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One-Party System


I can predict the winner of the presidential election even now: the government. In a one-party system, that’s how things work. One-party system? Yes. The American political scene makes much more sense if you think of the two parties as two divisions of the same party.

Admittedly that is hard to do at first. All American politics is presented as a tooth-and-claw rivalry between Republicans and Democrats. It is certainly true that elections determine who holds office among the parties candidates, and who holds office determines whose cronies get sinecures and contracts. That does give the appearance of real competition.

Moreover, the major news media are willing participants in the charade that Republicans and Democrats have substantially different ideas about things. Generally, we are asked to believe that Republicans want less government and more war, while the Democrats want more government and less war.

As you may have noticed, that makes no sense. War and government go hand in hand, and both parties want more government. Each side tends to dislike only the wars started by the other side.

Lets look at foreign policy. Republican John McCain is an unabashed supporter of the Iraqi invasion and occupation, though he didn’t think the original occupation was brutal enough. His plan is to win the war and manage the Middle East, which includes maintaining the option of attacking Iran if American interests require it.

Were supposed to believe that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama disagree with McCain, and they do a little just not on the big questions. They don’t talk about winning the war, but neither would withdraw all U.S. forces from the Middle East. Obama, who touts his original opposition to the Iraq invasion, says hell keep enough force there to respond if al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia establishes a base there. Clinton promises to obliterate Iran if it attacks Israel. Both, like McCain, think Iran is Americas business.

In other words, no less than McCain, the Democrats see the Middle East in imperialist terms. Some peace party.

On domestic issues, there do appear to be differences but only on the surface. Take trade: Clinton and Obama made anti-NAFTA noises, but it is unlikely that either would pursue a seriously protectionist program. Selected trade barriers are possible, as they are with McCain. McCain talks like a free trader usually but Republicans can never be fully trusted on the issue. Ronald Reagan was the most protectionist president since the horrendous Herbert Hoover. George W. Bush imposed steel tariffs early in his first term, and his free-trade agreements always have exceptions for special interests. When McCain was touting free trade recently, he said, There have been inadequacies, there has been dumping in our markets, and there have been unequal wages. That is not how a real free trader talks. Dumping is a pejorative term for price competition; and if trade is unfair because wages are unequal, how will poor countries trade with the rich West?

On health care, Clinton and Obama want a larger government role. But the governments role is already large, and McCain doesn’t call for a rollback. Licensing, patents, and other interventions that make medical care expensive would stay in place. At most he talks about manipulating the tax code to create various health-insurance incentives. He calls this a free-market solution, which it isn’t.

That is typical. Democrats want to use government directly (insurance mandates and taxpayer subsidies), while Republicans would use it indirectly, by creating tax inducements to get people and companies to do something.

But that difference is far less substantial than it seems because in both cases politicians determine the goals to be achieved. Republicans and Democrats only disagree over the way to achieve them.

In a free society government operatives don’t pick objectives for people. People pick them for themselves. A candidate who respected freedom would propose ending governmental involvement in health care entirely and slashing taxes without conditions so that people could make medical decisions for themselves.

The election season would be more interesting if there were more suspense about the outcome.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.