Tag Archives: Ayn Rand

The Rise of the React-o-Cons

The rise of “reform conservatives” has drawn an increasing amount of attention. The wonky right has been treated most recently to a lauding article in the New York Times, following a critical take by E.J. Dionne in Democracy.  Some writers have gone as far as declaring Republicans the party of ideas. But reform conservatism fails to reach the holy grail of modern conservatism, wedding support of the family with adoration for the free market.

Cracks have already formed in the reformicon facade. There is little willingness to challenge the insanity of the Republican Party, so environmental issues have gone entirely ignored. Attempts to bend a fundamentally flawed theory of poverty into wonky centrist plans have collapsed under the weight of their own absurdity. When foreign policy is broached, and itrarely is, the result is embarrassing. (Conservative writer Scott McConnell worries, “it is more than a little disconcerting to see neoconservatism be welcomed back into the public square under the false flag of Burkean moderation.”  The reformicons, if they care about immigration (it didn’t garner a mention in their famous “Room to Grow” plan), did nothingto halt recent Republican self-destruction on immigration. The most substantive challenge they appear willing to make toward the party’s right-most wing is banalities about inflation.

Instead, reform conservatism sticks to “wonky” economics plans, where attempts to distinguish themselves from centrist Democrats fall away. Had the Obama administration chosen to push for a more progressive plan (which likely would have failed to pass), then the reformicons may well have proposed something very much like the Affordable Care Act. Obama instead chose the conservative route: expand already existing programs and keep the private insurance system broadly in place. The fact that Obama’s plan was drawn from Heritage documents and implemented previously by Republicans is inconsequential — the important point is that it is philosophically conservative. That is, it prefers market mechanisms when possible and expands old bureaucracies (Medicaid) rather than create new ones.

In fact, the Obama administration has shown a consistent preference for conservative policy proposals — ones that don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater but rather leave already existing structures in place, but reform them subtly. His administration has preferred, where possible, to delegate power to the states and to use market mechanisms rather than government decree to reach policy goals. (Witness his recent plan for curbing global warming, which relies on federalisminnovation and market mechanisms, rather than command and control.) His foreign policy has been restrained compared to the naive sentimentality of the previous administration and he has shied away from crusading on social issues, preferring to silently advance transgender rights.

Because of Obama’s conservatism, the “reformers” have been forced to take on an increasingly reactionary tone. Yuval Levin, for instance, according to the generous Sam Tanenhaus, sounds rather more reactionary than reformist:

For all [Levin’s] temperateness of tone, and for all the meticulously reasoned arguments that he has shepherded into the pages of National Affairs, Levin justly says his ideas are radical. He envisions not just a shrinking or scaling-back of government, but an entire re-imagining of it.

This longing to roll back time and go to a long-gone utopia is not a conservative impulse, but rather a reactionary one. We see this impulse when Ramesh Ponnuru seeks to obliterate the conservative Affordable Care Act on the basis of a radical (and almost entirely unsupported) reading of a single sentence. This is not the attitude of someone who, as Burke might suggest, attends to “the faults of the state as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude.” Instead Ponnuru resembles the impetuous “children of their country, who are prompt rashly to hack that aged parent in pieces, and put him into the kettle of magicians, in hopes that by their poisonous weeds, and wild incantations, they may regenerate the paternal constitution, and renovate their father’s life.”

Most reformicon (react-icon?) proposals still hold to the old Reaganite dogma that “the government isn’t the solution to the problem, the government is the problem.” Instead of “tax cuts,” the new right-wing buzzword is “tax credit.” Reading their foundational document, “Room to Grow,” you wonder whether the reformicons might try to solve terrorism with “tax credits” as well; the phrase appears 21 times in the manifesto, and “credit” 81 times (abortion and gay rights go unmentioned, guns are mentioned once). Given that immigration is the single biggest issue that faces the Republican Party, one would expect a chapter, or even a paragraph, on the subject — she would be wrong. Sadly, for reform conservatives, the Obama administration has already begun expanding tax credits and has signaled its intent to do more, meaning that reformicons generally substitute real change for the Taco Bell effect.

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From the beginning, “reform conservatism” had deep troubles. For one, its thinkers have made no secret that their goal is to somehow save the odd Republican coalition of social conservatives, foreign policy hawks and business conservatives. These contradictions are most obvious in the conflict between business libertarian conservatives and social conservatives, and expose the deepest failings of reform conservatism.

The most famous and influential reform conservatives all cut their teeth in the culture wars. Ponnuru first graced the national spotlight after calling Democrats the “party of death,” and blundering through an interview with Jon Stewart. Yuval Levin worked with Robert P. George who believes marriage can only exist where penile-vaginal intercourse does. (This is not a caricature of his argument). Ross Douthat is known for his radical Catholicism. (He supports allowing businesses to discriminate against gays and compared the contraception mandate to sterilization.) All of them swarm at a chance to rue the rise of single mothers. But their “family-friendly” values are tough to reconcile with the market — one of the most anti-family institutions (there is a reason the Atlas Society, which exists to forward Randian ideas, harbors an open disdain for the family).

Hobby Lobby, which could be seen as another instance of market relations inserting into family life (the decision of when to begin one), is instead seen as a victory of “religious liberty.” This conclusion is not foregone, but rather justified, rather explicitly, as a way to maintain an uneasy alliance between religious radicals and the more libertarian business wing of the Republican Party. As Julia Azari writes,

The religious liberty-contraception question provides an opportunity for three important factions within the Republican Party – ideological libertarians, business interests, and social conservatives – to agree on something.

Someone actually concerned about families might worry about Hobby Lobby’s policy towards pregnant women, which is certainly not Christian and barely civilized:

When a very pregnant Felicia Allen applied for medical leave from her job at Hobby Lobby three years ago, one might think that the company best known for denying its employees insurance coverage of certain contraceptives—on the false grounds that they cause abortions—would show equal concern for helping one of its employees when she learned she was pregnant.

Instead, Allen says the self-professed evangelical Christian arts-and-crafts chain fired her and then tried to prevent her from accessing unemployment benefits.

That is unsurprising: The question at hand in Hobby Lobby was not religious liberty, but corporate power. The goal is not “family,” but rather exclusion of certain groups from the public sphere. We don’t need to look too far back to find conservatives who understand that the deepest threat to the family is not the government but the market. Marxist conservative Christopher Lasch writes,

The sentimental veneration of motherhood, even at the peak of its influence in the late nineteenth century, could never quite obscure the reality that unpaid labor bears the stigma of social inferiority when money becomes the universal measure of value … children pay the price for this invasion of the family by the market.

The greatest threat to the civic institutions that the reformicons praise so highly are also threatened by the market: “all that is solid melts into air.” Pope John XXIII writes in “Mater et Magistra,”

We therefore consider it Our duty to reaffirm that the remuneration of work is not something that can be left to the laws of the marketplace; nor should it be a decision left to the will of the more powerful. It must be determined in accordance with justice and equity; which means that workers must be paid a wage which allows them to live a truly human life and to fulfill their family obligations in a worthy manner.

And yet the reformicon proposal for getting the long-term unemployed hired is to reduce their wages — further degrading them.

America is one of the only countries in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave. Because of this, paid leave is a luxury in America that is available to all wealthy and most middle-class women but denied the poor. Only 5 percent of women in the retail sector have access to paid maternity leave. A study by Linda Houser and Thomas Vartanian finds that only 11 percent of private sector workers reported paid family leave through their employers, and only 5 percent of women in the bottom quarter of wages report access. The reformicons aren’t interested in what almost every other country (and some states) have done: guaranteed paid leave. In the “Room To Grow” essay on work-family balance (the only one, notably, written by a woman), Carrie Lukas rejects the idea of paid leave, arguing that, “Knowing that any worker facing a medical issue could take up to three months of paid leave creates a significant new risk for employers.” The reformicon dogma  can be summed up quite simply as “money over everything.”

When family and marketplace meet, reformicons will prefer markets. They therefore lack proposals to deal with rampant wage theftscheduling abuse and the massive gender pay gap. The gender pay gap will cost women in retail $381 billion over the next six years, a recent Demos report finds. Given that 40 percent of women in retail contribute 40 percent or more of their family’s income, reducing that gap would be a benefit to working families. It’d be great to hear some reformicon proposals — instead we get decepticon denialism.

The failure of reform conservatism to forward actually family-friendly policies is probably its most glaring deficiency. As Christ once said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” I’ve noted these contradictions before: Rubio and Ryan want to expand opportunity and reduce inequality; the only way to do that (at least the way every other country has done so) is to strengthen government programs. The best way to strengthen the family is to remove the market from family life. It is corporations, not government, that schedule workers and it is laissez-faire that has eroded the middle class for the past four decades. In Dionne’s essay, he notes that some of the reformicons have recognized their ideological contradiction, but he summarizes the failure to correct it accurately, “Even when they face up to the contradictions in conservative ideology and acknowledge the market’s shortcomings, their solutions rarely challenge the market’s priorities …”

Eventually reform conservatism will collapse upon the weight of its own contradictions. Ronald Reagan, like an unwitting best friend setting up a bad blind date, formed an increasingly unmanageable coalition. The initial spark has died and the elderly lovers are increasingly bickering. Vitriolic hatred of Obama is a weak attempt at coalition maintenance. The dirty fact is that very few policies can make all the parties of this increasingly fractious coalition happy. Reform conservatives have tried to brush these issues under the carpet, but eventually voters will want red meat, something Republicans simply cannot deliver and remain a viable party. Without a symbolic enemy to rally around the coalition will fall apart, which is why the reformicons are neither particularly interested in actually existing policy or conservatism.

Originally published on Salon.

The Real “Makers” and “Takers”

For those who haven’t had the great misfortune of reading Atlas Shrugged, the book is premised on the idea that if the world’s “creative leaders,” businessmen, innovators, artists (i.e., the “makers”) went on strike, our entire society would collapse. These strikers hide out in a utopian compound in the mountains of Colorado while the rest of us despondently wail and gnash our teeth and beg for them to once again bestow their creativity upon us.

The book mirrors in many ways the more lefty Elysium, where to escape the environmental degradation they have wrought, the wealthiest go off to form their own society in the sky. The rest of the human population remains mired in slum-like conditions, because the only thing standing between humanity and savagery is Bill Gates. But have no fear! Rather than collectively solving our problems, humanity needs a salvific “Jesus” in the form of (who else?) Matt Damon to make us citizens of Elysium and thereby save humanity. These two, very disparate tales of woe both have common elements (what I will call the “Randian vision”): society relies on the wealthy; collective action through government is either meaningless or detrimental; and a few individuals (“great men”) should be the center of social change and innovation. But all of these assumptions are false.

The appeal of the Randian vision to today’s wealthy is obvious: it puts them back at the center of economic life. They long ago realized that rather than being the beneficent “makers” they had always imagined themselves to be, they were the parasitical “takers” they so despised. Their wealth, which was once a symbol that God praised their work, became an instrument for social change (Carnegie, Rockefeller) and eventually good in itself (Gates, Jobs). Social Darwinism, the idea that the economy is a “survival of the fittest” competition where the superior end up on top, exults the businessman as superior and deserving. But as Henry George noted of Herbert Spencer (the founder of Social Darwinism): “Mr. Spencer is like one who might insist that each should swim for himself in crossing a river, ignoring the fact that some had been artificially provided with corks and other artificially loaded with lead.” F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thorstein Veblen ridiculed the idea that the wealthy were in any way superior. Social Darwinism has resurged in conservative thought, supplementing the Randian vision to fortify a social order in which a minuscule proportion of society reaps its rewards.

Because the wealthy are no longer willing to use their wealth for good, they have decided to glorify the wealth itself as good, thus, Harry Bingswanger writes in Forbes,

Imagine the effect on our culture, particularly on the young, if the kind of fame and adulation bathing Lady Gaga attached to the more notable achievements of say, Warren Buffett. Or if the moral praise showered on Mother Teresa went to someone like Lloyd Blankfein, who, in guiding Goldman Sachs toward billions in profits, has done infinitely more for mankind. (Since profit is the market value of the product minus the market value of factors used, profit represents the value created.)

Here we see the Randian vision in all its idiotic glory. If you could make a profit by pressing puppies into coffee, you deserve more moral praise than someone who dedicates their life to the poor. As E.F. Schumacher observed about capitalism, “Call a thing immoral or ugly, soul-destroying or a degradation to man, a peril to the peace of the world or to the well-being of future generations: as long as you have not shown it to be ‘uneconomic’ [unprofitable] you have not really questioned its right to exist, grow, and prosper.” To justify their wealth, the titans of industry must make themselves the center of economic progress and society, but the dirty little secret is that they aren’t; they’re just along for the ride. As Richard Hofstadter observed about American capitalism, “Once great men created fortunes; today a great system creates fortunate men.”

This observation fits with the facts: William Baumol found in the 1960s that 90 percent of the United States’ GDP today is due to innovations since 1870. Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon estimates that a flat tax of 90% of income is justifiable because “social capital” accounts for 90% of income in developed countries. The Human Genome Project cost the government $3.8 billion but generated $796 billion in economic gains. The project is expected to bring about returns of 140 to 1 to the public. Research by Kenneth Flam finds that, “eighteen of the twenty five most important breakthroughs in computer technology between 1950 and 1962 were funded by the government, and in many cases the first buyer of the technology was also the government.” The Randian vision praises hedge fund managers, even though most hedge funds underperform the market. Social Darwinism praises the CEO even though the most highly-paid CEOs are often unsuccessful and many companies run fine without them. Society praises Zuckerberg, Brin and Dorsey, but it was DARPA that made their coding possible. Much of the research the government pursues isn’t profitable enough to merit the attention of private companies, or is simply too risky. Private space flight is only imaginable because the government went there first.

It seems almost axiomatic that no good person has ever done something great merely for a profit. They seek something more important than material possession. So why should we fear if the wealthiest left us? I would fear for the world if the empathetic, the intelligent, the compassionate, the fearless and the creative left us. We don’t celebrate these virtues unless they somehow lead to monetary gain, but often they don’t. Norman Borlaug, father of the “Green Revolution” that by some estimates saved 1 billion people from starvation and who was hailed as “… a towering scientist whose work rivals that of the 20th century’s other great scientific benefactors of humankind,” didn’t work for money; he worked to help people. A Dallas Observer story about him noted that he,  “rarely indulged in the comforts of the industrialized West for any extended period of time. His choice has been to immerse himself in locales where people stare death in the face every day.” When a reporter saw Mother Teresa helping a disfigured leper, he said to her, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars.” Mother Teresa said, “Neither would I.”

The Walton family heirs, whose fortune relies entirely on predation — of labor, of the environment, of government, of small business — controls more wealth than the poorest 40 million Americans. Imagine what we could do with that fortune if they left. For all the credit Bill Gates gets, it may be worth wondering, as Peter Singer did, if he has given enough:

Gates may have given away nearly $30 billion, but that still leaves him sitting at the top of the Forbes list of the richest Americans, with $53 billion. His 66,000-square-foot high-tech lakeside estate near Seattle is reportedly worth more than $100 million. Property taxes are about $1 million. Among his possessions is the Leicester Codex, the only handwritten book by Leonardo da Vinci still in private hands, for which he paid $30.8 million in 1994. Has Bill Gates done enough? More pointedly, you might ask: if he really believes that all lives have equal value, what is he doing living in such an expensive house and owning a Leonardo Codex? Are there no more lives that could be saved by living more modestly and adding the money thus saved to the amount he has already given?

If Gates donated all $53 billion to foreign humanitarian aid, it would be double what the U.S. government gives yearly ($23 billion in 2013). Imagine the good we could do with the fortunes of the rich, who have only amassed the wealth because of the infrastructure developed by society. Innovators regularly rely on government and academic funding for projects that corporations don’t think will be profitable (according to Singer, “less than 10 percent of the world’s health research budget is spent on combating conditions that account for 90 percent of the global burden of disease”). The arts are largely supported by public funding, not private donations. And many businesses are less self-sufficient than they imagine, requiring bailouts and competition between states to support them. Many corporations, like Walmart, dump poor employees on to government largess rather than pay them enough to feed themselves. And who builds the roads and takes out the garbage?

Were the richest .01% to venture out and form their own society, the rest of us would not devolve into violent conflict; rather, without the expensive burden of the wealthy tapeworms siphoning our common wealth, we could begin to solve our problems. So to the rich who threaten to leave New York, I say, “go.” If the rich somehow manage to form their own planet, we can start fixing the problems on ours. We are the makers, they are the takers.