Virginia’s Libertarian Moment?
Unless just about every polling outfit in the country is wrong, Terry McAuliffe should cruise to victory in Tuesday’s election. If he does, says Tarina Keene, “he will owe his victory to the women of Virginia — women who want to own their own bodies. Who want to be able to make their own reproductive health-care decisions.”
Keene directs NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, so she has a vested interest in this argument: Making McAuliffe’s victory contingent on pro-choice support makes McAuliffe beholden to pro-choice activists. But the vested interest does not make the argument wrong. In fact, given the lopsided gender gap in the gubernatorial contest, it is hard to refute.
The McAuliffe camp has flogged Ken Cuccinelli relentlessly on social issues, particularly abortion — something the Republican candidate opposes in every case except when the mother’s life is at stake. And the flogging has hurt: In August, McAuliffe enjoyed a 12-point lead among women. By October, the spread had increased to 24.
Keene’s remark is interesting not only for its political implications, but also for its philosophical implications. Talk of owning your own body has strong libertarian overtones. Many libertarians start by embracing the concept of individual autonomy or “self-ownership” — a notion that goes back at least to John Locke (“every man has a Property in his own Person. This nobody has a right to, but himself”). Then they adopt policy positions that logically follow from it, such as legalizing drugs and opposing motorcycle-helmet laws. It’s your body, libertarians say, and nobody else can tell you what to do with it.
Granted, pro-choice groups do not apply this concept with any sort of consistency — witness NARAL’s support for Obamacare’s insistence that every individual buy an insurance policy, whether she wants one or not. But their inconsistency does not impeach the broader point that Cuccinelli’s stance on abortion has slammed into a wall of resistance from those who don’t want him imposing his personal views on them as governor.
And it’s not just abortion. The Republican’s stance on homosexuality also has scared away potential supporters. Homosexuality “brings nothing but self-destruction, not only physically but of [the] soul,” Cuccinelli said five years ago. The next year, he insisted “homosexual acts … should not be accommodated in government policy.” His views “haven’t changed,” he said earlier this year.
It’s true, as he also says, that many other Virginians share these “sincerely held beliefs.” Yet Cuccinelli has let those beliefs drive policy: Early in his term as attorney general he told state universities they had no authority to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and he has defended with Ahab-like mania a state sodomy law doomed by the Supreme Court a decade ago.
Among those who share Cuccinelli’s beliefs is Virginia’s current governor, Bob McDonnell — whose master’s thesis at Regent University amounted to a socially conservative catechism. Yet McDonnell convinced voters he would eschew social issues and focus on jobs. Once elected, he generally did. (He even countermanded Cuccinelli’s anti-anti-discrimination order.) Cuccinelli talks about jobs too — but the public can see his heart lies elsewhere.
So some who otherwise would have supported Cuccinelli have found refuge in Robert Sarvis, the Libertarian Party nominee. Sarvis has been polling well for a third-party candidate, scoring as much as 10 percent in some polls. If he clears that bar on Election Day, then the party will win automatic ballot access for state and local offices through 2021.
A sizable proportion of Sarvis’ support has come from Republicans. Hence, there has been a last-minute effort to bring Republicans who lean libertarian back into the fold. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul recently went to bat for Cuccinelli, saying “a lot of the things” the candidate talks about “are free-market, limited-government, leave-me-alone government.” In The Washington Examiner, columnist Tim Carney has written that if he won, “Cuccinelli would arguably be the most libertarian governor in the United States.” The Daily Caller’s Matt Lewis has seconded the motion, asking “Why Are Libertarians Helping Elect Crony Capitalist Terry McAuliffe in Virginia?”
They have a point: McAuliffe is no economic libertarian. On the other hand, he is not about to nationalize the railroads. His deviations from laissez-faire orthodoxy are driven by opportunism and indifference rather than doctrinal hostility. You can’t say the same about Cuccinelli’s views on social issues.
True, Cuccinelli does take the libertarian position on economic questions, property rights and the role of the federal leviathan.
Unlike many other Republicans, he also opposes corporate welfare ladled out under the pretext of economic development. All most excellent. (Not so excellent: Cuccinelli’s hard-right stance on immigration — which contradicts the libertarian idea that people, like goods, should be able to cross borders freely.)
To Cuccinelli’s conservative defenders, his economic libertarianism ought to suffice. Ed Crane, former president of the libertarian Cato Institute, heads a PAC spending $300,000 on Sarvis’ behalf. According to Carney, “Crane’s only critique of Cuccinelli” was that the Republican “ ‘is a socially intolerant, hard-right conservative with little respect for civil liberties.’ ”
“Only”? To conservatives, economic freedom is paramount, the rest no big deal. But to libertarians, personal and civil liberties are no less vital: Big government has no place in either the boardroom or the bedroom.
If Cuccinelli shared that view, then he would have a better chance of participating in the gubernatorial inauguration Jan. 8 — rather than merely watching it.
America the Ignorant
My fellow Americans, we are one ignorant bunch.
This is particularly true with regard to politics and government, subjects about which the public is a howling void of nescience. To say Americans don’t know much about politics and government would be more than just an understatement. It would be like saying a Galapagos tortoise doesn’t know much about medieval French literature.
Ilya Somin — a law professor at George Mason University in Fairfax — has written a book on the subject: “Democracy and Political Ignorance.” In it, he shows that Americans know woefully little about their political system, have known very little for a long time, and are not likely to change in the foreseeable future — because they have a very good reason not to.
For instance: In 1964, only 38 percent of Americans knew the Soviet Union, NATO’s principal enemy, was not a member of NATO. In December 1994, the month after Republicans led by Newt Gingrich took control of Congress, 57 percent of Americans had never even heard of him. In 2003, 70 percent of Americans were unaware of the passage of Medicare Part D, “the biggest new government program in several decades.”
Fifty-eight percent of Americans cannot name the three branches of government; 70 percent cannot name their state’s senators; 72 percent cannot name two or more of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Before you start cursing, note that Americans have very little incentive to know such basic things, and even less to study more abstruse details such as the content of specific legislation. (In 2009, only a quarter of Americans knew “cap and trade” addressed environmental issues rather than, say, health care or finance.)
This is because the cost, in time and effort, of becoming an informed voter is fairly high. And what do you get for it? Precious little. It isn’t polite to say so, but votes usually matter only in the aggregate. Your one vote in, say, a presidential election will have almost no chance of changing the outcome, and therefore roughly zero effect on your life personally. Hence, Somin writes, “For most people, the benefits of devoting more than minimal time and effort to learning about politics are greatly outweighed by the costs.”
Granted, there are exceptions — the political junkies who get the same enjoyment from politics that sports junkies get from sports. Sports fans often know a great deal, even though they cannot affect the outcome of the games. (Not even with their lucky hats.) Political fans, Somin writes, likewise “derive enjoyment from rooting for their preferred parties, candidates, ideologies, and interest groups, while deriding the opposition. They … also derive satisfaction from having their pre-existing views validated, and from a sense of affiliation with a group of like-minded people.”
So does the team-sports model rescue democracy from the pit of ignorance? Hardly — because partisan activism is, in important ways, even worse than disengagement. Partisans may know more, but their knowledge is often selective. On top of that, they use it in highly biased ways — primarily to reinforce their existing views and reject new information that challenges their cherished dogmas. And they often tune in to news sources (Fox News, MSNBC) that facilitate close-mindedness.
This renders partisans more susceptible to false beliefs that cement their team loyalty: Democrats are more likely than independents to believe “truther” conspiracies alleging that George W. Bush knew in advance about 9/11, and Republicans are more likely than independents to believe “birther” claims that President Barack Obama was born abroad. It also leads partisans to reject truths that do not square with their partisan leanings. In one series of studies, Democrats completely ignored a factual correction in George W. Bush’s favor. Republicans were even worse, believing a false claim in Bush’s favor even more strongly after seeing it corrected.
Are there any remedies? Perhaps. We could delegate more decision-making to experts. But this only adds a layer to the problem. The experts still would have to be held accountable by elected officials, and ignorant voters “are likely to be poor monitors of elected officials’ supervision” of the experts. On the other hand, if the experts are not supervised, then there is no way to ensure they are pursuing the public interest.
We also could limit voting to the knowledgeable. But not only would this be grossly undemocratic, it wouldn’t improve matters, for the reasons just described.
Somin suggests two structural remedies. One involves handing over more decision-making to smaller political units — states, or even municipalities — which would allow people to vote with their feet. People who vote with their feet tend to educate themselves first. (Think about how much research you put into buying a house or a car.) And they educate themselves because they know their “vote” — to live on a cul-de-sac, or move to Seattle, or buy a Toyota instead of a Ford — will be the decisive one. When you vote with your feet, the “election” is heavily rigged to produce the outcome you want.
The other structural change? Limit the scope of government. For Somin, the reason is straightforward: A smaller government means deeper knowledge. If the public will learn, say, only 100 things about the executive branch, then it will know a lot more about each agency if there are five agencies rather than 50. There is an “inverse relationship between the size … of government” and “the ability of voters to have sufficient knowledge” to vote intelligently.
For the rest of us, there may be another reason: A smaller government, even in the hands of Those Ignorant Bums on the Other Side, will do less damage than a big one can. When power is decentralized, you can flee to another state if things get too bad in your current one. When Washington is in charge of everything, the cost of voting with your feet gets much, much higher.
Each of these approaches has downsides — though not necessarily the ones you might think. For instance, the cost of moving would seem at first blush to impede “foot voting” by the poor. In fact, Somin notes, “households with an income under $5,000 per year are actually twice as likely to make interstate moves as the population as a whole.”
That’s just one of the many insights to come out of a book on ignorance that is, perhaps paradoxically, highly informative.
'Speaker of the House' from Les Boehnerables
Welcome, M’sieur, sit yourself down
And meet the worst House Speaker in town
As for the D’s – all of them crooks,
Piling up sleaze and cooking the books. …
Seldom do you see honest men like me –
A gent of good intent who’s content to be
Speaker of the House, lacking any charm,
Haven’t got the sand to try to twist an arm
Hostage to the right, captive of the left
Floundering, despairing, utterly bereft
Glad to do my friends a favor
But they won’t reciprocate,
The public hasn’t been this mad
At the GOP since Watergate!
Speaker of the House, keeper of the zoo
Ready to capitulate a point or two
All I do is whine, sit around and wait
Till the party rebels ascertain my fate.
Everybody loves a leader,
Long as he’s an alpha male –
I do as Obama pleases
Jesus! What a sorry little tale.
Boehner & Chorus:
Speaker of the House, steering things awry,
Never wants a microphone to pass him by
Terror to the poor, toady to the great
Incompetent who wishes he were head of state
Everybody’s boon companion,
He just wants to get along
But lock up your valises
Jesus! Where did everything go wrong?
Enter Ted Cruz, lay down your load
I’ll lick your boots and clean your commode.
Haggling’s no fun, conferring’s a curse
It all ends the same – we lighten your purse.
Here your pocket’s picked, here your wallet’s pried
And no deal is complete till John Boehner’s cried.
Dumb beyond compare, dumb beyond belief,
How we run the country is a tale of grief
Innards from a toad, blood from squishing ticks,
Legislative sausage is a grisly mix.
Constituents are sometimes welcome,
Other times we’re occupied
Flinging baseless charges
At the bozos on the other side!
Tax you for the debt, plus your old Corvette
(If you’re late we’ll send the IRS to make you sweat!)
Here a little slice, there a little cut,
Still we keep all federal operations shut.
When it comes to spending money,
We’re all connoisseurs and pros;
How the debt increases – what a pile of feces!
Jesus! It’s amazing how it grows.
I used to think my rep was not a bum
But God almighty, have you seen what he has done?
Speaker of the House? Isn’t worth my vote
Incompetent – a figurehead – a scheming stoat!
Cunning little brain, reg’lar Henry Clay,
Couldn’t spawn a plan if he had all damn day.
What a cruel trick of history
Landed us with such a louse –
God knows how we’ve managed
Given all his damage to the House!
Boehner & Chorus:
Leader of the House!
Leader? Not by half!
Boehner & Chorus:
Competent philosopher –
Don’t make us laugh!
Boehner & Chorus:
Servant to the wife,
Butler to the man –
Useless pile of garbage with a spray-on tan!
Boehner & Chorus:
Everybody bless the Speaker!
Never gripe or groan or grouse!
I really am a real great guy –
Why don’t you go stick that in your eye?
Everybody wave goodbye to the Speaker of the House!
What’s the Most Annoyingly Unforgettable Song of All Time?
Today’s column, which riffs on “Master of the House” from Les Miz, prompted a fair amount of feedback. Several writers said the song was now stuck in their heads, thankyouverymuch.
This raises a question: What’s the most annoyingly unforgettable song of all time? There are lots of possibilities; Google the question and you get this list of 100 from Maxim, for example.
Fortunately, there’s also a site that can help you get a song OUT of your head. So, if you’re stuck on “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” or “Life Is a Highway,” skip on over to unhearit.com. You’ll be glad you did.