My goal is good policy

Bruce Bartlett

12/2/2003 12:00:00 AM - Bruce Bartlett

Readers sometimes ask why I occasionally write columns advising Democrats on how they could gain some political advantage by adopting certain policies. After all, as a Republican, don't I want my party to win? Why am I helping the enemy? The answer is that I'm a Republican only because, historically, it has more closely represented the libertarian views I hold. My goal is good policy, not victory for my team.

The fact is that there is no real alternative for libertarians interested in having some influence on national policy and politics. The Libertarian Party is a joke and, anyway, there is really no place for third parties in the American electoral system. The requirement that presidents must gain an absolute majority in the Electoral College effectively means that we can never have more than two major parties.

Third parties just end up defeating the party closest to them ideologically by splitting the vote, thereby leading to victories by the party to which they are more opposed. A good example is Ross Perot's third party effort in 1992, which only had the effect of defeating George H.W. Bush and electing Bill Clinton. Most of Perot's voters were Republicans who simultaneously believed that Bush had not done enough to reduce the deficit and that the 1990 budget deal was a mistake because it raised taxes.

Of course, there is always the possibility that a third party could supplant one of the major parties. But that has only happened once in American history, when the Republican Party replaced the Whig Party as the principal opposition to the Democrats. However, that was a unique situation in which the deep and fundamental issue of slavery divided the country in a way that no other issue ever has. The Whigs tried to straddle the issue and lost out to the forthright anti-slavery of the Republicans.

I see no issue of similar magnitude on the horizon that could cause the kind of national cleavage that might open the way for one of the major parties to self-destruct. The only issue I observe that even comes close would be a generational divide between the elderly, who are the recipients of massive and growing income transfers, and the young who will pay exorbitant taxes to finance those transfers.

But I don't think this will happen because taxes are going to rise very gradually and because the young will expect to get their share when they turn 65. Also, as the government takes over all aspects of care for the elderly, their children are relieved of personal responsibility. The Medicare drug bill that has just passed Congress, for example, will be a kind of tax cut for those who would otherwise have had to pay for their parents' prescription drugs. Indeed, the Roosevelt administration originally sold Social Security to the young exactly this way.

I also think it is possible to minimize the burden on future generations by instituting policies that will sustain a high level of economic growth. This is where I really part way with Democrats, since they just don't understand economics at all, in my view. They are obsessed with envy and always want to raise taxes on the "rich." But these taxes eventually end up on the working class because they shrink the capital stock and diminish entrepreneurship, which slows real economic growth and wages. In the end, the cost of the Democrats' "soak the rich" policies is just too high.

Moreover, Democrats have absurd faith in government to fix things, no matter how much experience shows that its intervention usually makes things worse. Perhaps the stupidest proposal of the entire campaign so far is that by Howard Dean, the leading Democratic candidate, to re-regulate the American economy if elected. Not only is this dumb substantively, but he threw away any hope of getting votes from libertarians sympathetic to his views on foreign policy and civil liberties.

Still, it is important for America to have a strong Democratic Party in order to keep Republicans honest and provide competition for ideas. When Democrats don't provide effective opposition, it allows Republicans to get away with things they know they shouldn't be doing, like enacting huge new entitlement programs, imposing protectionist trade policies and raiding the Treasury for giveaways to Republican constituencies. I only wish that Democratic opposition to the drug bill had been more effective, so as to kill this monstrosity in its crib. But they did a better job on the pork-laden energy bill and helped deep-six that abomination, for which I am grateful.

Unfortunately, I don't see Democrats getting their act together next year to regain either the White House or Congress. As a Republican, I am sorry to see that because my party needs them in order to avoid corrupting itself.