Thursday, January 13, 2005

Confirmation of the unexpected, part two


The first installment of this series involved the creation of a "rating system" to determine how "libertarian" Missouri's US representatives were. The surprising result was that Democratic congresscritters rated more highly on "Tom's Libertarianism Scale" than Republican congresscritters. That's an interesting datum, but useless without context. And the article, of course, is not useful to the extent that it incorporates error or confusion. So, I'm going to open this article with a couple of corrections:

- "The Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2004" was erroneously identified as HR 3317. Its actual bill number was HR 3717.

- There's some question as to the import of the procedural vote on HR 5025 -- whether a "yes" vote on it was to force a roll call vote on a congressional pay raise, or to duck such a vote. I confess that after reading the text and more than one article on it, I still can't tell which was which. If I got it wrong, this would impact the scores. It would lower the scores of three Democrats (Clay, Skelton and McCarthy) by 10 points. That would still leave the "Democratic bottom" at 50 of a possible 100, but would lower the score of the "most libertarian" congresscritter, Lacy Clay, from 80 to 70. Additionally, it would raise the scores of three Republican congresscritters (Graves, Emerson and Hulshof) by 10 points, and lower the scores of two (Akin and Blunt) by 10. As it happens, Akin and Blunt were the two highest scoring Republicans, so this would not change the relative standings of Democrats versus Republicans: No Democrat score would descend below 50, nor would any Republican score rise above 40. So while an error would be of interest, it would not materially affect the outcome if the goal is to evaluate "how libertarian" particular legislators were on the basis of issues votes.

Since writing the first part of this series, I've received a number of perceptive questions and comments from readers. As a matter of fact, they included most of the various questions (and answers) that I intended to offer in this followup, and they provided me with a corroborating data source I'd missed: In November, Liberty magazine's R.W. Bradford ran the numbers and found that Democrats, over the last fifty years, have simply performed better than Republicans in the "fiscal responsibility" area.

So, let's take this from the top.

How did Ron Paul (R-TX) score? That's the natural first question. Among serving congresscritters, he's considered the "gold standard" where libertarian policy stands are concerned. This is especially true with respect to the rating system I created: Among those few who consider Paul a less than perfect libertarian, the two issues cited for that evaluation are abortion and foreign policy, which I omitted from the rating system precisely because there seems to be no libertarian consensus on them.

Ron Paul scored either 90 of 100 or 100 of 100. He voted "libertarian" on every bill, with the possible exception of the "pay raise procedural vote" question. If I had it right the first time, he scored a 90. If I had it wrong, he scored 100. Suffice it to say that his reputation carries enough weight with me to operate from here on out on the assumption that I got it wrong.

Let's alter our scale by removing the procedural vote question altogether. The scale now runs from 0 to 90, and our totals look like this:

DISTRICT 1 - CLAY 70
DISTRICT 3 - GEPHARDT 50
DISTRICT 4 - SKELTON 60
DISTRICT 5 - MCCARTHY 50

REPUBLICANS
DISTRICT 2 - AKIN 30
DISTRICT 6 - GRAVES 20
DISTRICT 7 - BLUNT 30
DISTRICT 8 - EMERSON 30
DISTRICT 9 - HULSHOF 30

CONTROL -- RON PAUL 90

Now, let's consider these politicians as groups. The Republicans get a slight advantage, insofar as they outnumber the Democrats five to four, but hey, it's close enough for a bar fight.

The aggregate score of the four Democrats serving in Missouri's US House delegation is 230 points of a possible 360 points

The aggregate score of the five Republicans serving in Missouri's US House delegation is 140 points of a possible 450 points.

In other words, not only do individual Democrats tend to vote "more libertarian" than individual Republicans, but even when given a numerical advantage, the Republicans aren't capable of producing more "more libertarian" votes as a group.

Even if we throw in Ron Paul -- Dr. No, Mr. Libertarian, the poster boy of the "libertarians are a natural GOP constituency" crowd -- and make him an honorary member of the Missouri delegation, it's a wash, 230 to 230 (of a possible 360 and 540 for Democrats and Republicans respectively). It takes half again as many Missouri Republicans, including a disguised Texan who's known as the libertarian anomaly in Congress, just to be "as libertarian" as Missouri's Democrats.

Imagine that we we set up an NBA exhibition game -- a grudge match between the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Lakers. Let's further suppose that we told the Spurs to pick a player at random and make him sit the game out, leaving them with only four players on the court instead of five. Finally, let's suppose that we not only allowed the Lakers to play with their full, five-man complement, but flew in Michael Jordan and put him on the court in a Lakers uniform as well.

If the game ended in a tie, would anyone pretend that this meant the Lakers were a better team?

How much should we read into these results? I counsel caution. Here's why:

- It is by no means apparent that Missouri's Democratic or Republican congressional delegations are representative of similar delegations nationwide. Comparisons in other states might yield widely varying results.

- The Democrats are an opposition party right now, while the Republicans are a majority. This almost certainly affects their scores. The Democrats in Congress voted against George W. Bush's deficit budget and against raising the debt limit. Do you think they would have told John Kerry "no" on those things? The Republicans voted for Bush's budget and for increasing the debt limit. Do you think they would have done that for Al Gore? If anything, the results may simply point up the attractions of keeping Congress in the hands of one party and the White House in the hands of another.

- Even among those who do not consider themselves "single issue voters," some issues are more important than others. As the comments on the first part of this series showed, some people would give more weight to an anti-gun vote than to a pro-medical-marijuana vote, or place more importance on civil liberties than on fiscal responsibility. This kind of individual weighting might make a Todd Akin appear more, and a Lacy Clay less, "libertarian" to some. Nothing short of crafting one's own mechanism for rating legislators can accomodate that phenomenon.

Leaving aside weighting questions and such, there remain questions pertaining to just what libertarians are after.

Which is more valuable: More votes on the House floor for "more libertarian" policy outcomes, or the existence of a single legislator who's willing to stand up and go beyond casting votes to advocate and promote an overall libertarian agenda?

Which is more important, or more timely: Working against the odds to seed the American culture with the libertarian idea in the hope of long-term total success, or fighting the daily battles for better short-term outcomes?

Ideology or outcome? Rhetoric or results? Principle or politics. Or is there really an "or" there? Can there be realistic, productive fusions or synergies of the different agendas?

You tell me.

If there's a third article in this series -- I haven't decided on that yet -- it will explain my own conclusions and what actions I've decided to take with respect to those conclusions.

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