Libertarians for Obama?
Megan McArdle explains why she prefers Barack Obama to John McCain despite the former’s protectionism and “his insanely bad economic ‘patriot act.'”
I might not vote for Obama; I will not vote for McCain. There are some things more important than the economy, and free speech is among them. Yes, I don’t like Obama’s stance on the Second Amendment, but the difference is, the president has little wiggle room right now on the second, while McCain might do serious further damage to the first, or the fourth. I dislike the steps Obama is willing to take in order to achieve his goals of economic equality. But these are as nothing to the notion that citizens have to be protected from information because Big Daddy John thinks we’ll get bad ideas in our heads.
To be sure, pure libertarians can’t be thrilled with either choice. Ideologues who want to participate in real world politics have to, therefore, prioritize and it’s reasonable enough to prefer trading off free trade for free speech rather than vice-versa if those are the available alternatives.
It’s far from clear, though, that this is the situation we’d face in an Obama-McCain contest.
I haven’t read all of Megan’s posts on the subject but I gather that her principal objection to McCain on free speech is McCain-Feingold. While I share her vehement objection to that legislation, and even agree that its limitations on campaign contributions and the purchase of attack ads by outside groups constitute an unconstitutional infringement on free speech (a position with which the Supreme Court, unfortunately, disagrees), it’s absurd to characterize McCain’s motivation as “the notion that citizens have to be protected from information because Big Daddy John thinks we’ll get bad ideas in our heads.”
McCain, presumably scarred by his own experience with the Keating Five scandal, feared the corruption of a system where large donors have far more influence than average citizens and thought it was undermining the public’s confidence in the legitimacy of the system. From a March 2001 floor speech:
Madam President, the many sponsors of this legislation have but one purpose: to enact fair, bipartisan campaign finance reform that seeks no special advantage for one party or another, but that helps change the public’s widespread belief that politicians have no greater purpose than their own reelection and to that end we will respond disproportionately to the needs of those interests that can best finance our ambition, even if those interests conflict with the public interest and with the governing philosophy we once sought office to advance.
The sad truth is, Madam President, that most Americans do believe that we conspire to hold on to every single political advantage we have lest we jeopardize our incumbency by a single lost vote. Most Americans believe that we would let this nation pay any price, bear any burden for the sake of securing our own ambitions, no matter how injurious the effect might be to the national interest.
And who can blame them? As long as the wealthiest Americans and richest organized interests can make the six- and seven-figure donations to political parties and gain the special access to power that such generosity confers on the donor, most Americans will dismiss the most virtuous politician’s claim of patriotism.
The opponents of reform will ask: If the public so distrusts us and so dislikes our current campaign finance system, why is there no great cry in the country to throw us all out of office? They will contend — and this point is disputable — that no one has ever lost or won an election because of their opposition to or support for campaign finance reform.
Yet public opinion polls consistently show that the vast majorities of our constituents want reform and believe our current system of campaign financing is terribly harmful to the public good.
But, the opponents observe, they do not rank reform among the national priorities they expect their government to urgently address. That is true, Madam President, but why is it so?
Simply put, they don’t believe it will ever be done, they don’t expect us to adopt real reforms, and they defensively keep their hopes from being raised and their inevitable disappointment from being worse.
The public just doesn’t believe that either an incumbent opposing reform or a challenger supporting it will honestly work to repair this system once he or she has been elected under the rules, or lack thereof, that govern it. They distrust both. They believe that whether we publicly advocate or oppose reform, we are all working, either openly or deceitfully, to prevent even the slightest repair of a system that they believe is corrupt. [emphasis mine]
Now, I think this fear was overblown and the reaction to it unwise and ultimately futile. But let’s not characterize it as an actual opposition to free speech even if its provisions created that result. Rather, he’s taking Madison’s fear of factions too far.
Further, given a choice between McCain and Obama on this issue, I’m not sure why a libertarian would chose Obama.
Yes, McCain’s name appears, along with Russ Feingold’s, in the law’s informal name. But Obama hasn’t exactly campaigned on overturning it. Precisely two Democrats were among the 40 Nay votes (Obama was not among them, since he hadn’t yet been elected to significant political office way back in 2004) making the election of Obama an unlikely avenue for reform in a positive direction.
We don’t have to rely on conjecture. Take a look at Obama’s issues page under Ethics:
Support Campaign Finance Reform: Obama supports public financing of campaigns combined with free television and radio time as a way to reduce the influence of moneyed special interests. Obama introduced public financing legislation in the Illinois State Senate, and is the only 2008 candidate to have sponsored Senator Russ Feingold’s (D-WI) tough bill to reform the presidential public financing system.
Now, in all fairness, there are many things on that page for libertarians to like, including some sunlight provisions that would give the public more information on a variety of issues. But Obama is, if anything, more inclined to limit speech than McCain on the particular score that so vexes Megan — and take money from private business owners to do it, to boot!
I haven’t been able to find a definitive public statement by Obama on the Fairness Doctrine, which many prominent Democrats want to revive. He gives a hint in that direction, though, on his Technology page:
Encourage Diversity in Media Ownership: Barack Obama believes that the nation’s rules ensuring diversity of media ownership are critical to the public interest. Unfortunately, over the past several years, the Federal Communications Commission has promoted the concept of consolidation over diversity. Barack Obama believes that providing opportunities for minority-owned businesses to own radio and television stations is fundamental to creating the diverse media environment that federal law requires and the country deserves and demands. As president, he will encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media, promote the development of new media outlets for expression of diverse viewpoints, and clarify the public interest obligations of broadcasters who occupy the nation’s spectrum. An Obama presidency will promote greater coverage of local issues and better responsiveness by broadcasters to the communities they serve.
Certainly, this sounds like less, not more, freedom of speech and the press.
Many libertarians, faced with a choice between two non-libertarian candidates, will almost certainly vote for Obama. They may do it out of visceral reasons or attraction to him as a personality. They may do it on abortion, drug policy, homosexual rights, or a less militaristic foreign policy. But they’re not going to do so, if they’re honest with themselves, on free speech or free trade.
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