The Despairing Optimist: To the Victor the Spoils?

The Despairing Optimist:


Friday afternoon (post-election)

November 10, 2000


Who will be our next President? It’s still up in the air as I write this! The vote recount suggests that Bush will remain the winner in Florida, but the closeness of the vote (and partisan politics) suggests that we’re in for some further confusion before the presidency is decided. 


This campaign, as is so often the case, provided ample grounds for despair and optimism.  Optimistic factors include the fact that the rhetoric of this campaign suggests that Americans (and perhaps people all over the world) are increasingly distrustful of government’s ability to advance human welfare. Gore was just as eager as “W” to be seen as favoring smaller government, even though his seminal book, Earth in the Balance, suggests quite the contrary.


The primary pessimistic factor, on the other hand, is that the “egalitarian” complex of issues – welfare, education, environment – remains in limbo.  Both candidates seem very willing to expand the role of the central “caring” state.


More grounds for gloom are provided by the acts of Congress in these closing days – an ever more porcine tendency to spend, and spend, and…spend.  After all, it would be foolish to leave any “surplus” money on the table.  (As an aside, notice the rhetoric: it’s not an “overcharge” that we should be refunded to the taxpayers, it’s rather a “surplus” for politicians to divvy up and spend.) 


Yet while we might have some sympathy with the optimism/pessimism duality as it applies to the candidates, its impact on America is unfortunately less ambiguous.  We’re in trouble.  Yes, there was no decisive choice for more government – a good thing (recall that even Gore gasp! opposed “big government”) but, tragically, the vote gave little encouragement to reigning in a government that is already too big.  


And it’s interesting. The Democrats have been quick to blame Ralph Nader for “stealing” their votes. Nader’s presence in this election was intriguing. He gained his reputation by being a consumer advocate, and now has taken on a political identity with the Green Party. It’s ironic that Nader is opposed to “big corporations,” but thinks that “big government” is the solution to all of our problems. Of course, we’re opposed to corporate political power and privilege, but we’re not opposed to entrepreneurs. There is probably no hope for converting Nader to our way of thinking, but perhaps we can work to convert some of his supporters.


And, of course, every election year brings complaints of “voter apathy.” Yet with this “too big” government, people may very rationally decide that their votes are less relevant. They may feel that their vote will only elect a politician who cannot be held accountable in the murky world of politics and regulation.


In the meantime, I’ll be anxiously reloading CNN’s website in my browser window in anticipation (or maybe not) of the election results.


As of tomorrow, I’ll be in Chile for a week at the meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society. I will deliver a speech entitled “The Bankruptcy of Collectivist Environmental Policy,” which explores a new understanding of the intellectual task before classical liberals to promote free markets as the best way to help people and the environment.


Chile has recently been victim to eco-imperialism at the hands of environmentalists, and Greenpeace has been active in Argentina, protesting “genetically modified organisms.” So, I will also deliver a speech at a seminar in Chile about balancing “economy” with “ecology” (as will the Center for Private Conservation’s Michael DeAlessi), and I will be participating in a biotechnology forum in Buenos Aires, specifically speaking about the precautionary principle.


I wish you all happy holidays.




P.S. Recall that the Thanksgiving holiday became possible only after the Pilgrims abandoned utopian socialism in favor of entrepreneurial individualism. Grounds for optimism?


P.P.S. Of course, we would be happier if the “good guys” began to realize that politics is a contact sport.  Our side should view politics like the Victorians viewed sex: unfortunately necessary, but one shouldn’t do it often, and certainly not enjoy it. Perhaps this campaign experience will jar our side into adulthood.