Pat Robertson’s Crackpopulism

Asked about Pat Robertson as a candidate for the presidency, a longtime conservative was quoted in the Washington Post recently as saying: “On the three big issues — the family, right to life and a strong economy — Robertson’s the clear choice.” He and other conservatives who view Mr. Robertson as a committed advocate of the free market should read the former reverend’s books.

Indeed, little attention has been paid to the rather odd economic ideas in those books. One of the oddest of Mr. Robertson’s economic ideas is his remedy for the nation’s fiscal crises, as set down in his 1984 book, “Answers to 200 of Life’s Most Probing Questions”: “The Bible contains a solution to the problem of excess accumulation of wealth and power. Every 50 years during the year of Jubilee the people had to … cancel debts. Every debt outstanding, by every debtor, was canceled… . All agricultural land, what we would term today the means of production, was to be returned to the families who had originally owned it… . The biblical year of Jubilee is something that our society ought to learn.”

On his TV show, “The 700 Club,” Mr. Robertson maintained that the year of Jubilee “is the only way to solve the recession and national debt.” But when Marvin Kalb recently challenged him to defend that idea, he responded: “No, a president obviously can’t cancel debts. We have to honor the debts that we have.” He went on to say that “as a nation we have to do something about paying them off” — apparently something that would fly in the face of his repeated endorsement of public and private debt repudiation. Was Mr. Robertson seeking to renounce a biblical precept for political gain?

Populist movements never concede that their followers’ problems might be of their own making or a result of spontaneous social processes; demon figures and scapegoats are required.

The year of Jubilee is not the strangest of Mr. Robertson’s economic notions. That title must surely go to his suggestion that the microchips in credit cards are the mark of the Beast, or Antichrist. Mr. Robertson has suggested that electronic-funds transfers and “the drive toward a checkless, cashless society … could easily fulfill what {the New Testament book of} Revelation says: that people could not buy or sell without the mark of the Beast.”

Throughout Mr. Robertson’s books there is an undercurrent of hostility toward credit as well as toward bankers and the rich. Take his economic history lesson in “America’s Dates With Destiny” (1986): “Three times federal banking systems and regulatory agencies were tried in the United States. Each time political pressure by private banking interests overturned the national banking system, and private banking interests regained control… . The people wanted to control their financial institutions. They did not want to be victims of powerful, unregulated bankers.”

In “Dates With Destiny,” Mr. Robertson blamed the Great Depression on “greed and easy credit.” He wrote: “The banks were greedy when they fueled the period of frantic speculation… . The rich owners and bosses were greedy when they didn’t share the profits with the people. And the people were greedy when they overspeculated, using credit in their attempts to get rich quick.” In other books, he has railed against “unbridled capitalism” and “free-booting robber barons.” That is not exactly the sophisticated analysis of the market process that might be expected from a candidate who presents himself as a defender of the free market.

There is a name for Mr. Robertson’s economic notions: crackpot. Crackpot ideas have a long history in America, from the “free coinage of silver” advocated by William Jennings Bryan and the Populist Party to such Depression-era cure-alls as Huey Long’s “Every man a king,” Father Coughlin’s deliberate inflationism, and Dr. Francis E. Townsend’s plan to grant pensions to the elderly on the condition that they spend the money promptly. (Granted, crackpot ideas have a habit of becoming law; the Townsend Plan was a forerunner of Social Security, and even the Populists never advocated the free coinage of paper.)

Mr. Robertson can best be understood not as a new figure in the conservative movement but as the heir of the Populists and Father Coughlin. As the Populists did, he appeals to less-educated, lower-middle-class people who find economic and social change frightening. Populist meetings had a revivalist flavor, with banners urging people to vote as they prayed.

Populist movements never concede that their followers’ problems might be of their own making or a result of spontaneous social processes; demon figures and scapegoats are required. For the Populist Party, they were immigrants, the railroads and Wall Street. For Father Coughlin, they were the banks, the Jews, and — of course — Wall Street. For Mr. Robertson, they are gays, secular humanists, and — at least in his evangelical incarnation — Wall Street.

Because populists always seem to present crackpot economic schemes — usually involving inflationism or debt repudiation — as miraculous cures for the nation’s problems, it seems appropriate to note that relationship by dubbing such movements “crackpopulist.” Mr. Robertson is not the only modern exponent of crackpopulism; Democrats Jesse Jackson and Richard Gephardt have made serious bids for the crackpopulist vote as well.

Mr. Robertson’s attempt to erase his past is understandable. (His latest campaign brochure contains several lines of biographical information but doesn’t mention his career as an evangelist. That’s as if a biography of George Bush failed to mention that he has held public office.)

Perhaps he believes that just as he washed away the sins of his youth when he was born again as a Christian, he can wash away the taint of evangelism when he was born yet again as a politician. But voters need to judge all Mr. Robertson’s ideas, not just the ones he mentions in televised debates.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute.