The world can be a scary place. This is a view exacerbated by popular media, which tends to focus attention on sources of violence and despair in disproportion to their prevalence. No surprise there – these things translate into ad revenue more readily than a cold assessment of reality. So it is that polls have the public rating ISIS and North Korea as greater threats than climate change. An exceedingly large portion of Americans also see their own government as a top threat.
There are some good reasons for this. Foremost among them is the loss of legitimacy brought about as private interests seize more and more of the public domain, bending government action toward narrow aims and away from the public interest. The U.S. government has grown exceedingly expensive and unwieldy over the years, even as it has grown less and less capable of acting in the interests of the majority. A desire to rein it in is not misplaced.
However, disguised beyond all this concern over ISIS and North Korea and the U.S. government is a more fundamental threat to the American way of life. That it is so poorly recognized, despite being so well evidenced, is both depressing and disturbing. Because the fact of the matter is that there are forces working to reshape American democracy in a manner most citizens would likely find objectionable. And to significant extent, they are succeeding.
Currently, a cadre of wealthy Americans and right wing intellectuals is working to transform the United States into something rather twisted. Their core motivating principle is that the accumulation of capital takes precedence over all other values. Indeed, it is in their view the ultimate arbiter of value. To them, human worth scales with earnings.
Given the preeminence of wealth in their worldview, it is little surprise that the architects of the modern conservative agenda evince open disdain for the principles of democratic self-governance*. Fanatical ideologues, these people hue to a perverse and extreme doctrine, wherein any effort by the majority to put common interests ahead of personal wealth is viewed as an act of tyranny. Their allegiance to community and nation ends where those entities cease to serve as instruments furthering the accumulation of wealth and power. Less there remain any ambiguity: these people pose a massive threat to post-Great Depression democracy in the United States. Their goal is to return the U.S. to the Gilded Age – a time of massive economic inequality, rampant corruption, and widespread disenfranchisement.
They have set for themselves the explicit goal of turning government to their will, eliminating all barriers to the accumulation of profit, simultaneously turning every element of the public sector into a new avenue for the generation of wealth. To this end, they have captured the Republican Party and bent it into a tool of radical greed. Gone are the principles of traditional conservatism. No more reverence for tradition as the grounding force for social order. No principled commitments to self-determination or limited government. In their place stands a single-minded passion for unfettered self-interest.
This all reads like some kind of hard-boiled conspiracy theory. But it’s not. It is ice-cold, brutal reality, uncovered by the diligence of intrepid journalists and documented in the written words of the ideological fanatics themselves. These people have built a network of shadowy 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) organizations to conceal their machinations. They have seized control of the GOP by demanding fealty in exchange for political self-preservation. Republican congress people with the courage and integrity to dissent have been branded as Cucks and RINOs and primaried out of office, replaced by rabid ideologues and lick-spittles more amendable to an extremist, anti-democratic cause.
History of the Cause
The history of the radical libertarian movement, as documented in Nancy Maclean’s exhaustively researched and deeply admirable book Democracy in Chains, is itself damning. As a political movement, modern American libertarianism – the philosophical lifeblood of radical conservatism – traces its roots back to John C. Calhoun, a savage bigot and fierce defender of slavery. Calhoun correctly saw in democratic governance a potential threat to property rights and therein his right to accumulate wealth by owning people as property. He recognized that in a contest of values there were significant domains in which property rights and human rights might conflict, and set about dreaming up a body of political theory compatible with his personal sympathies (spoiler: Calhoun favored property rights over human rights).
In Calhoun’s view, the majority had no legitimate right to inflict its will on a minority, for any reason. This meant that an electorate enlightened enough to recognize chattel slavery as a repugnant moral abomination had no right to impose their views on a minority who found slavery a righteous engine of personal profit. In this light, Calhoun dreamt up the right of interposition – a state’s right to veto federal authority.
This self-serving view carried on through history, festering in the stew of racial tensions and class conflict that has long characterized the American South. When Brown vs. the Board of Education placed the weight of federal law behind school integration, the regressive elements of the old aristocratic order in the South used the doctrine of interposition as an instrument of rebellion. When that failed, they became enthusiastic advocates for school privatization. In Virginia, school voucher programs were first instituted as a way around integration – dropping public funding for public schools in some majority black counties and offering white students special scholarships to attend private all white schools.
In this crucible of social upheaval, acolytes of what came to be known as the Austrian school of economics began to recast developments in terms of Calhoun’s old contest between individual rights and communitarian values. This is how they framed things, but it’s worth noting at the outset that it is a thorough misrepresentation of their true values. The only individual right they cared about protecting was a person’s right to acquire and dispense wealth as they saw fit. In order to protect it, they were willing – and have only grown more so – to strangle any other individual right that inconvenienced this aim.
Over time, this movement has only grown, gaining as allies radical billionaires like Charles Koch. Today, they work to influence policy at every level of government, staffing and funding so-called “think-tanks” (really sophisticated propaganda outlets, given their a priori intellectual constraints and vicious intolerance for dissent) like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. In order to sway policy, they operate a network of putative “charity” organizations that dump huge sums of money into political campaigns at every level of government.
Their strategy – from their own writings and personal communications – is to “crab-walk” American democracy into a system of restraints that cripple collective action. It begins by working to incrementally erode confidence in public institutions. As outlined by James Buchanan, one of the movement’s chief architects, it begins with disingenuous expressions of concern. Ideologically sympathetic – and, frequently enough, directly coached – politicians express concern over the future of some program like Social Security, wondering whether it will be there for them and their families in the future and what they can do to fix it.
From there, they secure support from the most vulnerable, promising those 5 or 10 years out from retirement that Social Security will still be there for them. Thereby heading off their most vocal opponents, they proceed to encourage further doubt in the program’s viability and stoke frustration over its performance. They push the age of eligibility back a few years and work to sew discontent among the young by planting questions about why they pay into an entitlement scheme that will probably have collapsed by the time they come of age. Further public ire is generated through the very suggestion of means-based welfare redistribution – naively favored by progressives.
It all paves the way for privatization, which does more than turn the targeted program into an engine of profit for the already wealthy. Every instance of privatization works to corrode public confidence and interest in government, as it begins to steadily play less and less of a role in their lives. By the time they realize what has happened – if they realize it – it is too late. The public is left adrift to fend for themselves in a cutthroat system of corporate feudalism and economic coercion.
This is why the Republican Party is willing to engage in dangerous brinksmanship like shutting down the government or stealing a Supreme Court seat. Their ideological needs are met either way. Either they decrease government spending and capture a branch of government through nefarious means or they decrease public confidence in democratic institutions and amplify the perception that the government is irredeemably broken. It’s a win-win for people so fanatically devoted to a perverse ideology that they are willing to pay any cost to see it enacted.
The Fanaticism of the Radical Libertarian/Conservative Movement
If one is going to tar a belief system as dangerously fanatical, it’s probably best to explain why. The short answer is this: the libertarian/conservative movement currently working to drastically reorder the American political sphere is entirely divorced from empirical reality. It is based on a theory of human behavior that has been repeatedly refuted by scientific studies from a variety of disciplines. That’s a long way of saying it is false. Despite this, the proponents of the movement – the radical right – are willing to abandon fundamental American values and cause untold suffering to see their beliefs put into practice. Someone who holds a belief in disproportion to the available evidence is a fool. Someone who is so passionately dedicated to that belief that they are willing to hurt people to see it manifest is a fanatic. And a dangerous one at that.
It would be unfair to cast the motivating concerns of modern libertarianism as entirely unfounded. Like all radical social movements, it starts with a seed of legitimate grievance. In this case, the problem is what has been called “rent seeking” behavior. Rent seeking occurs anytime a person or organization extracts a benefit disproportionate to their contribution, be it economic or social. In the realm of government, the famous libertarian economist Milton Freidman called this the problem of distributed costs and concentrated benefits. Despite the protestations of the most ardent leftists, it is real.
It all boils down to this. Politicians have it in their interests to meet the demands of voters, however they might be conceived. Libertarians couch this in the language of “public choice” theory – which we’ll return to shortly – and describe it all as a matter of rational self-interest. There’s no reason to be so reductive (and even less reason to think rational actor theory is a robust model of human behavior) but the analysis still stands. Maybe politicians want to address public concerns as matter of civic duty, maybe they want to do it is a way of securing re-election. Presumably there are instances where both are true. In this regard, it is critical to note that strains of corporate welfare are forms of costly rent seeking as well. It’s not just a problem of poor people asking for more than their “fair share”.
In any event, the outcome is the same. Groups of like-minded voters or powerful interests work to pressure politicians into granting them political favors. There’s no need to frame it in terms of seedy back room dealings. This can all be very innocuous. Indeed, most of the targets of libertarian outrage are either inoffensive or objectively beneficial, like arts programs, public schools, and environmental protections. This is, in fact, precisely how democracies should work.
However, it can become problematic over time, because the benefits these initiatives secure almost always come with some cost, distributed in tiny increments among the tax base. Over time, successful campaigns that benefit narrow interest groups – at a cost virtually invisible to any given tax payer – can pile up. Widespread costs accrue gradually, eventually leading to a big, expensive government.
From this, hardcore libertarians contend that majority rule is inherently oppressive and that minorities should always have the right to defect from the popular will. This, as James Madison – the primary author of the U.S. Constitution – argued during the founding of the United States, would effectively neuter representative government and abolish democratic rule. It also paves the way for corporate tyranny, as powerful minority groups maintain unchecked power to coerce and exploit the less wealthy while laying waste to public goods. By allowing corporate agents to escape the costs of externalities (unforeseen costs that aren’t factored into the prices of products) it allows new forms of rent seeking behavior.
What we have here is a fanatical overreaction to a real problem. One would have to be an oblivious milquetoast to look at the spending of the modern U.S. government and not spot at least a handful of programs they find completely frivolous. The solution is to find ways to more effectively evaluate the costs and benefits of special interest programs – and do so continuously – so government can periodically clean house by getting rid of programs that no longer do much good. Abolishing government entirely and reducing the domain of public action to free-market spending, as libertarians and hard-line conservatives advocate, is a recipe for widespread misery (a point the libertarian movement’s intellectual architects cheerily accept).
Inasmuch as the libertarian response to the burden of taxation is an overreaction, the intellectual tradition that leads them to posit pure capitalist anarchy as the foundation for an ideal society is riddled with fallacious reasoning. To describe modern academic libertarianism as intellectually stillborn is probably unjust. Ideas are judged according to their performance in tests against empirical reality. In this domain, the hard line libertarian enterprise has faced countless rebukes and been reduced to a program of pure, self-interested propaganda.
Libertarianism – and free-market fundamentalism, writ large – takes many of its philosophical cues from the Austrian school of economics, a school dependent on an obscure line of reasoning called “praxeology”. Succinctly put, praxeology contends that the study of human action and behavior can be purely deductive. This is a rather curious position, in no small-part because it holds itself as immune to refutation. One can simply start with a few premises about the nature of human action and work out how humans ought to behave as a result.
As a logical proposition, that is all well and good. Premises lead ineluctably to conclusions and boom, there you have it, a prescription for human action. Problems arise, however, when the premises you use as a launch pad for your reasoning are false. In the school of praxeology, as in the more widely recognized domain of public choice theory, many of the starting assumptions have been repeatedly proven to be thoroughly erroneous.
Take just two of their founding tenets: that humans are entirely rational and infinitely selfish. Both have been disproved, again and again, by experiments with ultimatum and dictator games. In an ultimatum game, two players are matched up and charged with distributing a given sum of money. One is given the role of “the proposer” and one is given the role of “the responder”. The proposer offers a certain amount and the responder decides whether or not to accept it. If the responder accepts, both players take home their allotted share. If the responder refuses, both players get nothing. The dictator game is pretty much the same thing, except the responder is completely passive – they get whatever the proposer gives them.
If human are rational and selfish, this yields pretty firm predictions about what ought to occur. In the ultimatum game, the proposer should offer the lowest possible sum and the responder should accept it. It doesn’t matter if it seems unfair. That is an irrational consideration. If the proposer divides a $100 pot 99:1, the responder should still say yes because they leave $1 dollar richer than they would have otherwise. But this never happens. The experimental subjects that come closest to realizing the libertarian fantasy are economics students who have been educated (or perhaps indoctrinated) with the principles of rational choice theory. Everywhere else, subjects consistently offer bids that exceed rational utility optimization and reject those that seem unfair. This is true even in the dictator game, where the proposer has the option to keep the entire pot for himself.
The implications are clear. Humans are bad at rationally maximizing their payoffs and are innately predisposed toward fairness.
Even within the confines of rational actor theory, the free-market fundamentalism seems to collapse. Some degree of third-party enforcement is essential solve problems associated with incomplete contract and public goods dilemmas. One of the principle assumption behind market rationality is that participants in exchange have all of the information they need to make the best possible decision. Rarely is this the case in the real world, but is convenient fiction for modelling. Interestingly, if we take the notion of rational self-interest, we should expect agents to regularly conceal things from one another. Deception should be common place, as those offering goods seek to hide their possible detriments and exaggerate their benefits. The fossil fuel industry, for example, should work to obfuscate the damage caused by their product. That’s hypothetical of course – they would never actually do that, say, by hiring the marketing sharps who worked to mislead the public about the dangers of smoking cigarettes.
So many of the assumptions that motivate the entire free-market fundamentalism are either false or mutually self-defeating that is difficult to see why so many people take it seriously. Alas, such is the power of motivated reasoning. If human behavior were simply a matter of selfish rationality, a belief that the unfettered pursuit of wealth is a sound basis for sociopolitical order would be considerably more justifiable. Libertarians have reached the right conclusion from their founding axioms. It just happens that those axioms are fundamentally wrong.
This doesn’t seem to affect their enthusiasm much. Amity Shlaes, a devotee of the libertarian pioneer James Buchanan and author of The Forgotten Man, claims that “public choice theory explain(s) everything.” An impressive feat. It is also, as it happens, the feature of Marxism that led Karl Popper to reject it as a scientific discipline. Public choice theory and praxeology are nonsense on stilts (to borrow Jeremy Benthem’s phrase) precisely because their application is limited only by their practitioner’s imagination. They are irrefutable because they are endlessly plastic.
In science, the most robust system we humans have ever devised for assigning confidence in our beliefs, the proper use of deductive reasoning is as an instrument of refutation. One takes a body of theory and uses it to derive predictions (i.e. hypotheses) about what the actual world should be like. Ideally, the relationship between theory and hypothesis is axiomatic – meaning if theory X is true then we should see Y. If we don’t see Y, theory X is false. Scientists then perform experiments or observations and look at how closely the results match predictions. If the results look nothing like the predictions yielded by theory, then scientists start to suspect the theory in question suffers from serious flaws.
Of course, in any social science, things tend to be a lot trickier than that. But it is still considered bad science to continue to build theories – much less large scale policy prescriptions – around disproved premises. Public choice theory, like Marxism, is more akin to a body of religious dogma than a serious scientific or intellectual framework.
Paradise, for an ideological zealot like Charles Koch, is an alien world. Plenty of people feel the sting of their tax bill and reasonably think they could do with a lighter load. They might even have specific public services in mind as targets for reduction or eradication. Few, however, actively dream of the world proposed by the hardcore libertarian. In the utopia envisioned by the radical right, government only exists to protect property rights. It serves no other purpose.
This is a perverse vision. The architects of the campaign are well aware of this. Many of them are, after all, pretty sharp people. Charles Koch himself holds a number of engineering degrees from MIT. Koch and his allies recognize that few people would freely elect to live in the world they are trying to build, which is precisely why their campaign is so secretive. They do not want to expose their dreams to an open trial in the marketplace of ideas, because they have strong reasons to think it will likely fail that test.
So what is that world actually like? Cutthroat, myopic, and fraught with suffering. Now, it is important to recognize that, while Charles Koch and the intellectuals on his payroll would choose to describe things in more rosy terms, they have no fundamental disagreements with what I am about to describe.
In the libertarian utopia envisioned by the radical right, inequality – already at record levels in the United States – is radically worse. The U.S. of libertarian dreams looks considerably more like a third-world country, complete with slums where people who can’t make it in the mainstream market live in shacks built from tar paper and corrugated tin and scrape by on their own. Clean water is a commodity for people with the means to buy it. Public health crises like the lead contamination that plagued Flint, Michigan are far more common. There is no Center for Disease Control or National Institute of Health working to cure diseases or prevent the outbreak of devastating epidemics. If you don’t save enough to retire, you’re on your own, condemned to old age poverty. This is true even if you saved prudently and happened to have a personal health crisis that drained your savings account years short of retirement – because there sure as hell isn’t any room for government assistance with medical care in a free market paradise.
Unsurprisingly, radical libertarians see no room for environmental regulation or public lands. Land belongs to whoever values it the most, which will tend to be very rich individuals or corporations who can afford to transform large swaths of it into profitable enterprises like mining or logging. There will, in short, be no spaces left over for the common folk to camp or hunt or hike on.
Public schools will be gone, virtually guaranteeing that patterns of intergenerational inequality will be cemented in place and carried on in perpetuity. The prospects of children will be shackled to the economic performance of their parents. This will also have the effect of paralyzing discourse and intellectual progress, as the ideologically inclined can opt to send their children to indoctrination academies that will reinforce their preferred brand of nonsense. The children of fundamentalist Christians will learn that the earn is 6000 years old and the children of postmodern liberals will learn that their subjective feelings take precedence over any strain of established fact.
Of course, you could take some solace in the fact that you won’t have much of tax bill any more. That would be a mistake. First, the libertarian vision will actually demand a massive police state. While drugs and prostitution will be legal, police will still be necessary to stifle the communitarian uprisings that are sure to crop up from time to time, threatening the property rights of the moneyed classes. Likewise, there will still be a strong military for enforcing the spirit of righteous, unfettered capitalism throughout the rest of the world. So you’ll still have a tax bill. But a lot of your tax savings will be consumed paying to drive on private toll roads, send your kid to the best private school you can afford, forking out for fire department services (if you’re into having someone help you put out a house fire – or can afford a house), and paying market value for clean water.
This is the world Charles Koch and his pawns in the Republican Party are working to build. Those with the intelligence to recognize the likely consequences of their vision openly are on board with all of this. They see the obvious costs as a worthy price for economic liberty. In their view, it is all ethically justifiable because people always succeed or fail according to their inherent value. If you are poor, it is because you are lazy and stupid. If you are rich, it is because you are intelligent and ambitious. An inability to secure clean drinking water or pay a private security detail to keep your house safe from the upstarts who sneak out of the slums at night is a sign of personal failure. In this world, you can only ever be a victim of self-sabotage.
If you think that seems extreme, you are right. But it is a natural conclusion to reach if you start from blatantly fallacious premises like “humans are rational, self-interested, utility maximizing machines.” The radical libertarian architects of campaign to reshape America don’t care about the suffering and chaos that would be caused by a pure victory of their ideology. In fact, suffering, in their worldview, would be a signal of righteous victory. Those who can’t make it in a libertarian utopia are victims of self-sabotage and personal ineptitude. Libertarianism, for them, represents a world in which everyone gets what they deserve.
It is worth taking a moment to pause and reflect on this view. This version of “the cream will always rise up to the top” socioeconomic theory is rooted in a meaningless tautology, entirely immune to external evaluation. The problem is that economic success, like biological fitness, is a what is called a “supervenient” property. In layman’s terms, that means it is not reducible to a single, universally relevant set of causes. In the world of evolutionary biology, there is not one feature that causes fitness. Rather, fitness can be understood in one of two ways: as a description of the number of offspring an organism produced or as a probabilistic estimate of the number of offspring an organism might produce, given its characteristics within a given environment.
That’s all rather esoteric, but the long and short of it is that you can’t say fitness is all about being strong or fast or pretty. Sometimes it’s about those things. Sometimes it’s about others. Sometimes it’s just about luck. Likewise, success is only probabilistically associated with the features we colloquially attribute to successful people. We have folk theories of success that say it’s a matter of intelligence, skill, competence, ambition, and hard work. True, in the social/economic/political world, intelligence and ambition are enormously useful. They play a role in success that exceeds what would be expected by pure chance. But it is perfectly possible to gain success without them (say, through inheritance or dumb luck) or possess them in abundance and go nowhere.
In the libertarian vision, is the smart, hard working person who simply has a life riddled with bad luck just an unfortunate cost of liberty? Maybe. What of a person who is born with a very low IQ to poor parents who can’t afford a good education? Do they deserve a life of poverty and suffering? The libertarian position here, is – quite explicitly – “yes”. Some people are going to eat shit and die and communitarian efforts – expressed through majority will in open, democratic elections – to alleviate that suffering through taxation and welfare are considered a form of tyranny.
The End Game
“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.” One could find a modicum of irony in this bit of wisdom, considering its source. Friedrich Nietzche believed that one of the core impulses behind human behavior was a will to power – a desire to exceed social or ethical confines and an ambition to exercise control. This is an ambition radical libertarians would not find entirely alien.
Nietzsche produced a lot of garbage (the concept of “eternal return”, anyone?) but the sagacity of the aforementioned quote is hard to dispute. In combating any evil, one should be vigilant of the potential risks. The Austrian school of economics was spawned in the wake of World War II, at a time when brutal despots – men like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin – had seized control of Germany and the Soviet Union. Friedrich Hayek, one of the founding thinkers of the Austrian school, perceived a direct line between communitarian values and tyranny.
This connection has not been born out as matter of social law or historical fact. Most modern Western countries engage in some mixed strategy of social democracy and capitalism. It is only with considerable effort that one can look at Germany, Denmark, Norway, Canada, or even the United States and see a world of tyranny and oppression. But at the time, the argument didn’t look nearly as frail. Radical leftist ideologues, deeply motivated by an extreme commitment to communitarian values – above and beyond any consideration for individual rights – had recently captured control of huge swaths of Europe and Asia in the form of the Soviet Union. Very shortly, China would also fall to the fanatical leftist ideology of political communism. It looked very much like there might be a direct road from the communitarian ethos behind public education and infrastructure projects to authoritarianism.
Hayek and his intellectual kin saw the injustice and oppression sired by a virulent strain of ideological fanaticism and set about building a body of political theory to combat it. Thus was born their fire and brimstone devotion to individual economic liberty and absolute, inalienable property rights. History and science have since revealed the body of socioeconomic theory they constructed as a rather fevered overreaction, empirically unsupportable in theory and ethically disastrous in practice.
Yet the modern devotees of that tradition still herald it as a utopian vision. Belligerently indifferent to the vast flaws in their intellectual framework, they have set themselves the task of reshaping the United States of America to better match their fanatical aspirations. In this, men like Charles Koch directly mirror Mao Zedong, Vladimir Lenin, Pol Pot, and Joseph Stalin. They are so convinced that their vision of the world is true and righteous that they are willing to go to almost any lengths to see it put into practice. No amount of human suffering seems too high a cost. Their dreams of a glittering utopia for commerce and personal ambition are worth any toll.
The similarities run deeper still. Political operatives in the Koch organization advise new recruits to study Vladimir Lenin’s playbook for revolution. The parallels are truly disconcerting. An extreme ideology, largely divorced from the findings of serious scientific or historical research. A passion to put that ideology into practice that trivializes the suffering it will cause. A plan of operation that involves deliberate deceit and misdirection. A disdain for democracy.
It is partially ironic, that people so fearful of the threat of one extreme ideology would champion an equally extreme remedy. But it is not surprising. This is what happens anytime anyone begins to put their beliefs about the way the world ought to be ahead of the way the world actually is. Ideology poisons reason. It has happened on the Regressive Left, where a nasty brew of identity politics, postmodern subjectivism, and neoMarxism is motivating savage anti-democratic behavior and a disturbing embrace of authoritarianism. The radical right is no different. They have taken concerns about the burden of taxation and regulation – reasonable targets for open debate – and turned them into justifications for a fanatical campaign with a dangerously anti-democratic endgame in mind. The difference here is that the Regressive Left is presently just an obnoxious fringe group. The radical right, on the other hand, is calling the shots for one of only two major political parties in the United States – and it happens to be the one with majority control in both houses of congress, ideological control of the Supreme Court, and a megalomaniacal imbecile ripe for manipulation in the White House.
The ultimate goal of the radical right is wholesale constitutional reform. In this, they have made considerable progress. They have captured the majority of state legislatures and used that authority to redraw congressional districts to disenfranchise liberal and independent voters. Likewise, they have instituted a huge number of voter suppression laws – ostensibly to prevent voter fraud, a virtually nonexistent problem. The real purpose of those laws – as their architects have occasionally let slip – is to rob people who don’t agree with them of their political voice. In the Senate, they effectively stole a Supreme Court seat. Some argue this was done in principled defense of traditional conservative interests like gun rights and abortion. Those people are fools. This was done to protect Citizens United and McCutcheon vs. FEC – Supreme Court rulings that undermine one-person, one-vote democracy by allowing unlimited, undisclosed political spending by wealthy individuals and corporations – from judicial review.
None of this is surprising to anyone who understands the motivating ethos of the radical right. The only value they cherish is wealth – the ability to accumulate more of it, the ability to protect, the ability to spend it however they wish. As I have stressed repeatedly, this would be fine if two things were true. First, if the socioeconomic theory they endorse were not flagrantly indifferent to the actual working of reality. Second, if they were not so secretive in their dealings. Instead, they are secretly working to refashion the U.S. Constitution into an instrument of a fanatical ideology.
Consider, in this regard, that they revere the regime of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet as an example of the successful implementation of their ideology. Pinochet stole power in a brutal coup, torturing and murdering members of the opposition. Thereafter, the Pinochet regime embarked on a campaign of neoliberal reform that included significantly curtailing the electorate’s capacity to influence their government through majority vote. To be fair, the economy of Chile performed well in the succeeding decades. Corruption and exploitation was rampant in privatized industries (privatized social security, for instance, took 30% of the funds people invested as fees) and income inequality rose sharply, but GDP looked healthy.
Pinochet was supported by the likes of free market fundamentalist Friedrich Hayek. In undertaking constitutional reform, his government was advised by James Buchanan, a principle designer of the Koch network’s plan of constitutional restructuring in the United States. Their views on the outcome are telling. Pinochet murdered his opposition and ruled as dictator. He deliberately worked to erode the average citizen’s capacity to shape political outcomes. The Pinochet regime’s programs reduced real wages for many and increased income inequality substantially. They did, however, likely contribute to prosperity for some and overall increases in GDP. The implication is clear: the people on the radical right are willing to sanction brutality and oppression, forsake democracy, and increase economic suffering if doing so makes it generally easy for some people – the most skilled, intelligent, and ambitious, in their view – the get very rich.
In all of this, nothing is more damning that radical right’s commitment to secrecy. One arm of their political machine, the State Policy Network, currently funds efforts to mislead the public into keeping the sources of political spending secret. In New Mexico, they run ads on social media that suggest campaign transparency laws will lead to harassment. This is an outrageous lie in service of deliberate fear-mongering. The law in question only demands disclosure for donors who spend more than $1000 dollars. As of 2016, only 0.52% of donors give more than $200. The State Policy Network’s real goal is to keep the political machinations of the Koch network hidden from public scrutiny.
This is a thoroughly anti-democratic stance. Democracy is impotent if the electorate is uninformed. One of the most important pieces of information they can have is what interests are providing the financial backing for political candidates. This is true across the board. But this anti-democratic stance is now dogma in the bought-out GOP, openly promoted by the likes of Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz. The libertarian fanatics and hard-line conservatives on the radical right are working to erode the foundations of democracy and institute a system of oligarchic rule invincible to public rebuke. This campaign is being enacted behind a smoke-screen of unctuous patriot rhetoric and cruel misinformation. They are doing so because they believe their fanatical ideology will not survive a public hearing. Few people want what they want. They don’t care. Their chief political aim is the establishment of a governing system built to ratify their will.
In all of this, there are real items of pressing public concern. They should be subject to open debate, not pressed through clandestine dealings and cynical political manipulation. The United States has plenty of problems. They should be addressed through the action of an informed electorate. Contrary to the political strategy and policy initiatives of the Koch network and modern Republican Party, this means more transparency and better public education.
There is a tradition in political discourse of couching debate in terms of the views held by the Founding Fathers. Personally, I consider this tradition mostly nonsensical, based in a breed of fallacious reasoning that holds that people in the past were somehow wiser or more intelligent that people today. Good arguments, of course, stand independent of their originators. But in deference to said tradition, it is worth pointing out that men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison were fierce advocates of government transparency and all favored some breed of public education. John Adams, for instance, wrote:
Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.
Insofar as we take defection from the views of the Founders as an indication of treasonous intent or anti-democratic spirit, the implication here is obvious. The Koch network and the modern Republic Party are open foes of democracy. Their devotion to secrecy and opposition to public education rob them of any right to claim to be acting in best interests of the American electorate, writ large.
By all means, include policy ideas derived from recalcitrant, hard-line conservatism and radical libertarian philosophy as items of debate in the endless contest over how best to accomplish the aims outlined in the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence. No idea should be off the table and no rational person should ever expect the best solutions solutions to every problem will fall under one ideological umbrella. Those who argue otherwise are blinkered ideological fanatics and we should be wary of their influence. But those who would work in secret to undermine democracy in service of ideological fanaticism are something far worse: they are enemies of liberty, of the right to free expression and the tools of self-governance. They, more than anything, pose the most immediate threat to the American way of life.
*It is worth noting, given the amount of space dedicated in this essay to a defense of majority rule, that this system is not without out its problems. As Christopher Achens and Larry Bartels outline in their excellent book, Democracy for Realists, a lot of voting behavior can be boiled down to myopic retrospection and tribalism. Voters tend to align according to political identity (am I a Liberal or a Conservative?) or choose candidates based on a shallow reading of well they have fared over the months directly preceding an election, regardless of how much their fortunes were actually impacted by the policies of the candidates under consideration.
Likewise, as critics of Nancy MacLean’s book have pointed out, ending institutionalized segregation would have been a longer battle – perhaps still underway – if matters had been left entirely to majority rule. In my view, all of this speaks well of the checks and balances the Founding Fathers built into the U.S. Constitution. It also argues strongly in favor of transparency and public education. I don’t see it as an argument in favor of abolishing majority rule in favor absolute sovereignty of property rights.
As a point of pure fantasy, I am partial to a system that weights votes according to competency. That is, everyone still gets a vote, but those who take the time to educate themselves above and beyond the average should get more of say. In practice, however, this also looks problematic. First, it’s easy to imagine such a system being gamed for partisan advantage. Indeed, a fair test that asked questions like “How old is the planet earth?” or “What is the scientific consensus on the causes of current patterns of climate change?” would be instantly smeared by some critics as biased, because the correct answers to those questions run contrary to popular opinion in conservative circles. Second, voter competency might not be a good measure of a voter’s capacity to fairly judge candidates and policy – it would only be a measure of how much they know about them. Thanks to motivated reasoning, people are perfectly capable of drawing contradictory conclusions from the same body of evidence, according to existing biases.
In a roundabout sense, this essay is a review of MacLean’s Democracy in Chains. I think that her book was very good and well worth reading. Worth noting, however, is that she injects a distinct editorial voice into her history. Based purely on the policy measures they support, her portrayal of the radical right – and Charles Koch, in particular – rings true. Some have taken exception to her portrayal of James Buchanan. It is certainly colored to the left, but I’m not sure it is wholly inaccurate.
She also dedicates a little space to an economist named Tyler Cowen. I wasn’t familiar with him before reading MacLean’s book and am only faintly familiar with him now. That said, nothing I have been able to uncover supports her characterization of him. In Democracy in Chains, he reads like a foaming ideologue. Everything else I’ve uncovered paints him as a libertarian, but a relatively moderate one.