For Libertarians, Democrats May Be Better Choice This Time

Tuesday, of course is Election Day, a day that probably not coincidentally is about as far away from Tax Day as it could possibly be.

A cynic might suggest politicians would rather you forget how much their pet projects, handouts, and pork barrel spending actually costs you (visit the handy website Washington Watch to see) when it's time for you to vote.

Washington has always had its share of corruption, sleaze, and hubris. But the current crop of elected officials serving at the federal level seem particularly bold-- engaging in the same old political shenanigans, but taking them on with a particular sense of privilege, above-the-law mentality and particular contempt for open, accountable government.

Here are some examples from the last few years:

--Last year, Reps. Tom Davis and Henry Waxman announced that their committee would be investigating Major League Baseball, an act of shameless grandstanding. When baseball officials correctly questioned Congress' jurisdiction over a private corporation, Davis and Waxman responded that as congressmen, they were privileged to investigate "any matter" and at "any time."

So much for limited government.

--When the FBI raided Rep. William Jefferson's office as part of a corruption probe, individual members of Congress erupted with indignation, decrying the "heavy-handed" use police force (the agents, by the way, were in suits, and treated Rep. Jefferson's belongings kindly).

Speaker Dennis Hastert was particularly vocal in denouncing the raid.

Meanwhile, Hastert and his colleagues seem relatively comfortable with the more than 40,000 extremely violent, paramilitary SWAT raids carried out on American citizens each year, many on nonviolent or even innocent suspects.

--After passing "campaign finance reform" (which many critics rightly call the "incumbent protection act"), which curtails Americans' ability to criticize their elected officials at the very time that it's most important – just before an election-- members of Congress bristled when "527" groups exploited loopholes in the bill and still managed – horrors! -- to criticize our privileged leaders before their expected coronation …er…reelection.

Not surprisingly, Congress is now at work to find a way to snuff out 527s, too. President Bush, who declared the campaign finance reform bill "unconstitutional" just before signing it, has promised to sign a bill limiting the influence of 527s, too.

--The Bush administration itself has been the most secretive in history. It has used the classification process as a political weapon, classifying information that would not be damaging to national security but might be politically damaging to the White House, while declassifying information that arguably is sensitive, but that might score political points for the president.

Recently, the Department of Defense attempted to give St. Mary's University School of Law a $1 million grant to research ways to limit the scope of the Freedom of Information Act (after public criticism, the school refused the grant).

The extraordinary secrecy of this administration grows all the more aggravating when you consider that the same administration is pushing for policies that are rather dismissive of the privacy of American citizens. They want to know what you're doing, but they'd rather you didn't keep a close on what they're doing.

--Even the victories for accountable government advocates can show just how obstinate and immune from accountability Congress can be. One small victory this time around came in a bill feverishly pushed by bloggers that added some transparency to the earmarking process. But that triumph was marred by "secret holds" put on the bill by two senators, and it took months of phone calls, letters, public criticism and pressure for Congress to finally relent.

That it took such a massive, concentrated, prolonged effort just to get Congress to be more open about how it spends taxpayers' money is telling.

That's not even touching on the variety of other maneuvers and tactics incumbents use to indemnify themselves from real accountability, and the ways the two major parties solidify their grip on power. These tactics include gerrymandering; complex campaign laws that make it difficult for third-party candidates to file, get any kind of recognition, or participate in debates; and of course, the pre-McCain-Feingold spending limits that favor the established two parties, where fundraising machines are already in place.

These aren't hot-button issues like abortion, Iraq, or education. They're actually quite a bit more important. They go to the very heart of representative democracy. We have a federal government that's growing increasingly arrogant, increasingly detached, and less and less accountable to the people it governs.

We have politicians who feel they were born to rule, and are willing to tweak the laws and change the rules to make sure they stay in office, no matter how corrupt and/or incompetent they might be.

In fact, many in Congress feel that they themselves are above the maze of confusing, restrictive, sometimes contradictory laws they keep passing, and expect the rest of us to follow.

So what to do?

Both parties are far more interested in attaining and holding onto power than they are in good governance. That said, perhaps it's in the best interest of libertarianism if the Democrats win Tuesday, for the same reason the Republicans need to win in 1994: Because it's time to clean house. It's unhealthy for one party to grow too familiar with the privileges and comforts of power. The more turnover we have in Washington, the better. If the Republicans had made any attempt at limiting the size and scope of the federal government while in power, maybe I'd think differently, nut in many ways, they've been worse in this respect than the Democrats ever were.

From a libertarian perspective, a Democrat sweep today would also give us a divided government, which offers two benefits:

First, it'll give us a Congress that will fulfill the oversight function the Constitution envisioned for Capitol Hill, but that the Republicans have essentially ignored. A Democratic Congress (I hope) will spend more time investigating abuses and excesses of government, and less on whether or not Barry Bonds took steroids, or the nuances of Janet Jackson's nipple.

Second, it's likely that a divisive, divided government will have a difficult time passing more laws, particularly in today's nasty political climate. President Bush may even discover his veto pen. Republicans seem to rediscover their limited-government principles when they're out of power.

So maybe it's time for libertarians to vote to hand things over to the Democrats, if only by default-- and with the caveat that if they do win today, it's probably only a matter of time before they're falling prey to the same trappings of power.

Radley Balko is a senior editor with Reason magazine. He publishes the weblog,

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