Topic: Political Philosophy

The Pre-Public Choice View

I always thought the view that the private sector is full of greed and self-interest, while the public sector is all about selflessness and public service, was confined to 1950s civics books. But lo and behold, it turns out that view is still held by federal appointees interviewed by NPR:

“We’ve always thought of the government as motivated by a sense of service to the people,” says Charles Tiefer, whom Congress appointed earlier this year to the new Commission on Wartime Contracting, which oversees Pentagon contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We’re getting away from that [by contracting out government services].”

After all, he says, federal employees take an oath to the Constitution, while private contractors are just motivated by their own economic interest. It’s a lovely vision, and apparently some people actually believe it. But about 50 years ago the public choice economists, such as James M. Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, and William Niskanen, began to suggest that people in government are still people, with all their good and bad characteristics. And also that analyzing the actions of government in the light of self-interest leads to pretty sound predictions and observations. As Buchanan put it in an interview:

I usually have a three-word description [of public choice economics] – it is “politics without romance”. Politics is a romantic search for the good and the true and the beautiful. “Public choice” came along and said, “Why don’t we model people more or less like everyday persons? Politicians and bureaucrats are no different from the rest of us. They will maximize their incentives just like everybody else.” By taking that very simple starting point, you get a completely different view of politics and its analysis.

Buchanan won a Nobel Prize for his insights, but obviously they haven’t fully permeated Washington yet.

For the Good of Barack Obama, Mr. Rangel Should Step Aside

Or am I reading too much into the Washington Post editorial, “Step Aside, Mr. Rangel,” when it says:

At a time when President-elect Barack Obama is holding frequent news conferences to reassure the markets and the American people that he is ready to lead the nation to economic recovery, the last thing he will need is a chairman of Ways and Means caught up in a swirl of serious allegations.

The cult of the presidency, indeed.

The Left Embraces the Shock Doctrine

Last week Rahm Emanuel said to a prestigious audience, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. It’s an opportunity to do things you could not do before.”

And that’s just the strategy that bestselling author Naomi Klein accuses right-wingers of employing. Weaving a convoluted yet superficially simple tale of world events, she claims in her book The Shock Doctrine that right-wing ideologues and governments both use and create moments of crisis to implement their nefarious agenda.

“Some people stockpile canned goods and water in preparation for major disasters,” Klein writes. “Friedmanites stockpile free-market ideas.” Which is exactly what American left-liberals have been doing in anticipation of a Democratic administration coming to power at a time when the public might be frightened into accepting more government than it normally would. The Center for American Progress, for instance, run by John Podesta, who was President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff and is now President-elect Obama’s transition director, has just released Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President.

The ideas in that report mesh well with the opportunities that Emanuel identified. After re-emphasizing the opportunities that crisis provides, he told his audience that the Obama administration wanted to use the opportunity to implement central planning of health care and energy, higher taxes, a federal program directed at “training the workforce,” and tighter control of financial institutions and capital flows.

But Emanuel isn’t the only one. As I mentioned previously, Paul Krugman has also endorsed the “don’t let a good crisis go to waste” power grab.

And now Arianna Huffington, the founder of the left-wing bulletin board HuffingtonPost, makes the same point in a public radio appearance. On KCRW’s “Left, Right, and Center,” November 21 (at about 27:20 in the podcast), she declared: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. And it might be this particular crisis that will make it possible for the Obama administration to do some really innovative, bold things on health care, on energy independence, on all the areas that have been neglected.” (Hat tip: Thaddeus Russell.) Last year Huffington wrote a rave review of The Shock Doctrine, calling it “prophetic.” So it seems.

So … Emanuel. Krugman. Huffington. They’re all rallying around the theme that, well, that a left-liberal government should use this crisis to implement a more sweeping agenda than it could achieve in the absence of crisis. That’s the Shock Doctrine. Where are Naomi Klein and her legion of fans to expose and denounce it?

Of course, Klein might well decry their corporatist, big government/big business plans as just another example of Friedmanite/neoconservative/Pinochetist right-wing ideology. Anything other than local worker’s collectives smells like capitalism to her. So she can add the Obama administration to Milton Friedman, laissez-faire, the Bush administration, the Iraqi government, the Pinochet government, the Chinese Communist Party, and the ANC government of South Africa on the list of things that seem so many peas in a pod to her.

The San Francisco Chronicle says that Klein “may well have revealed the master narrative of our time.” The reviewer may have been more right than he knew.

Was There a Realignment?

Pollsters debate whether the 2008 election is a fundamental realignment of American politics, with liberals and Democrats now in the driver’s seat. But some ask, how can it be a realignment when the largest public opinion poll, the election-day exit poll, found liberals still a small minority of voters?

Twenty-two percent of those polled identified themselves as “liberal,” 34 percent as “conservative,” 44 percent as “moderate.”

One reason, not discussed in this article, is that liberal-moderate-conservative is a crude and one-dimensional view of the political spectrum. At the very least we should recognize that holding fiscally conservative views doesn’t necessarily make you a social conservative, and being a social conservative doesn’t make you a free-marketer. So when you add just one more dimension to create a matrix, you can get two new categories, whom we might call “populist” (socially conservative and pro-government activism, like Lou Dobbs and Mike Huckabee) and “libertarian” (fiscally conservative and culturally liberal).

In 2006, after another election that involved a sharp shift to the Democrats, Cato asked Zogby to poll voters on their political views. We asked half the respondents, “Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal?” We were quite surprised that fully 59 percent said yes. And when we asked the other half of the sample, “Would you describe yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as libertarian?” we knew the number would go down. But it only went down to 44 percent. So 44 percent of American voters are willing to label themselves as “libertarian” if it’s defined as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.”

Which is one reason that Democrats were able to roll up a big victory with an electorate that described itself as 78 percent conservative or moderate. Pollsters should ask more creative questions to get more revealing information about just where the electorate is and just what electoral changes mean.

Libertarians Can’t Win

I was pleased to read Ezra Klein’s reaction to this month’s installment of Cato Unbound, in which he defended libertarians’ honor. Well, sort of:

This also gets at the weird nexus between libertarianism and corporate interests. Anti-state is not the same as pro-corporation, and insofar as a lot of liberals understand libertarians to be simple corporate stooges, they’re not quite right. In certain places – notably tech and patent issues, which is one of those spots where government policy and corporate interests converge – there’s nearly unanimous opposition to the position that’s most closely associated with corporate profits. And so Cato doesn’t get a lot of contributions from the recording industry.

But there are plenty of spaces where corporations or other wealthy economic actors see profit in avoiding or repealing certain regulations and laws – energy is notable here, as is the estate tax – and so libertarians find themselves rather well-funded. And then there are spaces where corporations want to profit from a service the government currently controls – like Social Security – and libertarians are quite happy to create an ideological argument for corporate self-interest. Crucially, it’s not that libertarians are always and everywhere in favor of corporate profits, but that they often are, and corporations find that useful, and so you have frequent marriages of convenience that also end up ensuring that the priorities of professional libertarians priorities are those that most effectively support corporate profits, as those are the projects that get funded.

It sounds to me like what Ezra is saying here, in an extremely back-handed fashion, is that libertarians aren’t corporate stooges at all. When the interests of corporations happen to align with what we regard as good public policy, then corporate interests tend to be our allies. Otherwise, they tend not to be. Which, as far as I can tell, is exactly how it should be.

It’s interesting that this discussion is coming up at a time when the biggest issue on the economic policy agenda is how many more hundreds of billions of dollars the American taxpayer will be forced to give to large corporate interests in Detroit, Manhattan, and elsewhere. Strangely enough, you’ll find people on the left-hand side of the political spectrum cautiously endorsing government handouts to some of the nation’s largest and most dysfunctional corporations, while scholars here at the Cato Institute have been sharply critical of welfare for large corporations.

Now, I don’t doubt for a minute that liberals’ support for government handouts to giant corporations is based on their sober assessment of the policy merits, rather than a dedication to “corporate profits” as such. But it is a little bit frustrating that when libertarians take a firm stance against the interests of large corporations, we don’t get praised for our independence so much as getting attacked for our ideological rigidity. These charges can’t both be right: we can’t both be solicitous corporate shills and inflexible ideologues. If people are going to question our motives, I wish they’d at least get their story straight on exactly which kind of intellectual dishonesty they think we’re engaging in.

What Does It Mean If the Marxists Are Excited about an Obama Administration?

More from our Marxist friend Norman Markowitz, contributing editor of PoliticalAffairs.net (motto: “Marxist Thought Online”):

Obama certainly has a mandate, and it is a mandate for change. Obama’s slogan, “Change We Can Believe In,” was reminiscent of slogans like the “New Deal” of Roosevelt’s 1932 campaign and the “Great Society” banner under which Johnson won in 1964. In the latter cases, those slogans translated into the major policy domestic agendas of those administrations.

For the people who elected Obama and the increased Democratic majority, “change we can believe in”… is about creating a national public health care program more than 50 years after it was established in other major industrial nations … [a] “single payer” national health system – known as “socialized medicine” in the rest of the developed world …

The right-wing propaganda machine will scream socialism, and that is also a good thing. Because the more socialism comes to be identified with real policies that raise the standard of living and improve the quality of life for the working class and the whole people, the more socialism will be looked at seriously. A stronger left that follows the tradition of the Communist Party in its unbreakable commitment to a socialist future and to educating people about the value and necessity of socialist policies in the present could follow.

It would be a stretch to say that this guy speaks for president-elect Barack Obama, or anyone who voted for Obama.

But it is interesting how excited the Marxists are about Obama’s presidency. In particular, his health-care plan.