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AFTER BUSH, ARE RESPONSIBLE LIBERTARIANS BETTER OFF WITH OBAMA?

By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 7 NOVEMBER 2008 - Now that the election results are in and we have a president in waiting, it is important to consider how generations of Americans have labored to prove Georges Clemenceau wrong when famously said that, "America is the only country in history that miraculously has gone directly from barbarism to decadence without the usual interval of civilization." Increasingly, we Americans have had our work cut out for us.

It was the people in charge who failed us most. They broke the social compact between the leaders and the led, and left gun-toting, church-going, reactionary Joe Six-Pack to drown in his beer and his debt.

As a nation, we owe the world an apology for the presidency of George W. Bush, but the world has to remember this: as tough as it has been to be Mr. Bush's neighbor, Americans have had to room with him for eight years. It takes a hard heart, nonetheless, not to pity a man who, even though he has not left office, finds historians already debating whether he has proven to be the least capable American president or if perhaps there are still worse things to say about James Buchanan and one or two others.

To George W. Bush we must credit the inexplicable Iraq war, the unforgivable treatment of prisoners, and an abandonment of the kind of fiscally prudent governance that is a grounding ideal of true American conservatism. President Bush, despite his Ivy League education and social pedigree, represents a problem particular to the United States and other nations where either religion or secular ideology has a strong presence: the triumph of certainty based not on study and the attainment of measurable results but on willful ignorance; here, it arises as well from that uniquely American embrace of a sustainable, achievable mediocrity grounded on peer pressure, consumerism and pop-culture iconography.

The particular anti-intellectualism practiced by Mr. Bush assures that position papers, statistics, the law, and informed debate are left to cabinet and staff; just go with your gut, do what looks best for yourself politically, and do not for a minute question the correctness of your decisions or how you got to them. As Mr. Bush explained after 9/11, when he lectured a world he had barely visited or understood: you are either with us or against us - and watch out those of you who are against us. To those who worried that, after the Soviet Union broke up, an America unchecked by a major opponent would act like a fraternity boy left to mind the liquor store, those of us who could never believe we would be capable of behaving that way can only admit that we did not know ourselves nearly as well as we had hoped.

The American worker is an easy target due to his unschooled devotion to pride and gusto over knowledge and culture.

The president has a limited power to wage war, for all that now, somehow, we are in two of them. When it comes to the economy, however, presidents are like television weathermen: they will get blamed and praised for things they can only observe and report. Bill Clinton likes to credit himself for the prosperity that informed much of his two terms in office, omitting the fact that presidents typically can do little to make prosperity happen (circumstances and private citizens do), and that, had his socialistic health-care plan not been shot down early in his presidency, he might well have impeded all or a part of the economic growth that followed.

To the extent that government is at fault for the current financial crisis, it was through a commitment to deregulation of the financial markets - a commitment that often was Republican-led but usually bipartisan in spirit and application - that permitted imprudent financiers to raise gambling to the level of an investment strategy. Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, gave his mea culpa to a Congressional committee - a "mistakes were made" level of public admission that offered good television and better history, however small a consolation that might be to those Americans forced to put back retirement to a date uncertain or who might not actually have a place to live at the moment.

The average citizen has to accept his share of blame. If you cannot afford to pay the mortgage, get something cheaper or rent. And ask yourself why you need a truck to carry around you and your family.

The financial crisis is global, but it started here. It proved that the American faith in the financial markets always to correct themselves was misplaced. . To capitalists of the twentieth century, such as Mr. Greenspan, it must indeed seem bewildering, but they were raised in an age when freedom - such as that recently enjoyed by financial institutions - walked hand in hand with something known as responsibility. Those twentieth-century capitalists by and large understood that, with great power and wealth comes great responsibility, that they held positions of trust because employees, stockholders, depositors, investors, pensioners and others depended on them; and that they made their money by honoring and deserving that trust. Too many of their twenty-first century successors have shown allegiance only to themselves, choosing not to see their companies as institutions they served but as vehicles for personal gain. While it worked, they overpaid themselves, and when their gambling took down the house, they sought to overpay themselves yet again with excessive severance packages.

There is a new awareness that laissez-faire thinking about the financial markets no longer applies when enough people in command within those markets are incapable, by temperament, training or character, of behaving responsibly.

A true libertarian would argue that only the marketplace can determine what is excessive. If the marketplace cannot find that out until severe damage has been done to the entire financial system, its determination is about as useless as a general knowing what he did wrong after the war has already been lost. We are not, however, witnessing the failure of capitalism as some kind of follow-up to the failure of communism. The free market did not fail the world; the leaders of the financial community failed the free market, themselves and the world.

When Evelyn Waugh wrote his burlesques about the British upper class between the world wars, he told in comic form of an elite cracking under the pressure of modernity. The greatest comedy is simply tragedy retold. Perhaps our own satiric writers will have something soon to say about all this, but as with that British experience of decline, it has been a tragedy that has come from the top and filtered down.

The average citizen has to accept his share of blame. No one forces anyone else into credit-card debt to buy unnecessary things. If you cannot afford to pay the mortgage, you should not buy the house; get something cheaper or rent. When you complain about gasoline prices, before you call for drilling out more wildernesses or for getting rough with OPEC nations, please first ask yourself why you need a truck (SUV, minivan or pickup) to carry around you and your family.

The American worker, called Joe Six-Pack by journalists, is an easy target due to his unschooled devotion to pride and gusto over knowledge and culture. (Barack Obama caught hell when, in a momentary, blundering lapse into honesty during the campaign, he sagaciously said of the American working class, "And it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them…") We should not forget, however, fact that it was the people in charge who failed us most. They broke the social compact between the leaders and the led, worked primarily in pursuit of their own personal interests, and left gun-toting, church-going, reactionary Joe Six-Pack to drown in his beer and his debt. That was not merely a tragedy; it was ethically inexcusable.

President-elect Obama is a leftist who has concealed far outside he stands from the center-right mainstream. But it may be all he can do to serve a few amuse-bouches from the socialist menu. We live in an age of such ironies.

The fix for all that is a renewed commitment to selflessness and social service. It is also a renewed commitment toward that old principle of learning enough about what you hope to do, before you spend other people's money and risk other people's lives by doing it.

Fortunately, there appears to be movement in that direction. The conservative intelligentsia turned on John McCain for his selection of the unqualified, Bush-in-a-skirt Governor Sarah Palin as his choice for vice president. (Christopher Buckley, Kathleen Parker and others had right-wing fatwas issued against them for doing just that - that is, for behaving responsibly and courageously by putting country ahead of ideology.) There is a new awareness that laissez-faire thinking about the financial markets - that they could operate best when left unfettered by regulation - no longer applies when enough people in command within those markets are incapable, by temperament, training or character, of behaving responsibly. And despite a primal scream of protest from constituents, Congress did the right thing when it accepted its Hobson's choice and approved, with needed modifications, the treasury secretary's proposed $700 billion bailout package for the financial sector. Characteristically, President Bush, already what we uncharitably call a lame duck, appeared at that moment to have all but ceased to govern, leaving the job to the superior abilities of his lieutenants.

To those who worry that President-elect Obama is a leftist who has worked to conceal how far outside he stands from the center-right mainstream of the body politic of the United States: you are right. But the Bush administration, Congress and the international financial community have, in tandem, so mucked things up, by the time Mr. Obama and his team have done what they need to do to help set things right again, there may well remain time and money enough to serve no more than the amuse-bouche from their socialist menu.

We live in an age of such ironies. With a bit of hard work and a renewed sense of commitment and responsibility by us all, perhaps it will not also be an age of decadence.

Alan Behr, a libertarian Republican, voted for Barack Obama.

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