Archive for ‘Ludwig von Mises’

April 9, 2009

‘Kooks,’ Blue-State Republicans, Rick Moran, and the Messaging Problem

Hot Air headlined Rick Moran’s lengthy examination of the “kook” charges against Glenn Beck, which involves a discussion of the general problem that conservatives face in terms of messaging. This passage catches my attention:

I am losing contact with those conservatives who find Beck anything more than a clown – and an irrational one at that. Same goes for those who worship at the altar of Rush, Hannity, Coulter, and the whole cotton candy conservative crowd. I can’t take those people seriously. The fact that they are popular mystifies me. Our heroes 20 years ago were Reagan, Buckley, Fitzpatrick, Kirk, Goldwater, Anderson, and others who didn’t see conservatism as a meal ticket but as something to think about, to write about and contemplate man’s place in the world and his relationship to government and God.

“Fitzpatrick” and “Anderson” obtrude in this list. I’ve got no clue whom Moran means by “Fitzpatrick,” but fear that by “Anderson,” he means third-party presidential candidate John Anderson. If Anderson is your idea of a conservative icon, Rick, we need to talk about your definition of “kook.” The man was a “Jacob Javitz Republican,” which put him to the left of Rockefeller.

One of our basic problems now is that, in defeat, we always want to play the game described by Michael Brendan Dougherty, and thus dubbed “Dougherty’s Law,” which dictates that every conservative pundit must claim that the Republican Party would win “if it were more like me, and instead it loses because it is more like you.”

Thus, pro-lifers blame the GOP’s woes on insufficient fealty to the pro-life cause, et cetera, ad nauseam, ad infinitum.

One of the most egregious examples of Dougherty’s Law — and it sticks in my craw every time I think of it, more than a decade later — was Christopher Caldwell’s “Southern Capitivity of the GOP,” published in the June 1998 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Caldwell mixed facts with half-truths with misconceptions in just such a witch’s brew as was calculated to appeal to the kind of intellectual snobs in his intended audience. As an expression of ignorance about the realities of Southern politics, and unmitigated prejudice against Southerners, Caldwell’s piece is the sort of thing that makes me share Zell Miller’s fond nostalgia for the age of “pistols at dawn, sir.”

Caldwell’s article has to be viewed, along with David Brooks’s infamous 1997 “National Greatness” essay, as an attempt at scapegoating on the part of the moderate Northeastern GOP elite who were embarrassed, first, by Bush 41’s humiliating defeat in 1992 and, again, by Bob Dole’s humiliating defeat in 1996.

This dissatisfaction of the elite was not mollified by the happy fact that these two presidential defeats were bookends to the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” which put the GOP in control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years, and you have to know a bit about how Washington works to understand why this was so.

Power vs. Prestige
In the federal government, as the Framers intended, Congress represents power. But with growth of the imperial presidency, the White House represents prestige, and there is nothing that the elite covet so much as prestige.

The difference between the GOP elite in Washington and the ordinary grassroots Republican in Tulsa or Tucson or Tacoma can be summed up in a single word: Ambition. And this one word explains the struggle between elite prestige and grassroots power in the GOP.

The Republican activist in Tucson wants to see his party win elections and enact conservative policies. Perhaps the Tucson Republican has personal ambition in politics — to be named county party chairman, to be a delegate to the national convention, maybe even to run for the state legislature — but he understands that any small ambition he has is dependent on winning elections, and thus expanding the party’s power.

For the Republican elite, however, a far different calculus is involved. Those who have attended the right schools, served the proper internships and made the right connections arrive in Washington at age 22 or 23 looking to scale the ladder of success. Whether they are think-tank analysts or campaign operatives, journalists or lawyers, these young people are almost universally dreaming of reaching the lofty heights of their especial avocations. It’s a very competitive environment which favors the shrewd and cunning.

To digress momentarily, it happens that I skipped all that myself. I learned the craft of a newspaperman at little papers in Georgia you never heard of, and was never a Young Republican who harbored the kind of ambitions that fuel the careers of the 20-something go-getters in D.C. I was a loyal but not particularly ideological Democrat until the mid-1990s, when circumstance and experience (including the first two years of the presidency of Bill Clinton, for whom I’d voted) caused me to become an ex-Democrat.

The story of my autodidactic conservative conversion need not be related here, but the point is that I arrived in D.C. in November 1997 as a 38-year-old married father of three, an award-winning professional journalist who knew a lot about newspapers, but very little about the ways of Washington. And one of the things I understood least was why the Republican elite was so intensely interested in presidential politics and foreign policy.

Assistant Deputy Undersecretary
Having won awards as a newspaper columnist in Georgia, I naturally hoped that I might repeat this trick in Washington. I’d been hired as a news editor at The Washington Times, but I occasionally managed to throw a column over the transom to the op-ed or commentary pages. These were mainly about cultural topics — women’s magazines, the decline of marriage, home-schooling, et cetera — because the business of opining about politics in Washington is a cartel jealously guarded by members of the punditry guild.

If the rise of the blogosphere has made nothing else clear, it has at least made clear that political insight is not monopolized by the likes of George Freaking Will and other elitists who get paid to opinionize on the op-ed pages and TV talking-head shows. How, then, did the commentariat maintain its hegemonic influence for so long?

Part of the answer lies in a phenomenon I call the Former Deputy Assistant Undersecretary Syndrome. During the late 1990s, I noticed that many of the thumbnail biographies under the op-ed page guest commentaries tended to read like this:

Elmo Rumburger Jr. served as deputy assistant undersecretary in the State Department during the Ford administration and was ambassador to Chile from 1981-83. He is vice president of the Coalition for American Unity and author of the new book, “Libya: Threat or Menace?”

In other words, Mr. Rumburger’s column was published more on the basis of who he was than what he had to say, let alone how well he said it. The quality of such columns might vary, and it might be that the Former Deputy Assistant Undersecretary made an important argument with clarity and eloquence.

Mr. Rumburger might be an excellent individual committed to the conservative cause, and I might applaud his column, but the point is that people like that get published on the basis of their biographies. They bring to the op-ed page a certain authority and prestige which you — the grassroots Republican — will never have, and the main reason you don’t have it is because you never wanted it. You drive a truck or you run an insurance agency or whatever, and have no interest in politics as a career.

Ambition and the Elite
This “ambition gap” is what really divides the elite from the grassroots, and it explains why foreign policy and winning the White House are inextricably linked as twin obsessions for the GOP elite. The power exercised by Congress is great, but the most prestigious congressional staff position — the Chief of Staff, of whom there are 535 on Capitol Hill — is essentially a behind-the-scenes management gig.

Compare this, then, with the prestige that a president doles out through his appointments. Cabinet secretaries and all their assistants and deputies, heads of agencies and bureaus, ambassadorships, staff positions in the White House — somewhere, I’m sure, there is a source that can tell you exactly the number of jobs to be had by political appointment.

The relevant point is, it’s a freaking crapload of jobs, and there is a huge prestige factor to even a fairly minor presidential appointment. In 2009, there are many middle-aged guys in Washington who earn handsome salaries in large measure because, when they were 24 or 25, they worked in the White House or one of the Cabinet agencies for a few months in some low-level appointment in the final year or two of the Reagan administration.

This is most especially true in the field of defense and foreign policy. If you are an ambitious, well-educated, well-connected Republican operative whose expertise is military and foreign affairs, your career goals will be thwarted unless the GOP regularly wins presidential elections.

There are only so many think-tank gigs and university professorships to be had, if you’re a Republican specializing in international policy. The relevant committees in the House and Senate only offer a relative handful of jobs, compared to the hiring bonanza when a newly-elected president starts staffing up the Defense and State departments, and being a Hill staffer carries relatively little prestige compared to all those Assistant Deputy Undersecretary gigs.

Perceptive readers are now starting to understand the tremendous frustration that so many Reaganauts felt during the eight years of the Clinton presidency. It was not merely a matter of policy, but of ambition.

Imagine the bright young Cold War hawk, with a degree in international affairs from a top school, who hired on at age 23 as a political appointee at the Pentagon in 1987 or ’88. He worked his way up a notch or two during the Bush years, the Soviet Union was vanquished, the first Iraq war was a triumph but then — purely because of domestic politics — this ambitious young fellow found himself dismissed from his job at age 28 as the Clintonistas took over.

“Oh, that damned Ross Perot!” said the gimlet-eyed Cold Warrior. “That Pat Buchanan! Those idiot domestic-policy populists who cost me my shot at becoming a Deputy Assistant Undersecretary before I was 30!”

Blue States and the GOP Elite
“Wait a minute,” cries the perceptive reader. “Why are we talking about foreign-policy elites? You’ve completely jumped the track with this digression — I thought we were talking about Rick Moran and why Glenn Beck is a kook. Moran isn’t a deputy assistant undersecretary wannabe. What kind of wacky non sequitur is this?”

Ah, but the two phenomena are indeed connected. Think about the fact that Rick Moran lives in Democrat-dominated Illinois, a state last won by a GOP presidential candidate when Bush 41 got 50.7% in 1988. Much like the foreign-policy Republican, the Blue-State Republican tends to have a greater interest in presidential politics.

Liberal Chicagoland so dominates Illinois politics, and has for more than seven decades, that electing a Republican governor or U.S. senator is a once-in-a-blue moon fluke — think of four words, “Senator Carol Moseley Braun” — that the GOP minority’s influence can best be augmented by electing a Republican president.

A real winner like Reagan who clobbers his opposition in a landslide will offer “coattails” for GOP candidates even in a heavily Democratic state, and so the Republican in Illinois (or New Jersey, or Michigan) takes a keen interest in presidential politics. This is why the GOP foreign policy elite and the Blue State Republicans so often sing from the same hymnal: Don’t pick fights over difficult domestic issues where a determined conservative stand might hinder prospects in the next presidential campaign.

Furthermore, Blue States are always blue for a reason, usually something to do with economics and demographics. One thing that Chris Caldwell got right is that the “Sunbelt” economy has boomed because of the right-to-work laws in the South and West, which outlaw the closed shop and thus make it very difficult for labor unions to take over entire industries. Labor unions by their very nature are constituencies of the Democratic Party, which is why heavily unionized states in the Midwest and Northeast are such tough terrain for the GOP.

There was a time, at the height of the Great Cold War Consensus (roughly 1948-68), when liberal or moderate Republicans enjoyed success by avoiding fights that would put them at odds with labor-union constituencies. If you go back to the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate — where everything seemed to boil down to the tiny islands of Kemoy and Matsu in the Formosa Straits off the Chinese coast — you understand what George Wallace was talking about in his 1968 independent presidential campaign when he complained that there wasn’t “a dime’s worth of difference between the two major parties.”

The Great Cold War Consensus reached its apogee between JFK’s narrow 1960 victory and LBJ’s 1964 landslide, unraveled largely due to the Vietnam debacle, and the Democrats only staved off disaster after Nixon’s ’72 landslide because of the subsequent Watergate scandal. Watergate fueled a Democratic congressional landslide in 1974 and enabled the 1976 election of Jimmy “I’ll Never Lie To You” Carter, whose utter incompetence led to the Reagan triumph of 1980.

What is key to understanding all that history is the great degree to which the foreign-policy issues of the Cold War predominated in the GOP’s ascendancy. It was LBJ’s bungling of Vietnam, and Carter’s bungling . . . well, everywhere, that mostly explain why Republicans held the White House all but four years from 1969 to 1993.

The Republican Babel
You can see why, then, we now have such a Babel of ideological discord in the Republican Party. The GOP succeeded without ever having to forge a partisan consensus on domestic policy. From Nixon through Bush 41, as long as you agreed that the Democrats were hapless dupes of the Soviets — and this was obvious at the time to all but the blindest of Democratic partisans, as I then was — you were a Republican voter by default.

Furthermore, you see why the post-1994 showdown between the Gingrich-led Congress and Clinton over domestic policy was so bitter and fractious. Even with a stuffy snob like Al Gore as the Democratic candidate in 2000, Bush 43 lost the popular vote and only barely won the Florida deadlock that decided the Electoral College. Without any existential foreign policy foe to replace the Soviet menace, Republicans had a very difficult time winning the White House on domestic issues.

Then came 9/11. This was the grand opportunity, the key that would deliver the “permanent Republican majority” of Karl Rove’s dreams. The Global War On Terror enabled Bush and the GOP to gain an upset mid-term victory in 2002 and enabled Bush, in 2004, to become the first president elected by a popular-vote majority since his father won the “third Reagan term” in 1988. And then it all went to hell in a handbasket, and here we are with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and President Barack Obama.

Meanwhile, in a not entirely unrelated development, we see Rick Moran — whose native Illinois sent Obama to the Senate along with Dick Durbin — carping that Glenn Beck is a kook who “lacks the ability to think rationally,” that Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter are just using conservatism as a “meal ticket,” that there is something of the Hoftstadter paranoid tendency being exploited, and that we are guilty of fomenting “fear and frustration” if we don’t denounce Beck, et al.

This is not about Glenn Beck. This is about the long failure of the Republican Party (and/or, the conservative movement) to define and enunciate a clear philosophy of domestic policy that differentiates them from Democrats.

RINOs like Arlen Specter have muddied the waters, and advocates of the oxymoronic “Big Government Conservatism” have convinced too many Republicans that there is no hope for electoral success in fighting to limit or shrink the massive entitlements of the liberal Welfare State. I will quote once more something that American Spectator publisher Al Regnery said to me in an interview last year:

“You look back in the earlier times, there were no opportunities, so there were no opportunists. . . . Later on, you have all these people who figure it’s probably a pretty good political thing to do. And so they start talking about being conservative when they’re running [for office], but they really aren’t. So when they get to Congress or wherever they go, they’re pretty easily dissuaded.”

The success of the GOP has attracted opportunists who call themselves “conservative” because, as Rick says, that’s a “meal ticket.” But Regnery wasn’t talking about Rush Limbaugh, who certainly is not “easily dissuaded.” And I’m not guilty of acting in accordance with Dougherty’s Law when I say that a lack of common ground on economic issues is a basic problem of the Republican Babel.

The Austrian Insight
Maybe my perspective on all this is different because I am an ex-Democrat who became a conservative by reading Mises and Hayek and Ayn Rand, abandoning my native partisan loyalties in the mid-1990s when foreign policy wasn’t a big deal, and with no thought at the time of becoming a “pundit.” I was just a Georgia newspaper writer, reading stuff that interested me, and trying to make sense of why Bill Clinton — whom I had supported because I wanted to believe he was a moderate “Sam Nunn Democrat” — was pursuing a policy agenda straight out of the Dukakis campaign platform.

When I reviewed Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons, I noted that his book made no mention of the great Austrian economists who, as any Reagan biographer will tell you, had such a powerful influence on the Gipper. Because of its influence on Reagan, Hayek’s Road to Serfdom may rank (along with Witness by Whittaker Chambers) as the most consequential book of the 20th century, and yet Dreher doesn’t even bother to mention Hayek in Crunchy Cons.

The only economic thinkers Dreher mentions are Adam Smith, Karl Marx and the Buddhist-influenced Keynesian, E.F. Schumacher. This suggests a blinkered and stunted understanding of economics. What an easy trick to juxtapose Smith, the supposed ideologist of “capitalism,” against the arch-ideologist of socialism, Marx, and then — eureka! — the “Third Way” that delivers the reader from these two supposedly equal economic evils.

In fact, Adam Smith was not trying to create any ideology, but rather was trying to describe the basic facts of economics in order to expose the protectionist fallacies of European colonial mercantilism. It was Marx who is chiefly responsible for our thinking of Smith as advocating an “-ism,” and from this “Marx vs. Smith” duality much other mischief has ensued.

Why Socialism Fails
What Mises, Hayek and others of the Austrian school patiently demonstrated was that socialism (Marxian or otherwise) is based on a fundamental fallacy that ultimately makes socialism unworkable in practice. Socialism — the “planned economy,” as Hayek often described it — neglects the function of prices as information by which individuals make their own economic decisions.

When governments intervene in economic life, through various forms of regulation, subsidies and taxation, they inevitably influence prices in a way that substitutes the decisions of government officials for the decisions of individuals in the market. Because the underlying reality of supply and demand persists, however, and because of the diffuse nature of economic information — the preferences of individuals, their specialized abilities, the scarcity or surplus of goods and services, etc. — the actions of government planners cause harmful inefficiencies.

Socialism must therefore always fail. The more a system approaches the socialist ideal, the greater the economic inefficiencies that cause failure. And as socialist policies fail, governments determined to pursue these policies always become more coercive in their attempts to compel individuals to cooperate with the planning regime, to stamp out areas of economic freedom where prosperity remains. Thus the Soviets had to liquidate the kulaks (peasant freeholders) in order to eliminate competition with, and resistance to, the socialist regime.

Because even a minimalist government takes actions that influence economic activity, there has never been, nor will there ever be, such a thing as a pure free-market regime. Yet the policies of governments are either oriented toward economic freedom or against it. What Hayek saw in the policies of England and America in the 1940s were governments that seemed to have made a fateful turn against economic freedom, and were thus on The Road to Serfdom.

‘I, Pencil’ and Reaganism
Such is one layman’s summary of the Austrian insight, and academic specialists are free to tell me exactly how I’ve misstated the case. But at least I’ve read Mises and Hayek (and various of their students, such as Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams and Mark Skousen), and therefore can claim to have some notion of what it was that revolutionized Ronald Reagan’s worldview, turning him from a self-described bleeding-heart liberal into the almost universal hero of conservatives today. Look again at that list of conservative icons whom Rick Moran cited:

Our heroes 20 years ago were Reagan, Buckley, Fitzpatrick, Kirk, Goldwater, Anderson, and others . . .

Hayek and Mises are missing, as are Milton Friedman and other prominent advocates of economic liberty who were certainly influential circa 1989. Perhaps Moran has read these people and just doesn’t bother to mention them. Reagan and Buckley both frequently referred to the free-market intellectuals, and Goldwater was an avid defender of the free economy, so that it’s possible to have absorbed Mises second-hand, as it were.

Yet Rick Moran doesn’t discuss domestic politics like someone who’s spent much time with the Austrians and I therefore suspect his exposure to them has been minimal. And if you’ve never considered their perspective, you have to spend time with the Austrians before you can understand the insight. How many issues of The Freeman did I read before I stopped sputtering in angry protest and began nodding in agreement? I’d be willing to bet, as I said of Dreher, that Moran’s never even read Leonard Read’s brilliant little essay, “I, Pencil.”

The Missing Cornerstone
But just as this is not about Glenn Beck, it’s also not about Rick Moran. It’s about a Republican Party that ascended to power, and attracted adherents, based in substantial measure on its foreign policy disagreements with liberal Democrats. The party also attracted adherents dissatisfied with liberal positions on other issues — abortion, education, gay rights, environmentalism, etc. — and all of these GOP adherents will tell you that they are “Reagan conservatives,” but not all of them really are. Because if you haven’t read Hayek and Mises and the other economic thinkers who influenced Reagan, you are missing a fundamental cornerstone of Reagan’s worldview.

The Austrian insight can lead in many directions, as Lew Rockwell would gladly explain, but the one direction it never leads is toward the kind of Keynesian bailout/”stimulus” insanity we’ve seen from Washington over the past year — wrong-headed policies endorsed by Republicans and Democrats alike. These policies will not produce recovery, but will instead result in debt, poverty and misery. It is therefore the duty of every American who does not wish to see this “city on a hill” become a shameful tragedy to speak up in oppositon to these policies. (It Won’t Work.)

Rick Moran and some others have criticized the Tea Party movement as an incoherent populist publicity stunt, as if the nationwide rallies planned for April 15 will be about Obama’s birth certificate or FEMA camps. No — there is a specific focus on economic policy.

One also hears the grumbling that, because various Republicans have voted for bailouts or “stimulus” bills, it is hypocritical partisan demagoguery for conservatives to speak out against this economic agenda. OK, fine. Show me where Michelle Malkin, Glenn Reynolds, the Cato Institute or Americans for Limited Government — I’m kind of pulling names out of the hat here — have ever endorsed any of this stuff, even when George Bush and John McCain were enthusiastically pushing for it.

(Crickets chirping.) The Tea Party movement is not about Glenn Beck, Rick Moran, George Bush or John McCain. It’s not about re-electing any Republican in Washington, or electing any current or future Republican candidate for office. It’s about advocating a very simple idea of economic liberty as a fundamental principle of a free society.

If you don’t get that, fine. Stay home April 15 and grumble all you want about populist demagoguery, but I know where the friends of freedom will be.


UPDATE: Rick Moran says that “Anderson” was a reference to the columnist/author Martin Anderson and “Fitzpatrick” was a typo/brainfart: He meant former U.N. Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick. Oh, and Rick says he has read The Road to Serfdom, but not Mises. Yeah, but what about “I, Pencil”?

UPDATE II: Moran responds, and more linky-love is provided by Stephen Gordon at Liberty Papers, Dan Collins at Protein Wisdom, Physics Geek, Fisherville Mike and some blog with a long Latin name. (Dude, I can sling a bit of the Atlinlay when I want to impress people, but . . . seriously?)

Also, this is the place where I say, “Hit the tip jar, you ungrateful bastards.” The alternative is the Jane Hamsher whine-a-thon (“I’m blogging for The Cause, so pay up!“), and I’ve got too much dignity for that. I’m a greedy capitalist blogger, which is why I’m running a 2-for-1 special on nude photos of a certain prominent blogger’s wife. Of course, they’re just bad Photoshop jobs, but . . .

UPDATE III: Welcome, Instapundit readers! What an amazing coincidence . . . kinda like JournoList, huh?

UPDATE IV: Speaking of messaging and coincidences, guess what happens when an ACORN front group sends out a press release? And we’ve now got our own Memeorandum thread. (Rule 3!)

UPDATE V: Little Miss Attila links, as do Paco, Craig Henry and Mark Goluskin. Meanwhile, Dan Riehl says, “too long and prone to wander a bit.” My wife used to say the same thing, Dan.