The Myth of the Middle
Why we should be skeptical about the current mania for a third party that appeals to independents and libertarians.
The refreshing thing about this year’s first entry in the category of books promising political independence is that it breaks the first of the rules: Its authors, both of Reason magazine (Gillespie edited it from 2000-2008; Welch is the current editor), are not successful lobbyists or political consultants. Welch and Gillespie “declare independence not just within politics, but from the politics.” Unlike the careerists of Americans Elect, they don’t much like politics, and it shows. Their purpose is to make politics small enough that we don’t have to give much thought to it, and can return to “the pursuit of happiness” through loose, decentralized activity, which is their real topic. Early on in their book, for example, we’re treated to a well-executed ten pages about the Velvet Underground and its influence on Czech dissidents in the 1980s—a fascinating subject, but one only tangentially related to American politics in 2011. (A later digression about the characters in a 1988 video game called Lee Trevino’s Fighting Golf is hilariously even less relevant.)
The authors would probably hate this comparison, but the tone of the first quarter of the book reminded me of John Maynard Keynes’s charming 1930 essay, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” in which he held out the prospect of a world in which “the economic problem”—scarcity—had been solved, and rather than chasing basic resources, much of humanity would be free to enjoy music, art, leisure, and personal freedom. Unlike the cramped vision of the insider efforts, they describe their philosophy as “a confident, all-chips-on-black wager on the ability of free individuals to invent more and more interesting choices for how we can live our hyphenated lives.” Their children, they predict, will “get to do stuff we cannot imagine…maybe vacationing in a different solar system or building a house without having to apply for a zoning variance.” Their playful sense that politics is a means to an end, and the end is for each of us to be able to lead a fulfilling life, is a refreshing alternative to the narrow outlook of the insiders.
As libertarians, Welch and Gillespie also have a far more legitimate claim to be politically homeless than the Lieberman Democrats. Their comprehensive libertarianism—minimal government, laissez-faire, civil liberties, drug and reproductive rights, open borders, deregulation—is not represented in either political party, not even at the far-right edge of the Republican Party, which talks a good game but is really libertarian only on economics (and even there, most invested in protecting the current winners). Former New Mexico Governor and current presidential candidate Gary Johnson is far closer to a real libertarian than even Ron Paul, but he can barely qualify for inclusion in the Republican debates, despite two terms as a popular governor.
Libertarians do have what Americans Elect can only dream of—a ballot line. The Libertarian Party’s presidential ticket generally appears on the ballots of 45 to 50 states. But Welch and Gillespie mention the party only twice, in passing, with no explanation of why they don’t see it as a vehicle for their independence. While the book promises an optimistic alternative vision of politics, in form it adopts the conventional argument for the mystical independent or third-party candidate. That starts with the Friedmanesque litany of “Amazon, iPod, drugstore.com,” but Welch and Gillespie extend that riff into the bulk of the book, with only minimal effort to connect it to politics. These chapters are mostly interesting case studies in various businesses or individuals who broke down established structures through individual initiative—free-agent statistical blogger Nate Silver, Southwest Airlines, microbreweries. These anecdotes have their own shortcomings—very few people have the nerve, genius, and luck to be Nate Silver, and the microbreweries struggle daily against the price-setting power of the two multinationals that control four-fifths of the American beer market. And here’s where the implied analogy to politics shatters: If you start a microbrewery that gains 1 percent of the U.S. beer market, you’ll become fabulously wealthy, but if you start a political party that gets 1 percent of the vote, you are, even in the best-case scenario, Ralph Nader. In 1996.
While Gillespie and Welch are coming from a different orientation than the insider-centrists, their substantive argument takes a similar form: We need an independent candidate because of, you guessed it, the deficit. The federal deficit is what forces them to abandon their lucrative and rewarding private pursuits, and return, unhappily, to politics. They are pulled back to the battle, they say, only because “we are so out of money.”
The long-term federal deficit is indeed a problem to be solved, and there are lots of reasons to be concerned about it—but “we are so out of money” is a particularly misleading way to describe it. We can no more run out of money than we can run out of smiles. The United States has the good fortune to be sovereign in its own currency, which is to say that we can handle the current debt and much of the projected debt. At certain levels, there will be bad consequences, such as inflation, but we’re nowhere near that point and certainly not “out of money.”
From that stale premise, the authors recycle a wish list of unexciting or long-discredited ideas on health, education, and retirement, such as the Social Security privatization scheme that George W. Bush never even sent to Congress in 2005 or health-care ideas like allowing insurers to bypass state regulations or requiring individuals to bear more of the cost of health care. They’re too pragmatic to endorse the more bracing libertarian absolutes, like eliminating any public role in health insurance. On education, they write in apocalyptic tones about the failure of K-through-12 schooling (they’re wrong), but they pull their punch, not even endorsing private-school vouchers, but instead a budgeting scheme known as the “weighted-student formula” that has recently been embraced by many large urban school districts (you know, the same ones that are failures).
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