the national interest

‘Libertarian Populists’ Have Great Imaginations

Dental work is performed as part of a free health care service at the Care Harbor clinic at the Los Angeles Sports Arena on September 27, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. Care Harbor is expected to give free medical, dental and vision care to 4,800 uninsured patients at the event, which runs from September 27-30. In Los Angeles County it is reported that 2.2 million people do not have health insurance, which includes an estimated 227,000 young and school-aged children.
Obama cronies. Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The “libertarian populism” debate has already gotten interminable. On the other hand, Republicans have already pivoted to making a version of this their official message, having transitioned from bashing President Obama as the socialistic enemy of Job Creators to bashing him as a corrupt crony-capitalist handmaiden of wealth. The ease of this transition reveals the inherent flabbiness of the concept and its very limited use as a governing principle.

Josh Barro and I recently wrote similar critiques of the idea. The Economist’s libertarian-ish blogger Will Wilkinson has a lengthy response to mine, which mostly consists of applying advanced mind-reading techniques to discern beliefs that I never knew I actually had. The basic problem with “libertarian populism,” or its “court party versus country party” variant, is twofold.

First, most wealth in the United States today is obtained through what most of us, libertarians included, would call regular market means, which may require government to exist but aren’t rent-seeking. You know, people making and doing stuff that other people want to buy. The market inherently creates and perpetuates extremes of wealth. Any serious program of protecting the economic well-being of the majority of the public will therefore require a positive role for government, not merely eliminating government-created privilege.

Second, American politics mainly revolves around exactly this function of government. It’s not all politics is, but it is the biggest single divide between the parties: how much to tax the rich and regulate business, what level of social services the government ought to provide.

As I noted, this is not the entirety of the story. There are ways you can reduce inequality by cutting government (farm subsidies!) and ways in which the partisan dynamic is not defined by a clean upward-downward economic tug-of-war (say, climate change). But they’re major factors, which is why the attempt to construct an ideological analysis that ignores them inevitably fails.

The main hand-waving trick libertarian populists perform here to ignore this large reality is to deem the Obama administration a fundamentally corrupt enterprise, as if the essential element of Obama’s agenda is to gather his donors in a room and start handing out taxpayer dollars. I pointed out that Obama’s presidency has so far been fairly clean, lacking in the sorts of corruption scandals that have historically occurred. Wilkinson reads this and goes ballistic (or, at least, as ballistic as you can go while trying to ape The Economist’s bored, pipe-in-mouth house style):

Mr Chait asserts that Mr Obama has “easily surpassed the normal presidential standard of good governance” and that the “stimulus, which conservatives predicted would devolve into a slush fund, was carried off almost spotlessly”. It is the overreach of these claims that alerts us to Mr Chait’s partiality. Mr Obama’s administration may well have surpassed the typical presidency in even-handed, non-cronyist governance. I’m willing to entertain the idea that Mr Obama did not do more than a Republican would have done to enrich the principals of Goldman Sachs and Citibank. And it’s plausible there’s nothing particularly unusual in Mr Obama’s green industrial-policy initiatives or the special help afforded the unions in the auto bail-out. But if the administration has “easily” exceeded the normal low standards for non-cronyism, one or two commentators other than those thoroughly in the bag for the Democratic Party might have noticed it.

This is genuinely weird. I didn’t say there is nothing bad at all about Obama’s dealings with business. What I argued was that, given the reality that every president deals in some form with powerful interests, Obama has pulled it off more cleanly than most (if less cleanly than he promised in 2008). Wilkinson alternates between flaying me as a partisan for making this case and agreeing with what I wrote. First he calls my argument an “overreach.” Then he concedes Obama “may well have surpassed the typical presidency in even-handed, non-cronyist governance” — which is my entire claim!

It’s true that the Democratic Party has all kinds of members who are representing donors or local business interests, and when Obama relies on Ben Nelson, Max Baucus, and so on to pass a bill, the bill is going to be written in a suboptimal way even while advancing laudable goals. I write about this all the time. But conceding Obama’s cleanliness relative to normal standards does falsify an analysis that defines Obama’s policies as cronyist. Steve Nash may be really tall for a human, but he’s not really tall for an NBA player. If you try to define Steve Nash’s game as being all about height, you’re going to be wrong.

Photo: Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Wilkinson’s anger seems to result from his imagining that I am arguing something different than what I wrote. Reading Wilkinson’s response, I was shocked and appaled to learn that I apparently believe the following things:

the unimpeachably honest, impartial and humane Democratic Party already does everything worth doing to persecute the powerful and comfort the powerless …

“Mr Chait’s argument that there’s nothing really wrong with America’s political economy that a little more downward redistribution wouldn’t fix beautifully … 

“Mr Obama’s style of governance is unobjectionably pristine and that any failure on the part of Mr Obama to have done anything at all to oppose corporate welfare or check corporate power cannot be held against him, or against Democrats, because these things are irrelevant to the question of inequality … 

“Moreover, all the deeper mechanisms that generate and reproduce America’s peculiar patterns of income and wealth—the definition of intellectual-property rights, the structure and governance of corporations, the marginalisation and persecution of undocumented workers, the de facto apartheid of America’s systems of criminal justice and public education, the evolution of family structure—seems to lack reality in Mr Chait’s mind, perhaps because none affords an obvious angle for partisan electoral advantage … 

Here’s a good tip for reading these sorts of response pieces. If the critic has to extensively rewrite the opinions of the target of his criticism, rather than quoting him directly, perhaps the target doesn’t actually believe those things. It’s pretty easy to win an argument if you can assign your opponent any view you want.

Here, let me try it with Will Wilkinson. He writes, “conservatives might profitably position themselves against the cronyism of government under Barack Obama.” Wow, Will Wilkinson thinks Barack Obama is a criminal, and he wants to impeach him? Wilkinson goes on, “Democrats most certainly do succor elites.” Woah: Wilkinson says Ayn Rand is not only the most brilliant human being who ever lived but also the most physically attractive! Will Wilkinson, you so crazy!

‘Libertarian Populists’ Have Great Imaginations