Applied Randology #10: How the Other Half Lives

Today we’re going to play “Pretend Republican,” a game in which I consider negative takes on the wildly successful Democratic convention from the perspectives of a birther, a moderate conservative, and a libertarian.

PROLOGUE: CREDIT WHERE IT’S DUE

Before I play contrarian I want to offer one plaudit to the Dems that will give you a sense of where I stand ideologically. The praise goes to Julian Castro’s analogy about the American Dream being a relay from generation to generation and not a sprint or a marathon among individuals.

The ‘relay’ metaphor exposes the blind spot in the Rand/Republican belief that capitalist outcomes are inherently meritocratic.  Paul Ryan has said that the GOP believes in ‘equality of opportunity but not equality of outcomes.’ Fair enough. Let’s say we have perfect equality of opportunity; the outcomes for Generation 1 are meritocratic. But those unequal outcomes distort the distribution of opportunities available to  Generation 2, warping the relationship between outcome and merit starting with Generation 2 and forever onward.

Castro’s invocation of future generations also contrasts sharply with the influential Ayn Rand’s extreme discomfort with the role of children and family in a person’s life. Remember, in Atlas Shrugged there are no major characters with children and all familial relationships are exploitive or even predatory. Not exactly traditional values.

Of course, Democrats don’t have a monopoly on thinking of the children. But with that frame of mind in mind, let’s explore the merits and nuances of a few Republican frames of mind. I’m going to start on the fringe and work my way back to the mainstream.

1. BIRTHERISM

So obviously, a pure birther sees the entire DNC as a puppet show orchestrated by a conspiracy of Marxists, and there’s nothing insightful about that. But if you take out the part that breaks down as soon as you use basic critical thinking skills (namely the forged birth certificate part), the argument for a socialist conspiracy is at least comprehensible, if still built entirely on paranoid conjecture.

The argument goes like this: 

Barack Obama wrote a book called Dreams from my Father — not “Dreams of My Father,” as Dinesh D’Souza, producer of the documentary Obama’s America, was quick to point out in a recent interview on Bill Maher’s “Real Time.” 

In Dreams from my Father, Obama describes his adolescent struggle to establish a sense of identity (a universal coming-of-age process that must be particularly acute for a mixed-race child who grew up in several states and countries). On “Real Time” D’Souza quoted Obama from the book describing his frustrated and angry teenage years and his attempt to find an identity by learning what he could about his absentee father and adopting his father’s character as his own. According to D’Souza — and I haven’t looked beyond Wikipedia to try and verify this — Barack Sr held a number of socialist and anti-colonial views, becuse he was from Kenya.

So obviously Obama is a very angry man who forever internalized a radical value system that may or may not exist, and was definitely not just a rebellious teenager going through a phase. And obviously he left hints and clues about this covert ideology in his post-graduate memoir. But what is his secret legislative agenda?

Well, I recently found myself in correspondence with a commmitted Republican who told me he believed Obama is pursuing the Cloward-Piven Strategy. This strategy, outlined by two political scientists in The Nation magazine in 1966, is to overload the U.S. welfare system with so many people that it provokes a crisis, which the left can take as an opportunity to reform entitlements into a system of guaranteed minimum income for everyone.

The flowchart connecting Obama to the Cloward-Piven strategy looks like this:

It’s so OBVIOUS!

Convincing! But the real irony of this conspiracy theory is that the goal of the Cloward-Piven strategy has been endorsed by the two most famous conservative economists of the 20th century, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman (who advised Ronald Reagan!) And if you think about it, a straight-forward “minimum income” or “negative income tax” is a pretty libertarian-friendly approach to entitlements, because it is simple to understand and the benefit is distributed equally to every voting-age citizen (with maybe an extra per-child credit for families? Either way, let’s not get bogged down in wonky details). Point is, there would be far less opportunity for fraud or cronyism in the implementation of such a system.

But endorsement by libertarian heroes aside, the whole idea is just too hard for the right to swallow because it’s an explicit redistribution of wealth. And besides that, the Cloward-Piven strategy is an incredibly stupid way of reaching the goal, even if you think like I do that the goal could actually be a good idea. Luckily for us, nobody is pursuing that strategy!

2. MAINSTREAM CONSERVATIVISM

The truly incisive conservative argument against our government is your basic Hayekian aversion to bureaucracy, something that conservatives feel keenly and liberals tend to ignore. Through this lens, the Democratic convention was full of obnoxiously naive talk about preserving unsustainable entitlement programs, offering tax credits and subsidies to alternative energy, and generally avoiding any of the reforms that would seriously streamline government and balance the budget.

How serious a concern is this? Well, on a fundamental level the criticism is legitimate: government money + hundreds of legislators + dozens of executive bureaucracies = a million opportunities for cronyism and bribery. Part of this problem is actually uilt into the constitution — since the founders split up power among a lot of different people to avoid its concentration in a dictator, our system of government has a lot of built-in “veto points,” where one person or a small group of people can block the legislative process to extract favors. In political science terms, this kind of exploitation of your position is called “rent-seeking.”  

The problem when it comes to partisan politics is that each side sees cronyism in the other side’s behavior, when this is really one of the ways in which both parties are similarly corrupt.  No matter your noble intentions as a conservative or liberal, once you are an insider, all your honest attempts to bring your allies inside with you, or to make sure government money is going to the ‘right’ people on the outside, appear to be self-evident corrupt cronyism to your political opponents.

Since this form of corruption is essentially universal and you can only distinguish between it and honest brokerage by your personal ideological value judgments, Democrats are naive for not considering its costs and Republicans are naive for thinking there side is much better.

The real difference between the parties on this score is where the money goes. The D’s are comfortable with all sorts of programs that the R’s see as completely without merit. The Ryan budget would slash the funding of all sorts of regulatory agencies whose budgetary footprint is negligible when compared to the big three: Social Security, Medicare, and Defense.

Which is why Democrats should be more sensitive to Republican criticisms in general, even though Republican proposals to cut discretionary spending are wildly insufficient and, I would argue, counter-productive.

3. LIBERTARIANISM

So the moderate’s critique of the Democrats is insightful, but it’s not really that partisan because Republicans aren’t much better, and the examples of discretionary spending that are held up as support for the critique are nowhere near the heart of the problem.

That’s only natural, because the heart of the problem is deeply bipartisan. The biggest beneficiaries of government hand-outs are the interests that can afford to swamp both parties with campaign funds and lobbying money. It is here where you see the very real trends supporting Hayek/Rand’s road to serfdom argument. Check out this Yahoo! Finance article from July analyzing the growth of the lobbying industry and the measurable return on investment that companies see from their lobbying expenses. Money quote:

“I think it speaks to the fact that government is a much bigger part of the economy,” Trennert points out, adding that many companies now actually view their lobbying expenditures along the same lines as R&D (research and development) or equipment spending. ” Companies are understanding better the idea that it is important…that it is a fiduciary duty to spend money and make sure your voice is heard,” he says.

The traditional Big Three sectors for lobbying are finance, pharmaceuticals, and defense. Let’s take defense as our representative example, because it’s the sector in which you see the biggest break between libertarians like Ron Paul and mainstream conservative hawks.

The first thing to note about defense spending is that it is back-door Keynesianism. Even as Ronald Reagan worked to cut all sorts of discretionary spending, he engaged in huge amounts of deficit spending for defense contractors. Now conservatives tend not to mind this because securing borders and trade routes is an undisputed responsibility of even a libertarian state. But this does nothing to change the fact that the sheer amount of money being earmarked invites all of the same concerns about corruption that Republicans see clearly when the money is being spent on poor people instead of bombs and massive warrantless surveillance operations.

It seems obvious to me that defense spending is exactly the area of government expenditure that should alarm libertarians the MOST, because not only does it contribute to the mountain of corrupting subsidies, but the results of that funding are generally the sorts of things the government could use to enclose the citizenry in a panoptical police state.

Unfortunately, both parties only get suitably terrified by this when the other is in power. When President Bush radically expanded the government’s ability to spy and torture and kill without oversight, liberals freaked out while conservatives trusted the decider. Now that a Democratic president is the one signing off on extra-legal targeted killings by remote-controlled drones, the Democrats spent a significant chunk of the convention celebrating our insanely powerful national security apparatus, while conservatives are obviously in a panic about the possibility the president will take all our freedoms away.

CONCLUSION: THE GRAND COMPROMISE

Now I’m not trying to be an alarmist in pointing out that the truly scary growth of government is in the sector(s) that no politician in their right mind would dare cut. I am not advocating we collapse society to avoid further progress along our current course. Anybody who isn’t dropping off the grid and moving to a remote log cabin needs to shut up about Randian apocalyptic ideals like that and accept that incremental reforms to the existing sytem are the least worst option.

Now I’m no wonk, but it seems to me we could radically simplify welfare and social security by replacing them with a (Hayek & Friedman approved!) Guaranteed Minimum Income, and we could make our defense spending far more frugal and efficient if we reasserted stronger judicial and congressional oversight of national security programs and reduced our budgets over a decade or two so that we eventually accounted for, say, 20% of the world’s defense spending instead of 40%, or approximately 2x China’s defense budget instead of 4x. Still gargantuan, just not so bloated and wasteful.

If we did all that we could theoretically shrink government A LOT (if we did all that we basically already would have), and from there it would be relatively easy to balance the budget and reform taxes by closing loopholes and flattening rates. Everybody gets something they want! We could even afford plenty of discretionary spending for infrastructure and R&D credits and other investments in human capital that have positive multiplier effects on the private economy.

Getting to a place like that is impossible means acknowledging that liberal concerns about undue corporate power and conservative concerns about undue government power are concerns about the same thing: the concentration of power and wealth among an unmeritocratic elite.

Putting aside the tremendous logistical obstacles, that’s the real reason we as a country can’t coalesce around a platform for comprehensive reform, even theoretically: the anarcho-capitalist right and the state-socialist left would both have to accept that the other side is… kinda right.

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