Republicans and Liberty, Part 2

In yesterday’s post, I asked whether libertarian Republicans support the work of the American Civil Liberties Union and decided that they generally don’t. That’s because libertarian Republicans are generally “economic” libertarians, not “civil” libertarians.

One way to understand the difference is to consider controversies like the recent one in Arizona. Should business people be allowed to refuse service because of a customer’s sexual orientation? A strict economic libertarian would say yes, arguing that the government shouldn’t compel one group of people to associate with any other group, while a civil libertarian would argue that everyone has an equal right to purchase goods and services regardless of their sexual orientation.

To better understand what economic libertarianism amounts to in practice, I visited the official website of Senator RP, today’s most famous Republican libertarian and a contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Some of RP’s positions are simple platitudes. For example, he thinks we should only go to war if it’s necessary and the tax system should be simplified. The Senator may have interesting libertarian views on these subjects, but doesn’t mention them.   

Some of his other positions are clearly consistent with libertarian principles, although any economic libertarianism is muted. As expected, he thinks the federal government is too big (he also claims the federal government has doubled in size in the past decade — a statement that is ridiculously untrue; the real numbers are provided in a note at the bottom of this post).

In addition, he thinks the government has become too powerful and intrusive (apparently since 9/11). This opinion is the only one included under the category “Civil Liberties”. Lastly, he says the Affordable Care Act is bad because it expands the role of government. He doesn’t mention an alternative, although an economic libertarian would presumably prefer a completely private system in which healthcare is just another product, either freely donated or sold to people who could afford it. 

I’m obviously no expert on economic libertarianism, but his other positions seem questionable from that perspective: 

Life begins at conception, so abortion is unconstitutional – Even if we grant for the sake of argument that a fertilized egg is a person with constitutional rights, this would still be a case in which one individual’s single right take precedence over another individual’s various rights (without, of course, the latter’s consent). It’s certainly arguable that in this case, RP wants to impose his religious views on pregnant women, regardless of their own beliefs.

Our schools are suffering from too much government spending and interference – Some economic libertarians think mandatory public education is wrong. RP merely favors spending less money and exerting more local control. It isn’t clear in this context whether RP thinks school-age children have any rights at all, for example, the equal right to an education that will allow them to properly compete in the free market. 

We should increase domestic energy production even more than we already have – Encouraging energy efficiency (that would be government interference in the marketplace) and discouraging pollution (which affects us all, not just polluters) aren’t mentioned.

Illegal immigration is a threat to our national security – It isn’t explained why it’s dangerous for foreigners to participate in our free market. Some economic libertarians favor immigrant rights, apparently holding that people should be able to live and work where they want without government interference.

There should be no restrictions on gun ownership, except by irresponsible people and criminals – In practice, this means there should be very few restrictions and conflicts with other people’s right to be protected from violence (the main reason we have a government, according to economic libertarians).

Social Security covers more people than in the past and they’re living longer – No policy position is stated, although it’s implied that something is wrong. In particular, there is no mention of reducing benefits or cutting Social Security taxes, which would seem to be the obvious economic libertarian position.

Nobody should be allowed to serve in the Senate or the House for more than 12 years – This is despite the obvious fact that term limits infringe upon an individual’s fundamental right to engage in a law-abiding career of his or her choice for as long as he or she chooses.

Veterans should be given special assistance – It isn’t clear whether this means veterans should receive benefits beyond what was promised when they freely chose to enlist.

Based on the above, Senator RP’s libertarianism seems rather limited, perhaps because taking stronger libertarian positions would scare away voters. Cutting Social Security benefits and allowing more foreigners into the country aren’t popular positions. Legalizing drugs, which isn’t mentioned, is controversial, especially among Republicans. On the other hand, most Republicans favor forcing pregnant women to give birth, term limits and special benefits for veterans, none of which are clear libertarian positions.  

So, the impression I get from RP’s website is that he has some libertarian tendencies, but is just another right-wing politician. He’s found a home in the Republican Party even though Republicans tend to favor things like prayer and creationism in public schools, a worldwide military presence, government surveillance, harsh drug laws, farm subsidies and vote suppression, despite the fact that those positions seem to conflict with libertarianism of any kind.

I was planning to include some general thoughts on economic libertarianism today, but for now I’ll end with a related observation (author unknown) and that promised footnote):

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” and Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.


That promised (long) footnote: Has the federal government doubled in size in the past decade, as RP’s website claims?

The precise decade isn’t specified, but that’s not important, since the numbers are clear whichever recent 10-year period we choose. For example, starting in 2002 and ignoring inflation, total federal spending was 2.0 trillion dollars. In 2012, it was 3.5 trillion, a truly large increase of 75% (although less than 100%). However, corrected for inflation (using constant 2005 dollars), total spending went from 2.0 trillion to 3.0 trillion, an increase of 50% (well, it was a rough decade, what with the wars and the free-market financial crisis and the resulting unemployment).

Alternatively, as a percentage of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (a measure commonly used by economists, because it reflects the nation’s increasing economic activity), federal spending rose from 19% of GDP in 2002 to 24% of GDP in 2012, an increase of 26%.

Finally, there were 4.15 million people working for the federal government in 2002. In 2012, there were 4.31 million, an increase of only 3%.

So much for the size of the federal government doubling in the last decade. 

By the way, the other statistic cited to help us understand this supposed astonishing growth of more than 100% is an increase of roughly 40%. Quote: “To put this in perspective, the federal government spends more than $10,280 per person, over $3,000 more per individual than what we were spending in 2001”.

9 thoughts on “Republicans and Liberty, Part 2

      • Hehe, that’s probably a wise strategy. I think he’s probably the least worst senator, but I’m no fanboy.

        Yea, it looks like the page needs updating. He’s referencing 2011. Although he doesn’t explicitly state, the on-budget spending did more than double in the decade preceding 2011.

        Also, let me add to a point you were making, since I think you’re on the right track. It’s easy to see that libertarians are just a more extreme version of conservatives on economic issues. However, conservatives tend to support more indirect forms of economic controls, whereas progressives favor more direct economic interventions, so libertarians tend to view them as two sides of the same coin.

        • Regarding the doubled spending — I don’t see that at all and I looked at the same site you did. But I’ll look again.

          Not sure what you mean by indirect vs. direct economic interventions, unless you mean that “conservatives” (a word I don’t care for these days) prefer cutting taxes for high-income people and businesses to generate economic growth, while liberals and progressives prefer spending/investment on specific projects. Maybe that’s what you’re referring to. Of course, Republicans are willing to subsidize some businesses directly — e.g. defense industry, agribusiness — and liberals don’t mind cutting some taxes, especially for low-income people, in order to spur growth. I think the main difference between “conservatives” and liberals is that they have different targets for their economic interventions. I’m not sure their methods are the key difference.

          • According to the data I linked to, the on-budget federal outlays went from $1,516 trillion in 2001 to $3,104.5 trillion in 2011, or a 104.75 percent increase.

            I think you’re right about both sides liking both types of interventions and about who they intend to target. An example of an indirect intervention would be where a business is given a special privilege (like banks with fractional reserve banking), and legislators or regulatory bodies remove controls on how that special privilege is used, supposedly to advance free-market reforms, rather than eliminating the privilege itself (the direct intervention). I hope that makes more sense.

              • It’s true that if you look through the tables you can find a 100% increase. The example you cite is “On-Budget Federal Government Outlays”. However, the numbers in that table aren’t corrected for inflation, which means the dollars spent in 2011 were worth less than the ones in 2001.

                Not corrected for inflation, total federal outlays increased from 1.86 to 3.60 trillion in that period (almost 100%). But if you correct for inflation, total federal outlays went from 2.07 to 3.15 trillion (a large increase, but 52%, not 100%, and not more than 100% as RP’s site suggests).

                Politicians are great at finding misleading statistics to support their positions, but using dollar amounts that don’t reflect 10 years of inflation is plain old obfuscation or sophistry (also known as b.s.). Maybe we shouldn’t assume that RP or his staff understand inflation or why economists refer to numbers adjusted for inflation as “constant dollars” and “corrected”, but the rest of us should.

        • I’d prefer not to take up government accounting, but since everything on the internet should be accurate, the chart I looked at was:

          It’s title is Summary of Receipts, Outlays, and Surpluses or Deficits (-) in Current Dollars, Constant (FY 2005) Dollars, and as Percentages of GDP: 1940–2018. It’s specifically for the federal government. The chart you found includes all government expenditures, including state and local governments.

          I assumed RP’s site was referring to the federal government (his new employer), but looking at the chart you found:

          Total government expenditures increased from 3.0 trillion in 2001 to 5.3 trillion in 2011 (although the increase is less if corrected for inflation, and not “more than 100%” even as it stands). In terms of GDP, the increase was from 29.2% to 35.5%, an even lower increase.

          So although it’s clear that all government spending has dramatically increased recently (and we should try to understand why), claiming that the size of government (meaning spending, not personnel) increased more than 100% in that decade is an impressive statistic, but basically bullshit. (But I’m no accountant.)

  1. On second thought (replying to myself), we give the author of this sentence at RP’s site (“the size of government has grown by more than 100 percent in the last decade”) too much credit if we ignore a simple fact: the federal workforce grew by 3% or so in that period. When someone refers to the “size of government”, it’s most natural to interpret that as a reference to the government workforce, not the amount of money the government spends. If you want to talk about the growth in government spending, it’s real easy to say “government spending has grown”. But Republicans often give the impression that money (especially their own money) is more important than people.

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