The Wrong Focus

September 29, 2004

Election years are annoying. Someone always complains that the candidates won't address "the issues". I wish they were right, because every time you hear someone rattle off a list of issues, whether it's a candidate, a journalist, a lobbyist, or a protester, you rarely hear even one thing on the list that public officials should be concerned with.

Examples of this are easy to find. Check the web site of either major party's candidate. Here's what they advertise as their main issues...

John Kerry George W. Bush
Children & Families
Civil Rights1
Health Care
Homeland Security
National Security
National Service
Rural America
Science and Technology
Stronger Communities
Jobs & Economy
Compassion & Values
Health Care
Safety & Security
Environment2 & Energy

I've highlighted the issues that a President of the United States has the legitimate authority to act on in bold. Combining the lists of both candidates, it breaks down to about 12 issues and out of that dozen, there's only one in bold: defense. The others are disqualified because they violate the 10th Amendment and/or the simple principle of equal treatment under the law.

That's great. Everyone's going to spend 90% of the time talking about crap that's none of their business. Of course, the things the candidates talk about are largely influenced by the pervasive ignorance of their potential voters. Just watch one of those "town hall meetings" with a candidate for public office at any level of government. All you will hear out of the audience is the same question - asked in different ways - over and over again: "What are you going to do to make life easier for me and/or my chosen group?" Calm down. The guy's not running for the office of "your dad", he's running for Mayor. What's wrong with everyone? Where are all the questions like "When will you get out of my bedroom, my body, my company, my child's school, my wallet, my doctor's office, my favorite bar/restaurant, my car, my ass!!?" You'll be lucky to hear one such question.

Now this next bit, to me, is the worst. Have you seen any of MTV's Chose or Lose coverage? There's an inevitable "kid on the street" sound-byte on the subject of why voting is important and it usually goes something like this: "'Cause it's your future. If you don't vote then you have no excuse and you can't complain. It's your one chance to get out there and do something." Great. We're doomed. Most of these kids have completely accepted the idea that their prosperity rests more in the hands of public officials than it does in their own hands - a complete reversal of "the American dream". Now, as you'll see in the next paragraph, the kids might be onto something. It's not the content of their statements that I take issue with, it's their apparent resignation and acceptance that worries me. (Quick tangent: Does anyone really believe that MTV gives a shit about the youth having a voice? They know that young voters are uninformed and idealistic and therefore likely to go liberal. That's the only reason they try to "get out the youth vote". Poo stuffers. Anyway…)

I've heard people on all sides say that this presidential election is more important than any that's come before it. I don't know if that's exactly true, but it's not far off. What I never hear anyone discuss though, is the reason that it's so important and why future elections will become more important still: government keeps growing. The more power politicians have over our individual fates, the more important it becomes to select the "right" ones. When other people are making decisions for you on how you will invest for retirement, what type of health insurance you'll have, where your kids will go to school, what your land will be used for, how you may defend yourself, what chemicals you are allowed to put into your body, or on any of the other issues from the lists above, you're going to want to pay close attention to who those people are.

We take it for granted that the outcome of an election is important, but that tends to distract us from the real issue. Here is an excellent point from Frederic Bastiat about the supposed importance of voting:

…if law were restricted to protecting all persons, all liberties, and all properties; if law were nothing more than the organized combination of the individual's right to self defense; if law were the obstacle, the check, the punisher of all oppression and plunder — is it likely that we citizens would then argue much about the extent of the franchise?


If the law were confined to its proper functions, everyone's interest in the law would be the same. Is it not clear that, under these circumstances, those who voted could not inconvenience those who did not vote?

Would we be divided, at each other's political throats, with such intensity if the result of our vote did not have the potential to seriously alter the quality of life for our opponents and ourselves?

So, this is the part where I tell you to vote Libertarian, right? I wish. Normally, it's just that simple, but not this time. On the one issue that the candidates should actually be talking about, defense, the Libertarians have taken the following stance: "National Security: Just say 'No'!" So, do you go with Bush, who's wrong on just about every big issue, or with Michael Badnarik, who's right on every big issue, but wrong on one huge issue3? Not an easy call for me. I understand the Libertarian argument. I agree that our foreign policy should be "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none", but the fact is that over the past century or more, we have established many alliances and some of them have gotten us "entangled" with violent animals. While we should be moving toward a foreign policy of non-interference as rapidly as possible, you can't put the shit back in the horse. Bringing all of our troops home and cutting off all foreign aid tomorrow isn't going to make Islamic terrorists happy or make them stop their attacks. If anything, they might think that their attacks had something to do with our policy change and come after us with a renewed excitement in an effort to win even more concessions. We've gotten ourselves into a situation where we've taken certain stances, and we can't let others see us back down from them. Based on this reasoning, which I've held for nearly 3 years, you'd have to vote for Bush.

On the other hand, I've been thinking about Debra Dickerson's O.J. Simpson argument lately:

Convictions have to follow the law, we have to be process-oriented, not outcome oriented. I happen to be of the school that thinks he was both guilty and framed and of the school which puts all its faith in the rule of law. That’s what separates us from the beasts, from the autocracies, from the dictatorships.

That's what made the Constitution come to life and end the de jure oppression of blacks.  We can’t invoke it sometimes and not others; justice has to always be in the ‘on’ position.  We can’t allow the police, whether from zeal or racism, to frame people or even just be slipshod.  The rules have to be followed because the police power is an awesome thing. We have to put ourselves in the defendant’s place, with the unlimited resources and power of the state facing him, and ask ourselves what constitutes fair play on the part of the state. I think every police force in America became a lot more careful in its handling of evidence in OJ’s wake.  The Constitution must take precedence over any one crime. Better that murderers go free than American justice become an oxymoron.

She sold me. A government with no accountability is far more dangerous than any murderer4. Thinking about that idea in the context of this Presidential election, the question becomes: "Who is more of a threat to us Americans - a group of terrorists seeking to destroy our country, or our own government?" Don't dismiss the question out of hand. If you think short term, then yes, the terrorists are the greater threat, but I ask you to consider the big picture and think about not just our current government, but the government we could potentially end up with. Individual liberty is clearly and steadily yielding ground to unlimited government authority and neither of the two major parties is trying to reverse this course. Most people who recognize this danger to our freedom, but plan to vote for Bush anyway, argue that freedom doesn't do us much good if we're all dead. I used to agree with that, but a while back, while clarifying my rationale for going to war, I was thinking about what America's priorities are. I concluded that "peace" was pretty far down the list, but that's beside the point. At the top of the list were "liberty" and "security", with liberty taking the #1 spot. This is not my personal opinion, or some list I pulled out of my ass. Freedom really does take priority over security for Americans.

"Give me liberty or give me death." - Patrick Henry

Sound familiar? What about this one?

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." - Benjamin Franklin

Once I understood our priorities, I had to rethink my "freedom doesn't do us much good if we're all dead" attitude. Consider the threat that the British military posed to the colonies in the 18th century vs. the threat posed to America today by angry Muslims. If America could choose freedom over security under the circumstances of the late 1700s, when most thought defeat was inevitable, then what excuse could we possibly have for not doing so today? Under Badnarik, the best case scenario is that we leave other countries alone and the Islamic terror movement loses steam. The worst case scenario is that they become emboldened and are allowed to gather strength overseas. Even in the worst case, do you think America's survival is at risk? Do you think our enemy could ever become unstoppable? I don't, but in any case, the concept of concentrating on the process, not the outcome, applies to all issues at all levels of government and should not be ignored.

Can we choose security in the short run and worry about freedom later? I don't know, but you should really be thinking about it. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • If the government reaches the point where there's a consensus among Americans that it's more of a threat than terrorism, it will probably be too late to do anything about it through peaceful political processes like voting.
  • Allowing our enemies to become more powerful is risky. Allowing the government to become more powerful is not risky at all... it's guaranteed to ruin our lives and our nation.

I'm not saying Libertarian is the way to go. I still disagree with them on the war issue, but while I am leaning toward Bush, I might have just talked myself out of voting for him in the process of writing on the subject. I am closer to voting for Badnarik than I ever thought I would be, but still undecided. The main point of this article was not to endorse a candidate, but to show that the two major parties focus on the wrong things and to express what our focus should be this election year. Happy voting!

1 Yes, the government should protect our civil rights, but when John Kerry uses the term "civil rights", he's not referring to any rights at all. He's referring to condescending handouts and advantages based on membership in a particular group.
2 People need to be conscious of what effect they have on the property of others and that property needs to be protected in some way, but the contemporary definition of environmental policy goes way beyond this, so I didn't count it.
3 No, I didn't mention Kerry in this sentence because he's ridiculously out of the question. For everything that Bush does wrong (interfering in the economy, spending like crazy, taxing like crazy, granting favors to buddies), Kerry is worse by a factor of at least 5. For Badnarik's one flaw - opposing our current military action - Kerry is also worse (depending on what day you ask him). Kerry displays all the negative qualities of both candidates.
4 I realize that the phrase "no accountability" does not reflect reality in the O.J. case or in the United States in general, but if you replace it with "little accountability" or even "high, but declining accountability", the statement is still true. Further, the statement does reflect reality in the United States using one of the three phrases, so which one you use isn't that important.

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