-free trade, he was one of only a handful of GOP senators to vote against Bush's 2003 prescription drug plan (the biggest new government program since the 1960s), and he has called for a freeze on most domestic spending and for limits on the growth of entitlements. McCain also deserves a measure of libertarian credit for supporting expanded immigration in the face of opposition by many conservatives. As co-conspirator David Bernstein points out, McCain is also likely to appoint judges who are more sympathetic to libertarian positions than any we could hope for from Obama. On all of these issues except for immigration, Obama is far more statist than McCain. And there are few if any countervailing examples where Obama is more libertarian than his opponent (perhaps electronic surveillance is a rare exception, though Obama's position on that issue is muddled).

That is not to deny that McCain has many flaws from a libertarian point of view. Some of these, however, might be restrained by divided government. For example, like George Will, I worry about McCain's impulsive temperament. However, it will to some extent be offset by a strongly Democratic Congress. Left to his own devices, for example, McCain might be too eager to attack Iran in order to forestall their efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. But McCain is a smart enough politician to know that it is politically dangerous for a president to start a major conflict without strong congressional support. Thus, a President McCain will not attack Iran unless he gets backing from congressional Democrats. And, after the Iraq experience, the latter are unlikely to give it to him unless he presents an exceptionally strong case for action.

McCain still has numerous shortcomings. Just consider his positions on issues like campaign finance, national service, and the bailout, among many others. It's possible that I would prefer Obama to him if the latter came to power during a time of optimism and was constrained by a hostile Republican Congress, as Bill Clinton was. I might also prefer a Democratic victory if that party were likely to follow the centrist, market-friendly policies that characterized Clinton's last six years in office. In the current environment, however, that is highly unlikely. McCain is seriously flawed; Obama and a united Democratic government are likely to be significantly worse.

UPDATE: Readers may be interested to know that my support for divided government is not of recent vintage, and cuts both ways. Back in 2006, I argued in this series of posts that it would be good for the country if the Democrats retook control of the House of Representatives.


Why I Won't Abstain or Vote for the Libertarian Party:

Two possible alternatives to voting for McCain or Obama are abstaining from voting and supporting Libertarian Party candidate Bob Barr. Many people believe that voting is irrational because the chance that your vote will influence the outcome is infinitesmally small. I think this logic is incorrect, for reasons I discuss in detail in the first part of this article. To briefly summarize my argument, I contend that voting is rational so long as 1) the cost of voting is low, 2) you care at least slightly about your fellow citizens as well as yourself, and 3) you believe that there is a significant difference between the rival candidates. The low probability of your vote being decisive is balanced by the enormous benefits that will accrue if it is. I'm no paragon of civic virtue; but I do care about the future of the country as well as my own. And I also believe that the cost of voting is low and that there is a substantial difference between Obama and McCain, even though I have serious reservations about both. Thus, it will be rational for me to vote in the 2008 election.

As for the Libertarian Party, back in 2006 I wrote a post entitled "Why the Libertarian Party is Bad for Libertarianism." I still endorse the argument I made there. Readers interested in my thoughts on the LP may want to check out that post.


Should the Rational Public-Spirited Person Vote?

Ilya says yes, drawing on this very interesting article of his. Here is his explanation (inspired by Derek Parfit):

Assume that Uv = the expected utility of voting; Cv = the cost of voting; and D = the expected difference in welfare per person if the voter’s preferred candidate defeats her opponent. Let us further assume that this is a presidential election in a nation with 300 million people; that the voter’s ballot has only a 1 in 100 million chance of being decisive (Riker and Ordeshook 1968); and that the voter values the welfare of his fellow citizens an average of 1000 times less than his own. Thus, we get the following equation:

D*(300 million/1000)/(100 million) – Cv = Uv.

If we assume that Cv is $10 (a reasonable proxy for the cost of voting) and that D is $5000 (this can incorporate monetary equivalents of noneconomic benefits as well as actual income increases), then Uv equals $5, a small but real positive expected utility.

If you care about the well-being of others, even a little bit, you should vote, despite the cost of voting. The reason is that the cost of voting is very low, while the benefit is not as low as you might think. Although your chance of breaking a tie is very low, the benefit from breaking a tie is very high—it’s felt by 300 million people. This multiplier effect offsets, to some extent, the very small chance that your vote will make a difference.

However, breaking a tie is beneficial only if your vote is more likely correct than not—that is, you actually vote for the better candidate. Surely your vote is more likely to be correct than not? After all, you have some information, and that means you are doing better than flipping a coin. However, you need to reflect on your own ignorance with some humility. If, by hypothesis, your vote breaks a tie, then it means that (putting aside the vagaries of the electoral system) half the country prefers one candidate and the other half prefers the other. If all of these people have enough information that their votes are not random, the existence of a tie (aside from your vote) indicates that the two candidates are almost exactly equal in quality. The probability that your own puny knowledge (elsewhere in the same article Ilya discusses the problem of rational ignorance—people have weak incentives to inform themselves about the candidates and policy in general) will distinguish the infinitesimally better candidate is itself infinitesimal.

In other words, D, the expected difference in welfare per person if the voter’s preferred candidate defeats her opponent, is not realistically $5,000; more realistically it is in the range of $0.000000005. Using the equation above, your expected utility from voting is a shade higher than negative ten dollars. Ilya, stay home!


Knowledge and the Rationality of Voting:

Co-Conspirator Eric Posner challenges my argument that it might be rational to vote. He argues that there is little reason to do so because, in the unlikely event that your vote really will break a tie, that probably means that the two candidates were of virtually equal quality:

[B]reaking a tie is beneficial only if your vote is more likely correct than not—that is, you actually vote for the better candidate. Surely your vote is more likely to be correct than not? After all, you have some information, and that means you are doing better than flipping a coin. However, you need to reflect on your own ignorance with some humility. If, by hypothesis, your vote breaks a tie, then it means that (putting aside the vagaries of the electoral system) half the country prefers one candidate and the other half prefers the other. If all of these people have enough information that their votes are not random, the existence of a tie (aside from your vote) indicates that the two candidates are almost exactly equal in quality. The probability that your own puny knowledge (elsewhere in the same article Ilya discusses the problem of rational ignorance—people have weak incentives to inform themselves about the candidates and policy in general) will distinguish the infinitesimally better candidate is itself infinitesimal.

The problem with Eric's argument is the assumption that if the other people's votes are not random, that necessarily means that they are - on average - well-informed, or at least more likely to be correct than mistaken. However, lots of research, such as Bryan Caplan's recent book, and my own article that Eric links to, suggests that voters often make systematic errors where "mistaken" votes for one side are not offset by an equal number of mistakes favoring the other. Thus, if your fellow citizens are equally divided in their voting preferences and are voting nonrandomly, that doesn't necessarily mean that the two candidates are nearly identical in quality. It could be that the weaker of the two is benefiting from systematic flaws in voters' evaluation of the information they have. So my argument for voting in cases where you think there is a big difference in quality between the two candidates still holds true.

Obviously, Eric is right to counsel "humility" in assessing one's own ignorance. If your knowledge is much less than that of the average voter, that may be a consideration in favor of staying home. But if it is equal or greater, then you have a good case for casting a vote if you think there is a substantial difference in quality between the available alternatives. That is especially true once you consider the possibility that you might have underestimated the quality difference in favor of your preferred candidate, a scenario that to some degree counterbalances the chance that you have overestimated.