The Differences Between the Political Parties

Bryan Caplan recently linked to one of his older posts arguing that there is not that much substantive difference between the political parties.  Bryan believes there are two big misconceptions about the differences between the parties:

The first big misconception is the parties’ key differences are substantive. They aren’t. Reps don’t want to get rid of the welfare state. Almost all Reps support spending a big chunk of GDP on America’s poor and old. And Dems don’t want anything like socialism. Almost all Dems want America to remain a country where markets are the default and people can get rich if they play their cards right.  So what is the “key difference” between the parties? Rhetoric.

The second big misconception is that the parties’ rhetoric makes sense on its own terms. It doesn’t. If Dems really cared about poor human beings, they would quit worrying about the American old, most of whom aren’t poor.  Similarly, if Reps really cared about “over-burdened” tax-payers, they would try to diminish the burden in the only sustainable way: Big cuts in spending. They would be crusading against the popular programs like Social Security and Medicare that absorb most of our tax dollars.

Bryan does offer some explanations for these phenomena:

I understand, of course, that if either party tried to bring its substance in sync with its rhetoric, it would go down in flames. . . . What’s going on? My best guess is that the rhetoric is the bone each party throws its idealists – “If you vote for us, we’ll pretend to want radical change.”

Let me address each of these points separately.  1. The Substantive Differences: Bryan’s post should be understood as part of long line of similar claims made by radicals of different stripes – the idea that the Democrats and the Republicans are not that different, that they are Tweedledum and Tweedledee.  And this understandable enough.  If you are a radical, by definition you favor significant change.  The differences between two moderate parties will seem small by comparison.

While Bryan is a radical liberatarian, I am a far more moderate one – moderate both in what I regard as the ideal political arrangement and in how quickly I would like to get there.  So for me, the differences between the parties seem larger than they seem to him.

And of course, to an ordinary political observer, who has much more mainstream views, the differences between the parties will seem even larger.  If you are the median Republican or the median Democrat, who views their party’s platform as being largely ideal, then the differences between the parties may seem enormous.

2. The Parties’ Rhetoric: I am more sympathetic with Bryan’s second point, expressing skepticism that the parties’ rhetoric makes sense on its own terms. But even here, one can imagine a defense of the parties’ positions. A Democrat might argue that they are more concerned with poor Americans than with poor foreigners on the ground that people in a country have special affiliations that those people lack with foreigners.  And Republicans might argue that placing social insurance programs on a sound track is an attractive idea, because such programs provide a safety net, but should not be allowed to cause serious fiscal problems for the nation.  Whatever one thinks of these arguments, they are certainly plausible and cannot be dismissed out of hand.

What is the take away from all of this?  For the radical, the differences between the parties will appear neither significant nor well conceived, but that is largely a function of the radical’s perspective.  For more mainstream political thinkers. these differences will make quite a bit of sense.  For me, as a moderate libertarian – who is both moderate and yet often adopts a third party perspective – the differences between the parties make more sense than for Bryan, even though the political world would be more attractive to me if there were a more libertarian party.