Governing Well Is the Best Revenge

I am not a libertarian. Unlike Markos Moulitsas, I will not try to convince you that most of our fellow Democrats are libertarians, either. If you’re independent and skeptical enough to claim that label for yourself, you wouldn’t believe us, anyway. After six years of getting burned by an administration and Congress that promised to tame government, then injected it with steroids, you deserve to hear a straight answer, and a few honest pledges that will actually be kept.

So let me start by leveling about the ways in which we may disagree. I grew up in Idaho, perhaps the second most libertarian state in the Union (behind Alaska), and part of the great libertarian Mountain West that Markos Moulitsas dreams about. I spent much of my youth at county fairs asking cowboys with gun racks if they’d like Democratic bumper stickers on their pickups. Needless to say, I learned about rejection at an early age, and received an excellent, if unsolicited, tutorial in libertarian philosophy.

Growing up in the Rockies, a world away from Washington, I picked up a healthy skepticism of government, an independent streak, and a distaste for orthodoxy. But to me, living in your own private Idaho was more a privilege and a luxury than a practical formula for how a country might run.

I took other lessons from those years in a state with the slogan, “Idaho Is What America Was.” First, personal liberty and personal responsibility go hand in hand. We won’t have more of one unless we insist on more of the other. Government is not the first nor the most important agent of responsibility, but its example matters. An irresponsible, unaccountable government of any size poses a far graver threat to individual freedom than a responsible, activist one.

Second, markets can be the most effective engine of individual opportunity, but only if they are honest ones, tempered in the public interest. Third, government must be an engine of individual opportunity as well, or else it will end up imposing a crushing burden of privilege and bureaucracy.

As Rahm Emanuel and I write in our book, with its un-libertarian title, The Plan: Big Ideas for America:

Every citizen needs to understand and accept the essence of the American bargain: Each of us has to do his or her part. While the rights of citizenship are explicit in our Constitution, the implicit responsibilities are every bit as crucial. For our radical experiment in freedom to work, we must prize responsibilities as well as rights, and never presume to do for people what they can do for themselves.

These beliefs lead us to take stands that many libertarians will not agree with. For example, I believe that every American owes our country a debt of service. I believe that government is bound to fail any time it values responsibilities less than rights. From my own experience in government, I even have come to believe that my hero George Orwell’s vision no longer holds: In a country like ours, the more likely threat to freedom is not government conspiracy, but government ineptitude and bureaucracy.

So, if you’re looking for government to close up shop, don’t vote Democratic. Unlike George Bush and the Republican Congress, we’ll give you accountable government that lives within its means. But we want government to do something useful, not just sit there.

I’ll leave it to the civil libertarians in my party to explain why our side is less likely to spy on your library books, read your e-mails, or infringe upon your constitutional rights. My case for voting Democratic rests on three simple, comparative tests: Which party can provide smaller, more efficient government? Which party takes the responsibilities of government and limited government seriously enough to actually deliver it? Which party believes in competition enough to wean the country from its dangerous addiction to corporate welfare and make free enterprise work?

Smaller Government: Forget the sweet nothings that Republicans have whispered in your ears for decades. The last 15 years have given us a perfect laboratory experiment to measure actual results. Bill Clinton produced the first balanced budget and the first surpluses in 30 years. He cut the size of the federal workforce by 400,000, and imposed a level of spending restraint the federal government hasn’t seen before or since. As Cato bravely pointed out, George Bush did just the opposite, squandering surpluses, abandoning all restraint, and presiding over the sharpest increase in domestic spending since LBJ.

If the record isn’t enough, look at our agendas. Going forward, Democrats are the ones insisting on restoring annual spending caps and pay-as-you-go-rules to put the teeth back in fiscal discipline. The Bush White House and congressional Republicans continue to oppose it, and claim deficits don’t matter. We now have a quarter century of evidence to prove that Republican tax cuts will never shrink the size of government—on the contrary, they just delay the day of reckoning, and add interest. Republicans aren’t starving the beast; with their steady diet of annual tax “cuts,” they’ve created a bigger, hungrier beast that eats more and makes government fatter. Democrats, on the other hand, have learned that prudence is a prerequisite for progressivism.

Limited Government: Thomas Jefferson said, “That government which governs least, governs best.” After six years, we can now postulate the Bush corollary: “That government which governs worst, governs most.”

Let’s face it: If you believe in the idea of limited government, you have to take government more seriously, not less. Nations have certain irreducible needs—like protection from natural disaster, for example. Do them well, and government need not grow in size or scope. Screw them up, and you’ll have to spend, meddle, and intrude a great deal more.

Just as important, the very essence of limited government is that it must be purposeful, performance-based, and mission-driven. When the purpose is not clear and certain, the outcome and the cost will never be.

In the Clinton administration, hacks knew their place. In the Bush administration and the Republican Congress, hacks know no bounds. The Bush playbook—bribes, no-bid contracts, disdain for competence, and a penchant for botching reform—invites more government. New Democrat answers like banning earmarks, closing the revolving door, and ending the incumbent protection racket by requiring competitive congressional districts, by contrast, will keep government in check.

That is the fundamental problem with the Bush administration and Washington conservatism. The Bush White House has been a political project, not a governing one. From Katrina to Iraq to its domestic agenda, the Bush crowd didn’t take governing seriously, and never even bothered to ask whether its ideas would work. It should come as no surprise that they didn’t.

Ending Corporate Welfare: For all their talk about markets, Washington Republicans have institutionalized corporate welfare and special privilege. Corporations are not the root of all evil, as some think. But if we believe in competition, we shouldn’t be doling out taxpayer subsidies that distort the market, bloat the budget, and invite corruption all at the same time.

For years, New Democrats have been beating the same drum as the Cato Institute: It is time to end corporate welfare as we know it. We were right to reform the broken welfare system for single mothers, who responded heroically by going to work and welcoming their independence. Ending corporate welfare will have the same impact on both the political and the business world. We cannot compete in a world that is flat if we let every interest in Washington put its thumb on the scale. If we level the playing field by abolishing unnecessary subsidies, we’ll advance the general welfare and be in a much stronger position for the global competition ahead.


Democrats have a vision of liberty and responsibility that America could have used these last few years, and needs even more in the years to come. We may not be Rocky Mountain libertarians. But after the mess Bush has made, you have nowhere to go but up.

Bruce Reed, president of the Democratic Leadership Council, is co-author of The Plan: Big Ideas for America (Public Affairs, 2006).

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Kicking off this month’s discussion, “Should Libertarians Vote Democrat?”, Markos “Kos” Moulitsas, proprietor of, argues that the libertarian Democrat’s time has come. Moulitsas says that GOP dominance has been a disaster for limited government and civil liberties, and that growing corporate power poses a grave threat to individual liberty and necessitates government action. “[W]e’ve seen that [the Republican Party] is now committed to subverting individual freedoms,” writes Moulitsas, “while the [Democratic Party] is growing increasingly comfortable with moving in a new direction, one in which restrained government, fiscal responsibility and–most important of all–individual freedoms are paramount.”

Response Essays

  • In his reply to Moulitsas, Bruce Reed, president of the Democratic Leadership Council, does not try to claim the libertarian mantle: “[I]f you’re looking for government to close up shop, don’t vote Democratic,” Reed recommends. But, Reed argues, there are reasons for more moderate libertarians to support Democrats. “Which party can provide smaller, more efficient government?” Reed asks. “Which party takes the responsibilities of government and limited government seriously enough to actually deliver it? Which party believes in competition enough to wean the country from its dangerous addiction to corporate welfare and make free enterprise work?” Reed’s answer: The Democratic Party.

  • Washington Post columnist and The American Prospect editor-at-large Harold Meyerson argues that Democratic overlap with libertarianism in matters of civil liberties cannot extend to the economic domain. “The central insight of 20th century liberalism,” Meyerson writes, “was that freedoms conflict, that a company’s freedom to dominate the marketplace was often in conflict with a consumer’s freedom to find a product at a fair price, or a workers’ freedom to find a decent job or form a union, or a citizen’s freedom to have an equal voice in the legislative process.” Today, Meyerson argues an increase in economic insecurity demands an increased role for the state. “Ultimately, the Democrats aren’t going to proceed very far down the libertarian road, for one simple reason that’s far more pragmatic than philosophic: It doesn’t lead anywhere.”

  • Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Reason, likes the idea of libertarian Democrats, and notes that there are a few, but “when it comes to their own party, they feel sort of like Trotsky during his Mexico City days.” Commenting on the previous essays, Gillespie writes that “even as Moulitsas is ostensibly trying to woo libertarians to vote for Democrats, he spends a good chunk of his essay lecturing his audience like a Hyde Park autodidact about the need for publicly financed roads and education, and railing against that great abstraction of ‘unaccountable corporations’ that lead us into war, make us breathe dirty air, and steal our retirement savings.” Gillespie finds Reed “even less engaging,” while Meyerson’s “uncomplicated nostalgia for the New Deal suggests he thinks he’s living in 1936 rather than 2006.”