Like most "small L" libertarians, I'd like to see a constitutionally limited government, a humble but formidable foreign policy, unfettered free markets, and a premium on personal freedom.
Which is why I tend to get despondent around Election Day, and am again this year stuck with the classic "lesser of two evils" dilemma. The problem is that it's getting more and more difficult to discern which "evil" is lesser.
Let's look first at the incumbent.
From a libertarian perspective, the case against re-electing President Bush is extensive. The Cliff's Notes version:
President Bush has grown government more than any administration in four decades, even when you subtract for defense and homeland security spending. He and the Republican Congress have given us massive, pork-laden energy, farm subsidy, highway, and corporate tax bills.
Despite his reputed stern resolve, President Bush shown no political backbone on domestic issues, save for some modest tax cuts. He gave ground on free trade, capitulated on campaign finance reform, expanded the regulatory state and passed the largest new federal entitlement since the Great Society.
Resolve has also been missing from his handling of judicial nominations. A resolute president would have confronted his opponents in the Senate by making recess appointments, or by instructing his party's leaders to push a vote, thereby forcing Democrats to explain why a given nominee's defeat is worth putting the nation's business on hold. Instead, President Bush allowed his more controversial appointments to whither in judiciary committee limbo — in some cases for years.
The claim that President Bush made us safer in the War on Terror is also misguided. He diverted precious military intelligence, manpower, and resources away from apprehending the people who perpetrated Sept. 11 (Al Qaeda) and those who harbored them (the Taliban) to wage war with Iraq, a country that posed little if any immediate threat to our national security. Even conceding that the war made sense given the intelligence available at the time (it didn't), it's now clear that the Bush administration was woefully unprepared for post-war security. We're now enveloped in an expensive, dangerous, stagnant occupation.
Our presence in Iraq is breeding new anti-American terrorists, in Iraq and across the Muslim world. The Brookings Institution estimates that the overwhelming majority of insurgent attacks in Iraq against U.S. forces are coming from newly minted, native Iraqi terrorists, not from existing Islamic extremists from other countries. Terrorist attacks across the globe have gone up, not down, since September 11.
At home, President Bush responded to criticisms that Sept. 11 happened in part because of excess intelligence bureaucracy by creating the Department of Homeland Security, the largest bureaucracy in the history of the country. He also created the Transportation Safety Administration, which put the same government that can't reliably deliver the mail in charge of securing our airports. He continues to employ a Secretary of Transportation who believes we should give the same scrutiny to little old ladies clutching rosaries that we give to young men coming in from countries that sponsor terrorism.
As a consequence, U.S. travelers are subject to harassment and inconvenience with no discernible improvement in safety. U.S. airports still regularly fail covert security checks, an occurrence TSA apparently believes is worth celebrating.
While our ports still aren't secure and Al Qaeda cells operate within our borders, the Bush Justice Department is busy raiding convalescent centers and hospices that use medical marijuana, prosecuting patients who need pain medication and the doctors who prescribe it, and pursuing campaigns against pornography, steroids, and online gambling.
I could go on. But I'll stop there.
John Kerry wouldn't be any better.
Kerry's plan for Iraq — like his plans for most domestic issues — is to throw more money and resources at the problem. It's naïve to think Kerry would pull us out of Iraq. What better way to show the good government can do than to build an entire society from scratch?
And though the claim that Kerry would submit U.S. foreign policy to a United Nations veto is exaggerated, there's no question that he would lead us into a variety of foreign treaties and agreements at odds with American sovereignty (the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Protocol are two particularly bad ideas).
Upon getting his party's nomination, Sen. Kerry looked at an administration that grew government in nearly all areas at a rate unseen in nearly a half-century and decided to run to the left of it. He insists that the looming Social Security and Medicare crises are exaggerated, meaning that eight years of a Kerry administration would almost certainly mean younger workers can look forward to a massive hike in payroll taxes.
Kerry also wants to further socialize health care. He's a little better on medicinal marijuana, but is otherwise every bit the drug warrior President Bush is.
And while Democrats demand that we "count every vote," the Kerry campaign is doing everything it can to keep Ralph Nader off the ballot, effectively telling the anti-war left that its vote isn't worth a thing.
Some libertarians suggest that despite Kerry's woeful positions, he's worth a strategic vote. The theory posits that:
— Politicians must be held accountable when they fail us. That means voting President Bush out of office.
— Government grows at a slower rate divided than it does when one party controls both the White House and the Congress.
— Republicans seem to rediscover their limited-government principles when a Democrat in the White House.
These are all valid points, but there's one gaping hole in the strategy: Congress has delegated so much power to the executive branch that a Kerry presidency could do tons of damage without the controls of Congress.
So what to do? I'm not sure. If I were to make an endorsement, I'd recommend leaving the top line of your ballot blank.
What I'd like to issue is a wake-up call. It's been awe-inspiring to watch otherwise smart people sing the praises of a guy they really don't like that much for no other reason than that they dislike the other guy more. But while Americans passionately, sometimes angrily, divide themselves into "red" and "blue" — bitterly aligning themselves behind two candidates who really aren't all that different from each other — the two major parties will continue to use campaign finance reform, the presidential debates, regulation of the airwaves, national conventions, and taxpayer funding to secure their stranglehold duopoly on American politics.
Which means that instead of an exercise in freedom, Election Day is fast becoming an exercise in choosing which of two largely identical groups of politicians gets to control our lives for the next four years.
Radley Balko maintains a Weblog at: www.TheAgitator.com.