Posted by Brad @ 1:03 pm on December 21st 2009

Jimmy Carter: Libertarian Example?

He was, after all, the last acting president that made the notion of “limits” a cornerstone theme, rather than the “America can do anything!” notion that has become the norm. But anyway, FreedomDemocrats are currently trying to hammer out a cohesive argument, though they’re not quite there yet. :)


  1. Heh. Wow.

    Comment by James — 12/21/2009 @ 2:18 pm

  2. First, Jimmy Carter combined a personal cultural conservatism with the tradition shared, for the most part, by classical and modern liberalism against imposing values onto society through government. I am deeply concerned by the recent nanny state trends within liberalism to impose values onto society through government.

    This would be the same Jimmy Carter who, addressing the nation from the White House, attempted to tell Americans whether they were morally justified in adjusting their thermostats as opposed to putting on sweaters? Who mulled the possibility of wage and price controls as a solution to stagflation?

    Sorry. This is a nonstarter.

    Comment by Rojas — 12/21/2009 @ 2:34 pm

  3. I think a lot of people are rethinking Carter’s legacy, as they did, say, Calvin Coolidge before him. In that he was utterly unremarkable, and wasn’t a President that sought for the brass ring of history by doing something Huge and Unprecedented (TM), but he didn’t leave the United States saddled with same Huge and Unprecedented measure as his successors and predecessors generally did. The bad times under his presidency was more from inaction than action, which is exactly what most conservatives and libertarians would recommend in times of crises like the ones he faced (you yourself were arguing for inaction in the fact of the banking collapse et al—I presume that means you’re also willing to accept the pain that comes with it and if, say, stagflation had ensued wouldn’t spend your lifetime thinking the President a weakling for not having pursed Great Action). On the whole though, Carter’s presidency was self-contained (ironically, except for his deregulations), he was more or less a seat-warmer, and what’s wrong with that? I think a lot of libertarians would prefer that style of a President to one who comes in and either starts massive wars we’ll be mired in for generations, or massive health care reforms we’ll be mired in for generations. Frankly, I think we’d all be better off if more of our highest political leaders viewed themselves more as caretakers than their offices as mere stepping stones to their Place in History.

    Comment by Brad — 12/21/2009 @ 2:35 pm

  4. Oh, and telling people to put on sweaters vs. adjusting their thermostats strikes me as not quite a cardinal sin. Would that more of our politics be taken up with such trivialities (besides, he’s not wrong).

    Recapping Carter’s lack of a legacy. I dunno, it seems to me that FD has a point. Why vilify the last liberal to get in office and essentially do nothing with it? Seems a counter-intuitive gold standard for Bad Democrat to me.

    Comment by Brad — 12/21/2009 @ 2:43 pm

  5. Brad, the original poster’s assertion is that Jimmy Carter’s libertarian virtue was his unwillingness to reengineer values and behavior. Your argument that he made GOOD attempts to reengineer values and behavior doesn’t quite fit the meme.

    Comment by Rojas — 12/21/2009 @ 2:46 pm

  6. That wasn’t my argument. But equating Carter’s speech about sweaters with government engineering of values and behavior is a bit…well, unhinged. He was in essence giving personal advice, which is a helluva far cry from making law. Modern presidents don’t bother giving advice—they just pass giant legislative morasses to codify their advice into law and regulation. Carter gets on TV and says “wear a sweater?” and that’s bad…for libertarians? I don’t get it.

    Hell, Presidents can tell me what they think I should do all day long for all I care.

    Comment by Brad — 12/21/2009 @ 2:52 pm

  7. Brad, the only people that might be able to rethink Carter’s legacy are those who a) liked him anyway, and b) people who didn’t live through his presidency, or c) both.

    Comment by James — 12/21/2009 @ 5:04 pm

  8. Something something old dog something something

    Comment by Brad — 12/21/2009 @ 5:06 pm

  9. I know Carter’s your favorite, but I wonder if you’d have felt better if he pledged a War in Iran, dumped a trillion dollars into the banking system to deal with inflation, and then decided to pass an unrelated comprehensive reform package of some variety dealing with health care or energy or whatnot to go on his tombstone. All of those things would have been immediate first impulses of a modern President in his situation. Instead, Carter whined to Congress and made a bunch of mealy-mouthed wisdom pearls. The idea that Carter is the worst kind of President is the same idea that holds that, to be a success, Big Bold Action (of virtually any sort) is What’s Needed, and that the single worst sin in a President is “weakness”, read lack of Big Bold Action.

    Comment by Brad — 12/21/2009 @ 5:17 pm

  10. Brad’s pretty much on the money about what I was trying to get across. Not that Jimmy Carter was himself a libertarian, but when compared to the changing crowds of both modern liberals and conservatives saying “Yes we can,” he offers some valuable lessons about what is missing from American politics today. I’ve got another post trying to pin that down:

    Try to think about the likely outcome if other politicians of the day had been President instead. President Scoop Jackson? Invasion of Iran, probably, big government response to the energy crisis, likely. President Ted Kennedy? Big government response to the energy crisis, certainly, invasion of Iran, possibly. President Ronald Reagan? Invasion of Iran, probably, massive tax cuts to somehow address energy crisis without any attempt to limit spending, certainly.

    Comment by FreedomDemocrat — 12/21/2009 @ 5:33 pm

  11. Rojas, that’s just weak. There are legitimate criticisms to be made about the Carter presidency, but that he “mulled” and made recommendations to the public are not even mentionable examples. You are effectively equating a moralizing speech with actual government social engineering via legislation.

    James, Didn’t like him originally, lived through his presidency, and yet I have warmed to him in recent years. So much for that argument.

    Also, didn’t he deregulate the trucking industry?

    Comment by Jack — 12/21/2009 @ 7:48 pm

  12. He deregulated a lot of industries. Deregulation is probably his biggest policy legacy, ironically. Actually, damn near his only policy legacy (which, again, is not a bad thing).

    Hell, even the Mises Institute has written posts “Rethinking Carter“. Which is actually a pretty damn fair and balanced article about his record in that sphere (in that it both admits he was a statist at heart but also that he, moreso than Reagan, laid the rails from the inherently FDR economy of the 40s-60s to the deregulatory market-based systems of the 80s 90s and 00s (such as they were anyway).

    Republicans like to point to the failures of the Carter Administration and then claim that Ronald Reagan brought us into the present era. Alas, while I prefer Reagan to Carter, I cannot say that the above statement is true. Granted, much occurred during the Reagan Administration that was good, but if truth be known, many of the important initiatives that enabled those boundaries to expand came from Carter’s presidency.

    To understand the magnitude of change we have witnessed in the last 20 years or so, remember that in 1980 the Interstate Commerce Commission regulated both trucking and the railroads. “Ma Bell” had a nationwide monopoly in which long distance calls came through copper wires, each strand with the capacity of carrying 15 calls. (A single fiber optic line in use today can carry 2 million calls.)

    Airlines had been “deregulated” for only two years. Government controlled the pricing and allocation of oil in the United States. “Regulation Q” and other restrictions on banks and financial institutions kept capital formation in the doldrums. Another way of putting it was that many sectors of this economy were more socialistic then than they are now.

    Carter’s administration played a large part in many of the deregulation efforts.

    Comment by Brad — 12/21/2009 @ 8:35 pm

  13. All right, Jack, if you’re not interested in what Carter called for other people to do, let’s consider in libertarian terms a variety of things that he either DID do or attempted to do only to be shut down by Congress.

    1. Jimmy Carter’s Chrysler bailout was the origin of the delightful new federal trend to bail out failing companies with taxpayer money.

    2. Jimmy Carter reacted to increased consumer prices for oil and natural gas by A. Attempting to enhance federal control of the market through the creation of the DoE, and B. imposing price controls, which produced predictable shortages. He attempted to intervene in the same manner with price controls on medicine and consumer goods, only to be shut down by Congress.

    3. Carter attempted to intervene in the market with a variety of “consumer protection” laws, the more coercive elements of which were gutted by the Senate.

    4. Carter reacted to what he saw as deficiencies in the states’ education performance by creating the Department of Education, a de facto gift to teachers’ unions and the source of all manner of delightful micromanagement from that day to this.

    I will grant that Carter did an admirable job of sitting on his hands throughout the Iran hostage crisis (which was in part brought on by his administration’s continuing support of the Shah, and exacerbated by his cockamamie rescue attempt), the Russian invasion of Afghanistan (which triggered his decision to pull American athletes out of the Moscow Olympics) and the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. I don’t have any particular intention of engaging in flights of fancy where Kennedy or Reagan’s response to Iran is concerned, except to note that neither of them argued in favor of an invasion at any point.

    The bottom line is that the fundamental thesis of this entire argument–that Jimmy Carter was an advocate of executive restraint and economic nonintervention–is just flat-out, demonstrably false. The very best that can be said of him is that his mismanagement of relations with the Congress hamstrung him so thoroughly that he never even had the PROSPECT of a legacy.

    Comment by Rojas — 12/21/2009 @ 9:24 pm

  14. I should add for the record that I’m not arguing that Carter ever “advocated executive restraint or economic nonintervention”. FD, to a lesser extent, is, but his point is a little more broad, that Carter was less a “yes we can” President than a “we have limits” one, though as I said in the jump post the argument has a ways to go. For me, I’m saying, in effect, that that’s what came about under him (and Presidents are not roundly judged by their intent, but by the net effect of their presidencies, though the mismatch with Carter’s legacy with people like James is pretty huge). Though as you say, him being gutted by Congress had a lot to do with that, though that’s also true of Clinton, another President whose legacy is being shaped by those that followed and who, though widely decried as a liberal Great Satan by the right and libertarians alike, turns out, in historical context, to have actually wound up being a pretty inoffensive centrist pres.

    Also, I think the Kennedy and Reagan comparisons aren’t wild flights of fantasy, as those are two of the main contenders of the era and thus, if you’re going to compare how Carter was in context, i.e. how he was against the other people who might have been President, they’re perfectly fair flights of fancy to take (save Kennedy is off a few cycles). Though really Ford and Reagan on the R side and Jerry Brown and George Wallace on the D side would be more relevant, though even that’s not really a comparison that’s going to make Carter look too bad.

    Comment by Brad — 12/21/2009 @ 10:23 pm

  15. FD’s comparison was to Ted Kennedy, not Jack.

    The counterfactuals don’t make sense for a very specific reason: we don’t have to speculate as to what the two of them would have done about Iran or about energy. They were both running in 1980, and they TOLD us what they were going to do on those two issues.

    Comment by Rojas — 12/21/2009 @ 10:40 pm

  16. Er, I was thinking Ted, but thinking about 76, not 80 (hence the Ford and Wallace mention).

    My mind is more on what other people might have done during Carter’s term facing the same circumstances, as it’s a little unsurprising that in 1980, facing an unpopular incumbent, Reagan and Kennedy would be on the record as against Cartonian policy. That sort of has to be your position running against a first term President.

    More to the point though, my mind is more on what a president today would have done facing circumstances like Carter, because it’s in that historical context that I think Carter’s a bit on the ascent legacy-wise. Bearing in mind I don’t think he’ll ever be considered a good President, just that I think our definition of what “bad” actually entails has dropped well below. We might soon if not already long for the days when the worst a President does is a melange of inaction and dopey rhetoric never really finding singular expression in action. My guess is in the long-haul Carter doesn’t come off looking too bad, although I’ll grant you that that probably says more about the modern Presidency than Jimmy Carter.

    Comment by Brad — 12/22/2009 @ 12:44 am

  17. Something something old dog something something – Comment by Brad 12/21/2009 @ 5:06 pm

    Versus nothing nothing young pup nothing nothing? I can handle that.

    Comment by James — 12/22/2009 @ 1:23 am

  18. Rojas, leaving aside the counterfactuals (which I contend are reasonable areas of discussion), my purpose wasn’t so much to argue that Carter accepted “limits” on executive power or the role of government in the economy. He talked about “limits” to what was possible and could be accomplished by society as a whole. His host of interventionist proposals were not sold as solutions to the energy crisis that would allow America to go on living in the same car-loving, gas-guzzling way. As I said in my recent post, he still came from a statist/collectivist perspective that felt that the best possible outcome for society was one in which government played a large role. But he at least accepted the existence of limits to what was possible by society.

    Comment by FreedomDemocrat — 12/22/2009 @ 9:08 am

  19. Which I think is a point worth hearing out. I sort of disagree with the Carter casting here, although I’m getting a kick out of it a bit for devil’s advocate sake (and I do think Carter’s historical legacy has been brightened with each ensuing successor), but the reason I passed on the FD link is I do think to hear a recent President talk seriously about the limitations of what America/Americans can do strikes a tin note for modern audiences. It seems that almost the definition of a great American political leader in the modern era is one who makes Americans believe Anything is Possible (TM), to an extent that we even take for granted. It’s sort of like the self esteem problem in early education, the problem being that we pound in too much of it and wind up with kids who have a profound sense of entitlement and a profound lack of self awareness as to their own limitations and weaknesses. In the modern era, we do the same thing to ourselves as voters and civic actors. Jimmy Carter at least, in large part because of his failings, stands out in that regard.

    Comment by Brad — 12/22/2009 @ 10:33 am

  20. 18 and 19 make sense.

    Perhaps my comments here were more accurately targeted towards the post title than towards the full argument FD was making.

    Comment by Rojas — 12/22/2009 @ 4:16 pm

  21. And I’ll add, for the record, that as a Turtledove reader I have no problem with counterfactuals. I have a problem with the assumptions underlying these particular counterfactuals.

    Comment by Rojas — 12/22/2009 @ 4:17 pm

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