Bill Brown bio photo

Bill Brown

A complicated man.

Twitter Github

I mailed in my ballot last week. It was nice to be able to take my time and research just about every issue—I still can’t bring myself to vote one way or the other about judicial performance.

I voted for George Bush. I know that’s not a popular position among Objectivists lately, but I couldn’t vote for John Kerry. Since so many words have been spilled on the subject, I thought I should add my two cents out there and explain my vote.

The primary reason why I voted for Bush was because of his foreign policy. I’ve listened to Yaron Brook’s lecture “The Morality of War” and I agree with it completely. I’ve read Victor Davis Hanson’s excellent article “What Would Patton Say About the Present War” and I agree with it completely. So why would I vote for Bush, who has done a regrettable job protecting and projecting America’s interests? I think we’ll see a more thorough job in the next term and John Kerry would be even more weak-kneed than Bush.

I believe that much of our trouble in Iraq was due to the upcoming election. Bush is not a coward and he is not afraid to take bold, aggressive action (look at his time as Texas governor and how that state led the nation in executing prisoners). He (and his handlers) is not stupid and he knows that leveling Fallujah—to use Yaron Brook’s memorable phrase—would lead to his defeat. It’s quite clear, however, that Bush is aiming to leave a legacy on the order of Ronald Reagan. He can’t do that in a single term, though, and so I think he had to tone it down in the interest of being re-elected.

Dr. Brook’s central theme in his lecture is that the just war theory permeates the American military and that that theory undercuts the possibility of the decisive, overwhelming acts of force necessary to end the insurgency in Iraq and defeat the terrorists. I agree that this altruistic theory of war is utterly incompatible with an effective war strategy and I also agree that this theory is probably de rigueur in the war colleges. But when push comes to shove, I don’t believe that a general, sergeant, or corporal is going to worry too much about the Iraqi soldiers and citizens that they would be asked to kill. The rules of engagement may say that Iraqis should be spared, but they could just as easily encourage pitched battles. Military men obey orders and they’ll likely welcome such a sea change.

Terrorism’s foundation is Islamic fundamentalism. Like fundamentalism throughout history, it seizes on violent means to effect its ends. Bush is a fundamentalist Christian and many Objectivists see that as a major issue because they are brothers in spirit. From the perspective of an atheist (and especially an Objectivist), the distinction between an Islamic and Christian fundamentalist is zero. The reality is that these two groups see themselves as polar opposites and generally hate each other. It started with the expulsion of the Moors from Spain and Europe and continued throughout the Crusades. Bush may talk nice about the Islam religion, but he surely regards them as heathen deep down in his fundie heart. It’s a politically unpalatable position, but most Christian fundamentalists I’ve encountered (and lo I’ve met many) despise Muslims. (For the record, I can’t stand fundamentalists of any stripe and am generally tolerant of the church-on-Sunday crowd of theists by default that populate most religions.)

Bush has done perilously little to protect the homeland—Kerry is correct about that. Frankly, I’d prefer him to spend considerably less on the Department of Homeland Security and considerably more on the military. The best defense is a strong offense, bring the fight to them, et cetera. The terrorists are largely impotent and the best they could muster wouldn’t put a ding in our way of life. They are a threat, but they’re not much of one. We’re not talking about Nazis or Communists here; we’re talking about suicide bombers. These people don’t have the wherewithal to develop long-range missiles—they have to rely on willing victims to deliver bombs. We can beat them and we can beat them soundly.

If we made a concerted effort to destroy terrorists and those who support them, we would not have much to worry about on the American subcontinent. When we half-ass it around the world, we end up having to protect our homeland because we’re not putting the hurt on those who might want to destroy us. During World War II, we spent a lot of time and money protecting America’s coasts and cities from Nazi and Japanese attack. In the grand scheme of the war, though, it was a drop in the bucket. Why? Because we forced the enemy to allocate their resources to defending themselves against our attacks; they didn’t have any more to expend towards hitting the United States.

I also believe that electing John Kerry would send a mixed message to the terrorists, to the Islamic world, and to the civilized world. Prior to the terrorist bombings in Madrid, the Spanish people were supporting the Iraq War and a fairly strong stance against terrorism. The election, which was expected to maintain the status quo, ousted the hardliners (such as they were) in favor of socialists who pledged to get Spain out of Iraq and appeasing the terrorists. Al-Qaeda won in that instance. I firmly believe that electing John Kerry would suggest to the rest of the world that we didn’t want the “cowboy” George Bush and that we regretted the pre-emptive attack on Iraq and the isolation it engendered. That is a message I do not want to send to the rest of the world.

I would much rather tell the world to go screw itself. I am sick and tired of Americans apologizing for their successes and achievements. I am sick of foreign cultures lapping up our products, our culture, and our way of life while lamenting it as “cultural imperialism.” We are the number one nation in the world for a reason and we should trumpet our heritage of freedom as a beacon and model. The world would do well to emulate our history. If we were unapologetic about our tremendous success, we could possibly foster a Pax Americana that would easily outshine the Pax Britannica of the nineteenth century. (I also acknowledge that we are largely drifting on the philosophic foundations of freedom laid forth by the Founding Fathers in the eighteenth century and that we would have a difficult time enunciating a justification for capitalism without a philosophic foundation of Objectivism.)

The other major reason that I voted for George Bush was personal. He has been pledging to do something about Social Security. As a thirty-year-old who contributes 10% of his income every year to a 401(k), I covet the money that I am forced to give to Social Security. If I were to add in those funds, I could easily double the amount I will have available at retirement. Bush hasn’t presented many of the details of his plan, but the trial balloons he’s been floating sound an awful lot like the plans for Social Security privatization that have been developed in the last decade or so. I assume that it wouldn’t deviate from those terribly much. My retirement would be considerably better if he is successful in implementing his vision; it would even be better if the plan that got passed was but a shadow of his vision. Anything is better than the current system, where I am likely flushing money down the toilet to pay for overzealous promises made to previous generations.

Finally, I like his tax cuts. I pay a lot in income taxes—way too much, in fact. The government has no business taking away the fruits of my labor and any reduction in its expropriation is alright by me. It’s unfortunate that the president has continued to spend the money that he returned to the citizenry. I have given up hoping that a president would actually reduce the size of the budget: the last president who did that was named Warren Harding and he died in 1923. It is practically unheard of nowadays to propose spending reductions or government that governs least.

I can’t say that I’m excited by George Bush: I could never get into one of his rallies. I have serious misgivings about a second term for the second Bush, some of which were so grave that I actually considered voting for Kerry.

Bush’s stance on stem cell research is dangerous. He argues religiously that stem cell research should be curtailed or even banned. This research promises to eventually lengthen human life significantly, cure previously incurable diseases, and produce everlasting youth. The medical breakthroughs could make my life so much more pleasant and my retirement as long as I desire. Rendering it stillborn before it has a chance scares the dickens out of me. The thought of restricting our scientific pursuits because of some mystical dogma is ludicrous. I can’t underscore enough how close I came to voting Kerry for this reason. In the end, I realized that even a complete ban on stem cell research in the United States wouldn’t stop the research itself—the potential is too great and the profits too attractive for that. Singapore has made no bones about its desire to allow anything to be pursued and there are countless other nations that would welcome the biomedical companies with open arms. I would be sad at the new brain drain that a stem cell research ban would cause, but I would feel comfortable that the fruits of it would be available to me.

In a second term, Bush would have the singular opportunity to nominate at least two and possibly three or more Supreme Court justices. Knowing his fundamentalist background, I can only assume that he has a number of litmus tests in mind for any potential candidate: “Will you support prayer in schools?”; “will you oppose abortion in all its forms?”; “will you uphold the use of publicly-funded vouchers to pay for parochial school tuition?”; and “will you uphold a traditional definition of marriage?” come to mind. We could easily see a judicial legacy that would last for forty or fifty years and rival the one that upheld the welfare state. The questions above are just those obvious theocratic legal positions that I can conceive; I am sure that conservative minds could come up with dozens of others that would further establish the United States as a Christian nation. As an atheist (and especially as an Objectivist), the prospect of a de jure theocracy in the land that established religious toleration and the separation of church and state frightens me. For the first-time in U.S. history, the modern-day Puritans may be able to enforce their views on dissenters.

This was a disturbing issue and I almost voted for John Kerry because of it. What convinced me otherwise was the fact that John Kerry would have the exact same opportunity. Conservative justices like Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, and William Rehnquist offer opinions that I would agree with 80% of the time since they come from a strict constructionist perspective. Using the Constitution as a reference point is not the worst position that a conservative can take. They evince a fundamental misunderstanding of the Constitution’s purpose, but the text itself is pretty compelling. Liberal justices like Earl Warren, Louis Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter, and Hugo Black offer opinions that I would disagree with 80% of the time. They take the Constitution as a suggestion, a document to consider. Their activist perspective has led to sanctioning most of the welfare state and our current grave misunderstanding of rights. The prospect of another forty or fifty years of liberal activism was a little too daunting.

There are countless examples of judges who were nominated by presidents because of their ostensible views, but proved to be utter disappointments once on the bench. Earl Warren was nominated by Dwight Eisenhower and turned out to be a major regret. It is entirely possible that Bush might nominate someone he thought would be an Antonin Scalia that turned out to be a Clarence Thomas. It’s seriously a crapshoot because the Supreme Court is completely independent and insulated from political shenanigans.

Finally, Bush enacted his faith-based initiatives in his first term of office. Freed from the political considerations necessitated by re-election, he could easily become an American Ayatollah and turn things real ugly for those of us who love a separation of church and state. This view formed the basis of Leonard Peikoff’s statement of support for John Kerry. The notion is that getting John Kerry in office will forestall the rise of the religious right, which would surely triumph were Bush elected to a second term. The election of Kerry, they suggest, would deflate the aspirations of the fundamentalist politicians.

I disagree that Kerry’s election would do anything of the kind. If the religious right is just biding their time for one of their own to get elected, then it is quite obvious that they can wait another four years. If their ascendancy is inevitable unless Democrats are elected, then the theory requires the continual election of Democrats for the next several decades for the right to be quashed. Is that feasible? Not really. Not only would such an unbroken string of Democratic successes be unlikely, it would be positively devastating for the American way of life.

If the potential American theocracy was so imminent that it only required four years to establish, then I submit that there is nothing we can do to avoid it—it is inevitable. There is nothing left but to welcome our Christian overlords. If all of this sounds preposterous, it is. American Christianity, even its fundamentalist strains, just doesn’t have a takeover of government as an aim. They definitely want to legislate their morality and do not shy away from telling others what to do. That, however, is a far cry from theocracy. By and large, we have that situation in existence now and it was much worse in the past. It is plausible that a second term would embolden Bush to enact some more religion-derived policies but they would fall far short of the Puritan model of governance. Couple this with the fact that Congress would need to pass it and that the Supreme Court would need to uphold it and it becomes even more unlikely.

Further, I do not believe that the American people would stand for it. Peikoff et al base their predictions on the fact that religion is on an upswing as it has become more fundamentalist. They believe that religion is both more pervasive in American life and more serious in the conviction of its adherents. That’s probably true as far as it goes. While more people are more serious about their religion, most people aren’t. The vast majority are okay with the separation of church and state, recognizing its foundations at the root of our republic. I feel confident that my fellow Americans would balk at a totalitarian nanny state and that most politicians aren’t interested in seeing it enacted.

I made my decision after wrestling with these issues for months. I must say that I cast my vote with a heavy heart. George W. Bush is no friend of the free market: his compassionate conservatism is just the mixed economy reprised. The amalgamation of capitalism with socialism is the most devastating result of the welfare state and the philosophy of altruism that inspired it. Unfettered capitalism could remake our economy into the unstoppable powerhouse that it could be instead of the limping milquetoast it has become. The conservative is an enemy of capitalism as much as a socialist is—more so, in fact, because he concedes the rightness of the system to the socialist.

It is tempting, thus, to vote for liberals such as John Kerry because they could not be confused with free marketers in the public’s mind. I made my first presidential vote for Bill Clinton in 1992 for that very reason. Years of experience and the wisdom that comes with age have shown me the error of that position. While we must keep our eyes on the long term, we cannot escape the reality of the present. We must sometimes cast votes for the lesser of two evils or lend our support to candidates who will further the march towards capitalism (I am thinking of the volunteering I did for Steve Forbes in 1996 and 2000). We must not, of course, ally ourselves wholesale with conservatives but we cannot make ourselves martyrs to our philosophy—a morality of selfishness prohibits such a course of action.

To be sure, we must conduct such interactions with the conservatives strategically. For example, I don’t mind voting for Bush because I know that his second term will also be his last. I also know that there is currently a very substantial vacuum for a successor: Cheney will likely not run due to his poor health, age, and general unpopularity; Colin Powell never capitalized on his rampant popularity when he had the chance; and McCain is close enough to being a Democrat to have made it unlikely that he could mount a successful presidential campaign. It’s probable that someone will step up to the fore in the four years of Bush’s presidency and there’s a good chance that it will be someone worth having as president: Steve Forbes, your time has come—please run in 2008! There is even some speculation that Donald Rumsfeld might try for it. If John Kerry won, the Republican nominee in 2008 would either be in the same mold as George Bush (if not Bush himself) or a McCain-style candidate that is basically a Democrat without being a liberal. We definitely don’t need one of those (Bob Dole was quite enough, thank you).

Bush for four might lead to Forbes for eight. My heart sings at the thought.

[UPDATE (10/21/04): Harry Binswanger, a prominent Objectivist intellectual, treads much the same territory but more succinctly. I like the healthy debate about this issue that is going on throughout the Objectivist movement.]