Ideas have consequences — and bad ideas have bad consequences.
Just how bad the consequences turn out to be depends to a large extent on the precise character of the bad idea. A bad idea that influences no one isn’t really that bad. It’s just stupid, and instantly forgettable. But a bad idea that lodges in people’s minds, fires their imaginations, inspires them to persuade others of its wisdom, and motivates them to make bad decisions in the world — that idea is truly bad.
Some bad ideas inspire world-historical acts of evil. “The Jews are subhuman parasites that deserve to be exterminated” may be the worst idea ever conceived. Compared with such a grotesquely awful idea, other bad ideas may appear trivial. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore them and their pernicious consequences.
Into this category I would place the extraordinarily influential libertarian idea of “spontaneous order.”
Now, regular readers will know that I believe we’re living through something of a “libertarian moment,” culturally speaking, and that I don’t think this is all bad. On most of the conflicts wrapped up with the sexual revolution and its aftermath, for example, I’m on the libertarian side of the argument — though I also think libertarians too often ignore or skirt over the moral dilemmas that arise in a culture of sexual autonomy.
On economic issues, I have far less sympathy for libertarian arguments, but I’m happy that someone is making them. Libertarians can be obnoxiously fixated on one moral-political principle to the exclusion of all others. But their single-minded focus on the liberation of the individual from all forms of coercion makes them very useful to have around. Whether we’re arguing about taxes and government regulations or the soft social coercion associated with received norms, practices, and traditions, it’s a good thing overall for those in positions of political and cultural authority to have to justify themselves before the bar of individual liberty.
But that doesn’t mean libertarians are always right — or even that they always avoid staking out manifestly silly and occasionally harmful positions.
The idea of spontaneous order might be the silliest and most harmful of all.
Simply stated, the idea holds that when groups of individuals are left alone, without government oversight or regulation, they will spontaneously form a social and economic order that is superior in organization, efficiency, and the conveyance of information than an order arranged from the top down through centralized planning.
Popularized by Friedrich Hayek and his fellow Austrian economists in the mid-20th century, the idea actually has its roots in the classical liberal writings of John Locke and Adam Smith.
Locke famously argued that government originates from a prepolitical state of nature in which groups of farmers establish a night-watchman state to protect their natural rights to life, liberty, and property. In this archetypal statement of classical liberal mythology, civilizational order (including the formation of stable families and the institution of private property) emerges spontaneously, prior to the formation of government, which is instituted for the sole purpose of protecting and preserving it.
Adam Smith expanded on this idea, applying it to the market economy, which he famously described as working its wonders as if it were governed by an “invisible hand.” Set millions of people free to pursue their economic self-interest, Smith claimed, and they will spontaneously generate an economic order marked by wealth and growth that benefits nearly everyone lucky enough to reside within it.
Careful readers of Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government and Smith’s The Wealth of Nations will find much subtler views than the positions I’ve presented here. But it is the bowdlerized versions of their thought that have captured the American — and libertarian — imagination.
Populated by generations of immigrants from foreign lands who came to the New World in search of new lives with fresh starts, the United States quickly developed a civil religion predicated on the presumption that it’s possible to “begin the world over again.” Raised to recite that civic catechism, Americans have found it all too easy to believe that the achievements of American civilization flow from the spontaneous efforts of scrappy individuals toiling away in a state of natural freedom, with government either doing nothing significant to help or else standing obstinately in the way of even greater accomplishments.
No wonder so many Americans in the postwar period gravitated to the writings of Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian economist who warned that central government planning was bound to put us on “the road to serfdom.” Rather than looking to the state to guide us — a goal that inevitably ends with it trying to enslave us — we would be better to recognize that the market economy and even civil society as a whole formed spontaneously, as the outcome of countless unregulated acts and decisions by millions of individuals over time. Going forward, Hayek concluded, individual liberty and prosperity depends upon allowing the spontaneous ordering of our collective lives to continue uninterrupted and uncontrolled by the state.
From Locke to Smith to Hayek, the lesson seems clear: Leave people alone, and a coherent civil order will spontaneously emerge and perpetuate itself.
This is utter fiction. A fairy tale. A just-so story that has as much historical veracity as Locke’s happy talk about a prepolitical state of nature filled with spontaneously formed families and settled plots of legitimately gotten farmland.
The fact is that aside from certain very rare cases (see below), it’s impossible to find human beings acting with perfect freedom outside of an already existing political order that shapes their decisions and determines to a considerable extent their behavior and range of possible choices.
President Obama got a lot of flack during his 2012 campaign for re-election for saying that wealthy business owners “didn’t build that” all by themselves, but his point was indisputable. The president mentioned the internet, roads and bridges, firefighting, and other public works that make it possible for the market economy to function and thrive. He could have said far more. How about the culture of general law-abidingness that we call the rule of law? The Federal Reserve’s regulation of the money supply? An independent judiciary for the settlement of civil disputes? Law enforcement at local, state, and federal levels that fights violent crime, fraud, corruption, monopolistic business practices, and a host of other behaviors that would otherwise scuttle the working of markets? And on and on and on.
The order we see at work in the United States and in other advanced democracies is anything but spontaneous.
But there is one situation where it’s possible to see genuine spontaneity in action: when an established political order is overthrown. Now it just so happens that within the past decade or so the United States has, in effect, run two experiments — one in Iraq, the other in Libya — to test whether the theory of spontaneous order works out as the libertarian tradition would predict.
In both cases, spontaneity brought the opposite of order. It produced anarchy and civil war, mass death and human suffering.
In response, some libertarian-minded critics have claimed that this just goes to show the damage that tyranny does to individuals, robbing them of the capacity to govern themselves once they’ve finally been granted their freedom.
Quite so. But then that would seem to imply that postwar Iraq and Libya could have spontaneously produced a liberal democratic order only if its citizens had acted as if they’d already been enjoying life in a liberal democratic order.
That sounds awful unspontaneous.
Order doesn’t just happen, and it isn’t the product of individual freedom. It needs to be established, and it needs to be established first (sometimes by force), before individuals can be granted civic, economic, and social freedom.
The libertarian prophets of “spontaneous order” get things exactly backward, sometimes with catastrophic real-world consequences. Which is why it’s a particularly bad idea.
By: Damon Linker, The Week, September 26, 2014
“David Vitter, God Bless The Koch Brothers”: The Most Patriotic Americans In The History Of The Earth
It stands to reason that Republican politicians are going to celebrate Charles and David Koch. After all, the billionaires’ generosity is critically important in conservative politics right now and may ultimately be the deciding factor in which party has power in Congress.
But Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) is willing to take his appreciation for the Koch brothers to a pretty extraordinary level, as evidenced by a town-hall event in Shreveport this week. American Bridge posted the above video (http://youtu.be/-7mStFMk6og), and for those who can’t watch clips online, the conservative senator told constituents:
“I think the Koch brothers are two of the most patriotic Americans in the history of the Earth. […]
“God bless the Koch brothers. They’re fighting for our freedoms.”
Sure, Republicans are bound to be grateful to the billionaires for saturating the airwaves with anti-Democratic attack ads, but Vitter’s effusive praise seemed a little over the top.
Burgess Everett saw an even longer version of the clip and reported that Vitter, as part of the same discussion, said he’s “not defending big money in politics.”
No, of course not. He’s just grateful that the most patriotic Americans in the history of the Earth are fighting for our freedoms.
It’s worth noting that Louisiana will host two major elections in the next two years: Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) is running for re-election this year, and she’s already facing attack ads from the Koch-financed Americans for Prosperity, and Vitter is running for governor next year, and likely hopes the Kochs’ operation will support his candidacy.
But there’s an even larger context to this: what is it, exactly, the most patriotic Americans in the history of the Earth hope to receive in exchange for their political investments?
The New York Times reports today on the bigger picture.
As [Americans for Prosperity] emerges as a dominant force in the 2014 midterm elections, spending up to 10 times as much as any major outside Democratic group so far, officials of the organization say their effort is not confined to hammering away at President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. They are also trying to present the law as a case study in government ineptitude to change the way voters think about the role of government for years to come.
“We have a broader cautionary tale,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity. “The president’s out there touting billions of dollars on climate change. We want Americans to think about what they promised with the last social welfare boondoggle and look at what the actual result is.”
Leaders of the effort say it has great appeal to the businessmen and businesswomen who finance the operation and who believe that excess regulation and taxation are harming their enterprises and threatening the future of the country. The Kochs, with billions in holdings in energy, transportation and manufacturing, have a significant interest in seeing that future government regulation is limited.
Indeed, Wonkblog reported just yesterday that a Koch Industries subsidiary is the biggest lease owner in Canada’s tar sands, covering an area of 1.1 million acres. The piece added, “Separately, industry sources familiar with oil sands leases said Koch’s lease holdings could be closer to 2 million acres.”
This helps bring into sharper focus why the Democratic fight with the Koch brothers has become so important. The dispute isn’t about some misleading AFP attack ads about health care reform; this is about a broader agenda.
As Greg Sargent explained this morning, “The real purpose of the Dem strategy is to create a framework for a broader argument about the true goals and priorities of the actual GOP policy agenda. It’s about tapping into a sense that the economy is rigged against ordinary Americans, and in favor of the one percent, and dramatizing that the GOP’s economic agenda would preserve that status quo, blocking any government policies designed to address stagnant mobility and soaring inequality. Or that, as Jonathan Chait puts it, the GOP has ‘built a policy agenda around plutocracy,’ and its primary ‘organizing purpose is to safeguard the economic interests of the very rich.’”
And it’s against this backdrop that David Vitter proclaims, “God bless the Koch brothers. They’re fighting for our freedoms.”
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, March 20, 2014
“Inequality And Self-Righteousness”: President Obama Challenges The Emotional Heart Of Conservative Politics
Here’s a passage from the president’s speech at CAP yesterday, which was a bit of a watershed, consolidating his varying perspectives on inequality and government’s role in the economy:
[W]e need to set aside the belief that government cannot do anything about reducing inequality. It’s true that government cannot prevent all the downsides of the technological change and global competition that are out there right now — and some of those forces are also some of the things that are helping us grow. And it’s also true that some programs in the past, like welfare before it was reformed, were sometimes poorly designed, created disincentives to work, but we’ve also seen how government action time and again can make an enormous difference in increasing opportunity and bolstering ladders into the middle class. Investments in education, laws establishing collective bargaining and a minimum wage — (applause) — these all contributed to rising standards of living for massive numbers of Americans.
Likewise, when previous generations declared that every citizen of this country deserved a basic measure of security, a floor through which they could not fall, we helped millions of Americans live in dignity and gave millions more the confidence to aspire to something better by taking a risk on a great idea. Without Social Security nearly half of seniors would be living in poverty — half. Today fewer than 1 in 10 do. Before Medicare, only half of all seniors had some form of health insurance. Today virtually all do. And because we’ve strengthened that safety net and expanded pro-work and pro- family tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit, a recent study found that the poverty rate has fallen by 40 percent since the 1960s.
What he’s doing here is challenging the idea that you can defend the “good” government interventions in the economy that are now part of the national landscape while opposing contemporary efforts to expand opportunity and reduce inequality. This strikes directly at the politics of selfishness and self-righteousness that is at the emotional heart of conservative politics at present.
The opportunity gap in America is now as much about class as it is about race. And that gap is growing. So if we’re going to take on growing inequality and try to improve upward mobility for all people, we’ve got to move beyond the false notion that this is an issue exclusively of minority concern. And we have to reject a politics that suggests any effort to address it in a meaningful way somehow pits the interests of a deserving middle class against those of an undeserving poor in search of handouts.
This can’t be said too often.
By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, December 5, 2013
“Reporters Aren’t Above The Law”: The Media Shouldn’t Have Freer Speech Or Special Immunities From Investigation
Secret government investigations into speech protected by the First Amendment should alarm all of us. But we all have the same First Amendment rights; reporters don’t have freer speech. And giving reporters a special privilege to withhold evidence too often leads to lazy reporting in which nameless “official sources” get to make false accusations against innocent people without any accountability for either the government or the press. Instead of lobbying for a special privilege, reporters should consistently fight for more liberty for all Americans, including greater freedom of speech and greater freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.
The Associated Press is understandably outraged that the government used secret subpoenas to get phone records that might reveal who leaked classified information to the news wire. But the real problem is not that the government is investigating the AP; it is that the government is investigating speech about government operations. That would be just as troubling if the targets were non-journalists.
The government claims the AP’s reporting contained classified information, but that’s hard to avoid when so much of what the government does is classified. The temptation to overclassify and underdisclose must be very powerful; each administration promises greater transparency, yet each turns out to be worse than the last. That frustrates the control we’re supposed to have over our government.
Media companies think the answer is to give their employees special immunities from investigation. But reporters aren’t always right, either. Sometimes they team up with government leakers to wreck the lives of innocent men and women whom the leakers want to disparage publicly, like Steven Hatfill, Wen Ho Lee or Richard Jewell. When that happens, the victims have rights too. Reporters (like everyone else) have a duty to provide the evidence necessary to do justice. No one should be above the law.
A better answer is to tighten the rules for when government can act in secret and provide more protections for whistleblowers. That gives us the benefit of more public discourse about public policy without giving the press a license to smear.
Our government does too many things in the dark, and the press is often at its best when it shines a light on previously unknown programs or policies that we ought to debate publicly. We need laws that help the press shine a light on government actions, not laws that permit reporters to join government officials in the shadows.
By: Mark Grannis, Debate Club, U. S. News and World Report, May 16, 2013
Do conservatives still believe in American greatness?
The question is not intended to discourage the healthy debate being pushed by Rand Paul and his allies over whether Republicans in the George W. Bush years were too eager to deploy our country’s armed forces overseas. After the steep costs of the Iraq war, it is a very necessary discussion.
But Paul has inadvertently called our attention to a deep contradiction within American conservatism.
Those who share Paul’s philosophical orientation are quite right in seeing the rise of American power in the world as closely linked to the rise of the New Deal-Great Society state at home. But this means that those who want the United States to play a strong role in global affairs need to ask themselves if their attitudes toward government’s role in our country, which are similar to Paul’s, are consistent with their vision of American influence abroad.
After World War II, there was a rough consensus in America, confirmed during Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency in the 1950s, in favor of an energetic national government.
We emerged from the war as a global power that had learned lessons from the Great Depression. Government action could lessen the likelihood of another disastrous economic downturn and build a more just and prosperous society at home by investing in our people and our future.
Thus did the Marshall Plan and the GI Bill go hand in hand. The Marshall Plan eased Western Europe’s recovery from the devastation of war, thereby protecting friendly governments and opening new markets for American goods. The GI Bill educated a generation of veterans, spurring prosperity from the bottom up by enabling millions to join a growing middle class.
Eisenhower built on these achievements by creating the first college loan program and launching the interstate highway system. It’s no accident that the former was established by the National Defense Education Act while the latter was known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act.
Lyndon Johnson operated in the same tradition. It’s worth remembering that passage of the landmark civil rights acts was helped along by our competition with the Soviet Union. We realized we could not appeal to the nonwhite, nonaligned parts of the world if we practiced racism at home.
And we fought poverty — for moral reasons but also because we wanted to show the world that we could combine our market system with economic justice. We forget that we succeeded. A strengthened Social Security system combined with Medicare slashed poverty rates among the elderly. Food stamps dealt with a real problem of hunger in our nation while Medicaid brought regular health care to millions who did not have it before.
Through it all, Keynesian economics kept our economy humming while widely shared prosperity created the sense of national solidarity that a world role required.
Paul and his allies deserve credit for consistency. They are against the entire deal.
“As government grows, liberty becomes marginalized,” Paul declared at the Conservative Political Action Conference, which announced Saturday that the libertarian senator from Kentucky had placed first in its 2016 presidential straw poll. I think the evidence of all the years since World War II proves Paul flatly wrong. But then I am not a conservative.
But what of conservatives who endorse continued American global leadership but would drastically reduce government’s investments in our citizens and our infrastructure, in economic security and in health care?
Do they honestly think voters will endorse the military spending they seek even as they throw 40 million to 50 million of our fellow citizens off health insurance and weaken health coverage for our elderly? Can they continue to deny that their goal of an internationally influential America demands more revenue than they currently seem willing to provide? Have conservatives on the Supreme Court pondered what eviscerating the Voting Rights Act would do to the image of our democracy around the globe?
And do conservatives who say they favor American greatness think they are strengthening our nation and its ability to shape events abroad with an ongoing budget stalemate created by their refusal to reach agreement with President Obama on a deal that combines spending cuts and new taxes? Would they rather waste the next three years than make any further concessions to a president the voters just reelected?
Rand Paul is very clear on the country he seeks. Conservatives who reject his approach to foreign policy need to consider where the strong America they honor came from in the first place.
By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, March 17, 2013