Monday, July 30, 2007

This Just In: George W. Bush Is No Libertarian

Mathew Yglesias pushes this TimesDelete column by Paul Krugman which is apparently -- surprise! -- bashing Bush. I say "apparently" because I don't subscribe to TimesDelete, and I'm not sure why Yglesias bothers to link to columns behind the wall.

In any case, their thesis seems to be that Bush's supposedly anti-government agenda is furthered by his incompetent administration of government programs:

Unfortunately, the public opinion data does tend to suggest that Bush's staggering achievements in the field of maladministration have, in fact, boosted public skepticism of government capacity to do anything at all to some extent.

One way of thinking about what the country's experienced since the fall of 2001 is just large-scale consequences of perverse incentives. We have a president whose ideological goals on the domestic front are, on some level, advanced every time he screws up, with his own failures, his own corruption, providing evidence for the correctness of his ideology.

Yglesias (and, I assume, Krugman) seem to assume that Bush's ideology is skeptical toward government -- that it has some libertarian core. It's true that the Republican coaltion had a libertarian element to it from, say 1964 until the mid 90s, but I have yet to see any evidence of libertarian ideology in Bush-Rove Republicanism. After all, we are talking about a guy whose two major domestic initiatives were the creation of a new entitlement program and a dramatic expansion of the federal government's role in education.

I'm not sure that President George W. Bush has a discernable ideology -- in order to have an ideology you have to be capable of systematic thought, and I have yet to see any evidence of that. But if he does have an ideology, then surely limited governemnt isn't an element of it.

This is not a new meme on the left -- statists have been tooting this particular horn for a while. Here is David Bernstein's response to Tim F's claim over at Balloon Juice that "people who don’t believe in government do a crappy job when they try to run it:"

Here are two major problems with this thesis: (1) The Bush Administration is not exactly full of libertarians; exactly who in the Bush Administration "don't believe in government"? Given that government spending during this administration has increased at rates not seen since Lyndon Johnson, the better lesson would appear to be that "throwing government money at problems doesn't make them go away." (2) We have plenty of examples of people who surely did believe in government that didn't do a very good job running it. Anyone for the late and unlamented Mayor John Lindsay of New York? The kibbutzim of Israel, which survived for decades on government subsidies, before finally abandoning their model when the Likud reduced these subsidies? On a completely different level, the commisars of the former USSR?

Bernstein is, of course, correct. Bush's failure as a President doesn't undermine the case for putting people who believe in smaller government in elected office. Now it is possible to argue that government programs have been incomptently administered under George W. Bush, and that some (presumably Democratic) successor would do a better job. But the case for limited government isn't based on individual examples of incompetence or corruption. The case for limited government has to do with knowledge problems and moral hazard, and, yes, perverse incentives.

Big government doesn't fail because George W. Bush or his appointees sabotage it. Big government fails even when smart people with Ivy League educations who earnestly and sincirely believe in the wonders of government -- people like Mathew Yglesias, in other words -- are put in charge. And when George W. Bush is long gone, the case for smaller government will be as strong as ever.

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