Friday, January 23, 2009

Libertarian Realignment

Traditionally, libertarians have tended to vote for Republican candidates. But the GOP has abandoned its small-government roots. Thus, for those who place individual freedom at the top of their list of political priorities, Democrats such as recently inaugurated President Obama now represent the lesser of the evils.

By no means do I endorse Obama's plan to engage in unprecedented government spending in an extremely risky attempt to stimulate the faltering American economy. Parts of the stimulus package, particularly those initiatives aimed at increasing energy efficiency and substantially boosting renewable electricity generation, will indeed have positive long-term effects. However, these programs do not constitute the bulk of the proposed stimulus package. And regardless of whether federal spending is aimed at worthy causes, the nature of governmental bureaucracy guarantees that there will be substantial waste alongside any actual accomplishments.

Unfortunately, a Republican president would likely be proposing a spending spree of similar scope. Remember, under George W. Bush's reckless management, the federal budget deficit ballooned to record levels, and the national debt became crippling enough to make the global market take a second look at whether our country is even a good credit risk anymore. And although Sen. John McCain campaigned largely on his record of opposing pork-barrel spending, he joined Bush and Obama in supporting the unprecedented bank bailout that Congress approved in the weeks before the election.

So, given that those of us who believe in conservative fiscal policy know we're going to be left out in the cold regardless of which major party controls the federal government, we are left to make our decision on the grounds of who is better for civil liberties.

Bush and his team have only been out of the White House for a couple of days, but new accusations about the extent of their domestic-surveillance program are emerging. Even without the information that is likely to come out over the coming weeks and months, there is already an overwhelming pile of evidence that the Bush administration engaged in breathtakingly wanton law-breaking not only in terms of spying illegally on American citizens but also with regard to the sickeningly cruel treatment of terrorism suspects, against many of whom there's barely a shred of incriminating evidence.

One of the most appalling aspects of Bush's warrantless wiretapping program is that he could have almost certainly gotten Congress to sign off on any even remotely reasonable course of action after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Members of Congress showed the president immense deference in the realm of national security throughout the rest of his term after that horrifying series of events. But rather than making his case to Congress and getting any necessary changes to surveillance law included in post-9/11 legislation, Bush simply asserted his right to act outside of any legislative framework.

Though important, the need for legislative oversight of the executive branch's domestic-surveillance activities pales in comparison with the need for judicial oversight of the executive's policies regarding detention and treatment of terrorism suspects. The Bush administration's tragic failings in this area hit this point home with terrible force. That administration's position had always been that the detainees kept in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba are all among the most dangerous of terrorists. Yet, the number of people being held there against whom the government has any case at all continues to shrink.

In his first days as president, Obama has taken major steps in the direction of correcting Bush's worst mistakes. His nominees for top Justice Department officials are all on the record as believing that the president is obligated to act within the law and not able to do whatever he wants merely by asserting that his authority as commander in chief of the military allows him to do so. Furthermore, Obama has restored uniform standards to suspect interrogation policies that will immediately end all officially sanctioned torture.

If Obama lives up to his early promise on these key issues, a libertarian realignment will be in order. If neither party is getting economic policy correct, then it only makes sense for those who hold their civil liberties dear to vote for the party that actually respects those fundamental rights.

(Cross posted at the DI's main site.)

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