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My Response to New York Times Op Ed Columnist David Brooks: "Liberal Democrats"
Jan. 11, 2011
David Brooks, a resident columnist at the New York Times, asks this question: Why aren't there more liberals in America?
I'm glad he asked!
He begins by offering some reasons that are not valid, in his view.
It's not because liberalism lacks cultural power. Many polls suggest that a majority of college professors and national journalists vote Democratic. The movie, TV, music and publishing industries are dominated by liberals.
It seems to me that this is a very good place to begin. When Brooks' list of segments of the society that vote far-left Democratic are these, he has begun to answer his question about the decline of liberalism.
University professors are part of a self-screened, self-regulated profession who owe their careers to the existence of a cartel maintained by federal and state laws governing the accreditation of colleges and universities. This is a crucial barrier to entry. They are rent-seekers in a closed profession that screens out conservatives, beginning in the freshman year in college, and has ever since 1948. I recommend this milestone: Economics, by Paul Samuelson, first edition (1948).
As for national journalists, he is correct. These people are ignored by most people and always have been. They have influenced politicians and government employees, but hardly anyone else. They are now in a doomed profession. The World Wide Web is eliminating newspapers, including the New York Times, which sold off a large chunk of its capital a week ago, and whose CEO has resigned. The gray lady is at long last headed for a convalescent home, meaning God's waiting room. Politicians respect power, and newspapers no longer have much.
Movies are indeed liberal. Michael Medved's book, Hollywood vs. America, did a fine job in exposing that cultural reality two decades ago. But movies are a fading influence. Ever since 1962, movie attendance per week has been flat, despite a rising population. As for network TV, music, and publishing, the World Wide Web is undermining all three of these industries. They have been weighed in the digital balance and have been found wanting.
It's not because recent events have disproved the liberal worldview. On the contrary, we're still recovering from a financial crisis caused, in large measure, by Wall Street excess. Corporate profits are zooming while worker salaries are flat.
This has been true ever since 1973. Liberals were dominant in Washington, 1973-1995, when the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives. If, in two decades, the policies of the Democrats could not change the direction of senior corporate salaries (up) and household earnings (flat), why should anyone expect that this will change?
Obama got his shovel-ready $787 billion stimulus law in 2009. He got his $1.3 trillion Keynesian annual deficits thereafter. The Federal Reserve bought T-bonds in QE2 in 2010. What would the Democrats do any differently with whatever solvency remains of the U.S. government?
It's not because liberalism's opponents are going from strength to strength. The Republican Party is unpopular and sometimes embarrassing.
Are we ready for a vaudeville line? "How's your political party?" "Compared to what?"
Given the circumstances, this should be a golden age of liberalism.
He assumes here that which he is trying to prove. In fact, later in the essay, he offers cogent reasons why this is not a golden age of liberalism. But, to preview my response, we are witnessing the twilight of faith in the state as an agency of social redemption, which is the religion of liberalism.
Yet the percentage of Americans who call themselves liberals is either flat or in decline. There are now two conservatives in this country for every liberal. Over the past 40 years, liberalism has been astonishingly incapable at expanding its market share.
Looking back 40 years, we arrive at 1972. That was the era of Democratic control in Congress. Lyndon Johnson, the incarnation of New Deal politics, had been harried out of the Presidency in 1968. He had succeeded in getting his Great Society legislation into the law books. He also did what FDR did and Harry Truman did. He got us into a major war. He could not win it. Congress could have stopped it at any time by refusing to fund it. The Democrats in Congress voted for the funding without a hint of resistance. They remained unindicted co-conspirators right up until the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Nixon did not run against the New Deal or the Great Society. He implemented it and added more. He created the Environmental Protection agency by executive order. In 1971, he removed the last remaining traces of the gold-exchange standard. And, it should be noted, he ended the draft, which remains his enduring legacy to this day. Kennedy didn't. Johnson didn't. It was an act of real liberalism, pre-Wilsonian liberalism. On the issue that got the protesters into the streets -- the draft -- the hated Nixon pulled the moral rug out from under Democratic liberals.
The most important explanation is what you might call the Instrument Problem. Americans may agree with liberal diagnoses, but they don't trust the instrument the Democrats use to solve problems. They don't trust the federal government.
A few decades ago they did, but now they don't. Roughly 10 percent of Americans trust government to do the right thing most of the time, according to an October New York Times, CBS News poll.
Here, he comes to the heart of the matter. But he frames it inaccurately. He describes it as the Instrument Problem. On the contrary, it is the Substantive Problem. It is not a matter of procedure. It is a matter of ethics. It is not a matter of technique. It is a matter of worldview. Let me spell it out:
The heart, mind and soul of the liberalism of the Democratic Party, beginning approximately 60 seconds after William Jennings Bryan ended his "Cross of Gold" speech, has been this: social salvation through federal legislation.
That speech was the watershed event which transformed the Old Democracy of Jefferson, Jackson, and Cleveland into the New Democracy of Bryan, Wilson, FDR, Truman, and Johnson.
He then asks a highly relevant question:
Why don't Americans trust their government? It's not because they dislike individual programs like Medicare.
This is true. He is onto something.
It's more likely because they think the whole system is rigged. Or to put it in the economists' language, they believe the government has been captured by rent-seekers.
This is the disease that corrodes government at all times and in all places. As George F. Will wrote in a column in Sunday's Washington Post, as government grows, interest groups accumulate, seeking to capture its power and money.
Yes, he really is onto something. He has identified the problem. This is the side effect of the corporate state. Let us not forget, however, that "side effect" is a phrase we use to describe effects we do not like. There are no side effects. There are only effects.
There is a long-standing debate within the economists regarding rent-seeking as an unintended consequence of the corporate state or the original goal. Those of us in the latter camp trace rent-seeking back to the garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve decided that God's arboreal emblem of rent-seeking in fact should belong to representatives of The People. In short, rent-seeking is basic to civil government. As George Washington Plunkett put it so eloquently over a century ago, "I seen my opportunities, and I took 'em."
Rent-seeking used to be known as spoils. Civil Service legislation in the 1880s changed that. The good government Republicans began to replace all those Irish Democrats as permanent employees of the federal government. Or, in the vernacular of the day, the goo-goos replaced the Paddies. But the Irish knew how to play the game by its new rules, so we got the Kennedys.
Some of these rent-seeking groups are corporate types. Will notes that the federal government delivers sugar subsidies that benefit a few rich providers while imposing costs on millions of consumers.
Sugar subsidies are surely the premier representative example of rent-seeking in American history. They began in 1789.
Other rent-seeking groups are dispersed across the political spectrum. The tax code has been tweaked 4,428 times in the past 10 years, to the benefit of interests of left, right and center.
Others exercise their power transparently and democratically. As Will notes, in 2009, the net worth of households headed by senior citizens was 47 times the net worth of households led by people under 35. Yet seniors use their voting power to protect programs that redistribute even more money from the young to the old and affluent.
As some unnamed wag put it long ago, there are those who work for a living and those who vote for a living. The French liberal politician and pamphleteer Frederic Bastiat in 1850 described this process in his little book, The Law. He identified this as the politics of plunder.
You would think that liberals would have a special incentive to root out rent-seeking. Yet this has not been a major priority. There is no Steve Jobs figure in American liberalism insisting that the designers keep government simple, elegant and user-friendly. Sailors scrub their ships. Farmers clear weeds. Democrats have not spent a lot of time scraping barnacles off the state.
Worse, in an attempt to match Republican rhetoric, Democratic politicians are perpetually soiling the name of government for the sake of short-term gain. How many times have you heard Democrats from Carter to Obama running against Washington, accusing it of being insular, shortsighted, corrupt and petty? If the surgeon himself thinks his tools are rancid, why shouldn't you?
Indeed, I do think the tools are rancid. So does a growing minority of voters. And, as he points out, this growing army of voters has not been matched by comparable recruits to the far left wing of the Democratic Party.
In the past few weeks, the Obama administration has begun his presidential campaign by picking a series of small fights with the Republican-led House over things like recess appointments. These vicious squabbles may help Obama in the short term by making him look better than Republicans in Congress. But they will only further discredit Washington over the long run.
Talk dirty to me! I love it!
Life is unfair. Republican venality unintentionally reinforces the conservative argument that government is corrupt. Democratic venality undermines the Democratic argument that Washington can be trusted to do good.
Venality, thy name is bi-partisan rent-seeking.
Liberalism has not expanded because it has not had a Martin Luther, a leader committed to stripping away the corruptions, complexities and indulgences that have grown up over the years.
This is because the centralizing process of the liberal corporate state has always been the bureaucratization of politics. It adds regulations. It does not remove them. The Federal Register is still at 70,000 pages a year, where it was under Jimmy Carter. The regulations flow from Washington like an unending river.
If you'll forgive some outside advice, President Obama might consider running for re-election as Luther. It's not enough to pick a series of small squabbles and then win as the least ugly man in the room. He might run as someone who believes in government but sees how much it needs to be cleansed and purified.
President Obama is more of a Johann Tetzel than a Martin Luther. He has another agenda.
Make the tax code simple. Make job training simple. Make Medicare simple. Every week choose a rent-seeker to hold up for ridicule and renunciation. Change the Congressional rules. Simplify the legal thickets that undermine responsibility.
My response: "No, David, there is no Santa Claus."
If Democrats can't restore Americans' trust in government, it really doesn't matter what problems they identify and what plans they propose. No one will believe in the instrument they rely on for solutions.
No one should.