Topic: Political Philosophy

How David Brooks Created Donald Trump

Donald Trump, David Brooks (Credit: AP/John Locher/Nam Y. Huh/Photo montage by Salon)

The ugliness of this year’s presidential race makes The New York Times’ resident erstwhile conservative David Brooks wistful for Barack Obama. The irony is that David Brooks, Barack Obama, and their respective tribes bear much of the responsibility for the rise of Donald Trump.

“I miss Barack Obama,” Brooks laments, because “over the course of this campaign it feels as if there’s been a decline in behavioral standards across the board.” Brooks cites Hillary Clinton’s emails and some other stuff, but everyone knows he’s talking about The Donald. “Many of the traits of character and leadership that Obama possesses, and that maybe we have taken too much for granted, have suddenly gone missing or are in short supply. The first and most important of these is basic integrity. The Obama administration has been remarkably scandal-free.” By the time he’s done, Brooks upgrades Obama’s integrity to “superior.”

We all have difficulty seeing our blind spots. That’s why we call them what we call them. But Brooks’ obliviousness here is awe-inspiring.

Donald Trump has risen to the top of the GOP presidential field by appealing to resentments stoked by both political tribes. Even Brooks is even doing it, right there in his column.

Trump is riding resentments Obama has stoked by ruling as an autocrat. Rather than accept that voters elected a Republican Congress for the purpose of restraining his ambitions, Obama famously boasted he can act without Congress, because “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone.”

He has repeatedly circumvented the democratic process and he knows it, as when he boasts, “I just took an action to change the law.” When challenged, he tries (with some success) to intimidate courts into writing tortured opinions in his favor. Still his executive overreach has been on the losing end of more unanimous Supreme Court rulings than either of his two immediate predecessors. Even allies admit he plays fast and loose with the rule of law.


When a president doesn’t play by the rules, he is telling his political opponents their votes don’t matter. That breeds resentment.

The Fundamental Fallacy of Redistribution

The idea that government could redistribute income willy-nilly with impunity did not originate with Senator Bernie Sanders. On the contrary, it may have begun with two of the most famous 19th Century economists, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill.   Karl Marx, on the other side, found the idea preposterous, calling it “vulgar socialism.”

Mill wrote, “The laws and conditions of the production of wealth partake of the character of physical truths.  There is nothing optional or arbitrary about them… . It is not so with the Distribution of Wealth.  That is a matter of human institution only.  The things once there, mankind, individually, can do with them as they like.”[1]

Mill’s distinction between production and distribution appears to encourage the view that any sort of government intervention in distribution is utterly harmless – a free lunch.  But redistribution aims to take money from people who earned it and give it to those who did not.  And that, of course, has adverse effects on the incentives of those who receive the government’s benefits and on taxpayers who finance those benefits.

David Ricardo had earlier made the identical mistake. In his 1936 book The Good Society (p. 196), Walter Lippmann criticized Ricardo as being “not concerned with the increase of wealth, for wealth was increasing and the economists did not need to worry about that.” But Ricardo saw income distribution as an interesting issue of political economy and “set out to ascertain ‘the laws which determine the division of the produce of industry among the classes who concur in its formation.’

Lippmann wisely argued that, “separating the production of wealth from the distribution of wealth” was “almost certainly an error. For the amount of wealth which is available for distribution cannot in fact be separated from the proportions in which it is distributed… . Moreover, the proportion in which wealth is distributed must have an effect on the amount produced.” 

The third classical economist to address this issue was Karl Marx.  There were many fatal flaws in Marxism, including the whole notion that a society is divided into two armies – workers and capitalists.[2]  Late in his career, however, Marx wrote a fascinating 1875 letter to his allies in the German Social Democratic movement criticizing a redistributionist scheme he found unworkable.  In this famous “Critique of the Gotha Program,” Marx was highly critical of “vulgar socialism” and considered the whole notion of “fair distribution” to be “obsolete verbal rubbish.”  In response to the Gotha’s program claim that society’s production should be equally distributed to all, Marx asked, “To those who do not work as well? … But one man is superior to another physically or mentally and so supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time… . This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor… It is, therefore, a right to inequality…”  

“The Libertarian Mind” in the New York Times

The writer Lionel Shriver, best known for her novel We Need to Talk about Kevin, cites The Libertarian Mind in a New York Times column today, about the difficulty of being a “disenfranchised…socially progressive economic conservative.” Shriver writes:

Yet whether it’s “leftist” or “rightist,” my catechism is consistent. The rubric to which those positions hew — we should be free to do whatever doesn’t impinge on the rights of others — forms the conceptual backbone of the United States. The Constitution is libertarian. To the extent that the unamended Constitution was flawed, it was more rigorous application of libertarian principles that would have abolish slavery and granted women’s suffrage. Libertarians were way ahead of the pack on decriminalizing homosexuality.

We can at least thank Rand Paul for nominally refurbishing libertarianism so that it is halfway respectable. But the real mystery is why American libertarianism was ever marginalized (and why they marginalized themselves). David Boaz encapsulates the essential idea in last year’s “The Libertarian Mind”: “You learn the essence of libertarianism in kindergarten: Don’t hit other people, don’t take their stuff, and keep your promises.”

Shriver goes on to endorse seatbelt and helmet laws, a higher minimum wage, gun control, and socialized medicine, a useful reminder to us more ideological sorts that even intelligent, well-informed voters don’t always fit into neat categories. But she does complain about being “repeatedly forced to vote Democratic because the Republican social agenda is retrograde, if not lunatic — at the cost of unwillingly endorsing cumbersome high-tax solutions to this country’s problems.” And she says:

Voters like me — who believe that environmental quality, health and safety, and security needn’t be purchased at the cost of our liberty, and who defend the right to make our own mistakes as a crucial aspect of being human — deserve political representation.

Exactly. And that’s a point we’ve been making here at the Cato Institute since our 1981 paper on liberal, conservative, libertarian, and populist perspectives right up through our recent work on “the libertarian vote.” It’s gratifying to see this additional confirmation that there are many voters out there who are “socially progressive economic conservatives,” or “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” or indeed broadly libertarian.

Iowa Moonshine: The Sordid History of Ethanol Mandates

In recent years, politicians set impossibly high mandates for the amounts of ethanol motorists must buy in 2022 while also setting impossibly high standards for the fuel economy of cars sold in 2025.  To accomplish these conflicting goals, motorists are now given tax credits to drive heavily-subsidized electric cars, even as they will supposedly be required to buy more and more ethanol-laced fuel each year.  

Why have such blatantly contradictory laws received so little criticism, if not outrage? Probably because ethanol mandates and electric car subsidies are lucrative sources of federal grants, loans, subsidies and tax credits for “alternative fuels” and electric cars.  Those on the receiving end lobby hard to keep the gravy train rolling while those paying the bills lack the same motivation to become informed, or to organize and lobby. 

With farmers, ethanol producers and oil companies all sharing the bounty, using subsidies and mandates to pour ever-increasing amounts of ethanol into motorists’ gas tanks has been a win-win deal for politicians and the interest groups that support them and a lose-lose deal for consumers and taxpayers.

Christians Should Vote for Good Governance over Good Theology

Politicians pander. It’s what they do. But Christians seem especially susceptible to those claiming to be their spiritual brethren. It would be better if people of faith focused on candidates’ practical ability to perform the duties of what remains a secular office.

With the Iowa caucuses drawing near, it seems like every Republican tramping through the snow claims to be a Bible-believing, God-fearing, Jesus-loving Christian. A gaggle of church leaders are promoting their favorite presidential wannabe.

It’s a fruitless exercise. It’s rarely easy to judge whether a particular candidate’s faith claims are true. God told the prophet Samuel: “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

For instance, Ted Cruz appears to have done the best this year in presenting himself as a committed Christian. His religious tale, including the conversion story of his pastor father, is contained in an 18-minute documentary. By all accounts, Cruz is doing well among the most theologically conservative Republicans in Iowa.

Yet McKay Coppins of BuzzFeed reported on doubts about Cruz’s faithfulness. Moreover, in late 2014, Cruz used a conference on persecuted Christians from the Middle East, among the most vulnerable people on the planet, as a campaign prop.

Cruz also gave less than one percent of his income to charity between 2006 and 2010. Opposing candidate Mike Huckabee observed: “It’s hard to say God is first in your life if he’s last in your budget.”

Donald Trump has been doing his best to pander without a carefully crafted story. Running casinos with strip clubs is unusual “fruit” from a Christian walk. His style of campaigning doesn’t exactly advance the Christian faith.

How about the rest of the GOP candidates? What do they really believe about God? Do they have a personal relationship with Jesus?

The best response is: who cares? One’s theological views just don’t tell much about a person’s competence to perform a civil office. Voters should care most about how a candidate would confront Washington’s virtual fiscal insolvency, end America’s constant warring in the Middle East, address dependency as well as poverty among the poor, and deal with other serious policy issues.

Indeed, by the most public measures of behavior, President Barack Obama appears to be a more faithful Christian than Donald Trump. Yet many political activists who loudly assert their Christian faith are trending toward the Donald. Indeed, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., gave a fulsome introduction to Trump, even comparing Trump to Jesus in expressing unpopular opinions.

It actually would have been more reassuring had Liberty University invited Trump to speak and The Donald done so, with neither pandering to the other. Trump ain’t my cup of tea, but the argument for his candidacy is entirely secular. Nevertheless, Christians should vote for him if they believe him to be the best candidate—and not because they believe him to be a faithful Christian like themselves.

As I wrote for American Spectator: “After years of being manipulated by ambitious politicos, believers should check their credulity at the polling place door. Christians shouldn’t cast their ballots based on their perceptions of the contenders’ religious faith. Martin Luther was right when he declared that he preferred to be governed by a smart Turk than a stupid Christian.”

Goodness and faithfulness are important, but no substitute for competence. Believers and nonbelievers alike should choose the best candidate, not the best Christian, for president. 

Ultimately, “School Choice” Must Be about Freedom

It is National School Choice Week, and this ever-growing event-of-events will feature discussions throughout the country tackling test scores, competition, empowering the poor, efficient use of taxpayer dollars, monopoly breaking, and numerous other, very important topics. But ultimately just one goal must be paramount: maximizing freedom. In the end, it is defending liberty – the true, bedrock American value – that school choice must be about.

This is first and foremost a normative conviction. Freedom must have primacy because society is ultimately composed of individuals, and leaving individuals the right and ability to control their own lives is fundamentally more just than having the state – be it through a single dictator, or majority of voters – control our thoughts, words, or actions.

Of course, children are subject to someone’s control no matter what. But a corollary to free individuals, especially when no one is omniscient and there is no unanimous agreement on what is the “right” way to live, or think, or believe, must be free association – free, authentic communities. We must allow people and communities marked by hugely diverse religious, philosophical, or moral views, and rich ethnic and cultural identities and backgrounds, to teach their children those things. Short of stopping incitement of violence or clear parental abuse, the state should have no authority to declare that “your culture is acceptable,” or “yours must go.” Indeed, crush the freedom of communities and you inevitably cripple individual liberty, taking away one’s choices of how and with whom to live.

Of course, the reasons to demand educational freedom are not just normative. They are also about effective education, and it is not hard to understand, at a very basic level, why.

If there are things on which all agree, choice is moot – all will teach and respect those things. But if we do not all agree, forcing diverse people to support a single system of “common” schools yields but three outcomes: first, divisive conflict; then, either inequality under the law – oppression – when one side wins and the other loses, or lowest-common-denominator curricula to keep the peace. Forced conflict and curricular mush no one should want. And inequality under the law we should all loathe and fear, even if we do not care about the rights of others and think we will come out the victors today. Tomorrow, we may not.

School choice is something for which all Americans should fight. But ultimately, it is too limiting. What we need is freedom for all.

Conservatives and a Lone Libertarian Take on Donald Trump

National Review cover "Against Trump"Today I join some 20 other writers in making the case against Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. The venerable National Review, founded by William F. Buckley, Jr., assembled a group of diverse critics to argue that Trump is not a conservative, not an advocate of limited government, but rather (as the editorial asserts) “a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones.”

The symposium is understandably being described in the media as “conservative thought leaders take on Trump.” I of course consider myself a libertarian, as my book The Libertarian Mind would indicate, and not a conservative. But part of the impact of this symposium is that people of such widely varying views – I have a lot of disagreements with religious rightist Cal Thomas and neoconservative Bill Kristol – nevertheless regard Trump as dangerous. 

In my own contribution I emphasize two points:

From a libertarian point of view — and I think serious conservatives and liberals would share this view—Trump’s greatest offenses against American tradition and our founding principles are his nativism and his promise of one-man rule.

Not since George Wallace has there been a presidential candidate who made racial and religious scapegoating so central to his campaign. Trump launched his campaign talking about Mexican rapists and has gone on to rant about mass deportation, bans on Muslim immigration, shutting down mosques, and building a wall around America. America is an exceptional nation in large part because we’ve aspired to rise above such prejudices and guarantee life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to everyone. Equally troubling is his idea of the presidency—his promise that he’s the guy, the man on a white horse, who can ride into Washington, fire the stupid people, hire the best people, and fix everything. He doesn’t talk about policy or working with Congress. He’s effectively vowing to be an American Mussolini, concentrating power in the Trump White House and governing by fiat. It’s a vision to make the last 16 years of executive abuse of power seem modest.

This isn’t my first sally against Trump. After hearing him in person at FreedomFest in July, I wrote about his nationalism, protectionism, and megalomania in the Washington Times. And in August I reviewed his support for and use of eminent domain at the Guardian.

The National Review symposium was posted last night at 10 p.m., and I took note of it on Facebook and Twitter. It drew a lot of reaction. And I must say, I was surprised by how many of the responses, especially on Twitter, were openly racist and anti-Semitic. That did nothing to make me reconsider my deep concerns about the damage Trump is doing, and could do, to America’s libertarian heritage.