Selling Ideas

Sometime in the 1960s, when the left was crushing the right in public opinion polls and politics, the right came to believe that it needed to do a better sales job. But there are good and bad ways to sell ideas. In the good way, you can work to make your ideological product more appealing to various market segments, from academics to regular voters. In the bad way, you can take money in exchange for which you will say anything.

Now, to be fair to Doug Bandow, he most certainly did not do the latter. In a story covered from New York to D.C. to London, he stands "accused" of having written op-eds that elicited payment from Jack Abramoff. In the first case, Bandow wrote favorably on behalf of the Northern Mariana Islands and its industry’s desire to continue to be unregulated by US labor law. The method is seedy (NMI pays lobbyist; lobbyist hires writer; writer persuades Congress) but the goal is good.

This second case is less defensible: he was paid to write favorably of the Mississippi Choctaw Indians and their desire for tax breaks — a position that might be defensible if this tribe were not also receiving massive subsidies from the taxpayer. Later his columns on the Indian question seemed to reflect a change of mind: he wrote that the tribes were becoming nothing more than glorified special interest groups.

But there is no reason to assume — and no way to know for sure — that Bandow decided to take the positions he did solely based on the payments. He is a libertarian after all, one of the more principled writers out there, and the positions he took were not incompatible with his overall political perspective.

Nonetheless, the press is in its high-dudgeon mode over this one. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorialized: "The prose of Doug Bandow never will appear on these pages again. It turns out that Mr. Bandow, the once-respected senior scholar at the Cato Institute, was on the take. And we find that as inexcusable as we do sickening."

Umm, need we point out that the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review exists solely based on ad revenue, subscriptions, and the direct financial aid of Richard Mellon Scaife, who has given large grants to many of the institutions that employ writers for its op-ed page? Further, there is a sense in which every word of every article in every newspaper is written by someone on the take.

And as for Cato’s own claim that its "scholarship is not for sale,” someone seems to have overlooked the reality that the entire campaign to privatize Social Security, for example, was bought and paid for with millions from Wall Street. And none other than the Scaife Foundation is one of its top donors. So we are supposed to believe that it is evil for one columnist to take a few thousand but perfectly okay for a newspaper publisher to pay a think tank millions to then pay an intellectual who then writes for the newspaper?

So let us not be naïve. Intellectuals are always in a position to sell their talents to special interests, and many of them do, especially in Washington, where the sting of payola is soon anesthetized.

The truth is that this is a selective and partisan attack. The media love exposing the conflicts of interest when they appear on the right, while ignoring the same thing on the left. Why no articles on the conflicts of interest of thousands of left-wing nonprofits that are supported by the very federal programs for which they lobby relentlessly? Something like the American Cancer Society comes to mind.

Moreover, the Bandow case was hardly news. It was well covered in the press dating back to May 2005. It just so happened that the stars lined up right, with Abramoff and his associates now in the middle of a pay-off scandal that is bringing down the Republican leadership and tainting the whole of the right-wing hive in Washington.

In many ways, the left and the Democrats view all this as a payback for the rough treatment the "vast, right-wing conspiracy" gave Clinton and his crowd in the 1990s, which in turn was payback for the left’s treatment of the right during the Iran-Contra scandals of the 1980s, which was the payback for the beating that Carter received, which was payback for the antagonism of the left toward Nixon and his cronies, and so on dating back to the New Deal and earlier and earlier.

In case you don’t understand the model: any new regime promises that it will clean up the muck, graft, conflicts of interest, and seediness of the old regime. There is always and everywhere plenty to clean up. After all, we are talking about a government that spends trillions. The whole point of hanging around Washington is to get a piece of that action, and the culture is that if you are not part of some funding ring, you are no better than an outside-the-beltway type.

By the second term of any presidency, the party in power gets sloppy and cocky. They become more brazen in their payoffs and more expansive with their influence peddling. They get reckless. They get caught. The competition has a field day. Under this model, we can look forward to another payback time in about 8 to 10 years, where there will be yet another fit of frenzy about the horrible goings-on in the den of iniquity we call the nation’s capital.

Unlike most people, I’m all for these periodic hysterias and all for bringing down the party in power no matter who it is. There can never be something called "good government" that acts as a pure defender of the public interest so that no private interests ever influence its actions or decisions. That is absurd. So long as there is government, it will be corrupt, and for one reason: the business of government involves activities that, if you and I attempted them in the private sector, would land us in prison. If someone wants to root it out and expose it, we can only cheer.

Something of the same Progressive-style navet exists with the longing for pure, unadulterated journalism, journalism that is not influenced by lobbyists or peddlers but is directed solely toward the good of all. That is a ridiculous notion. I prefer the old 19th-century style journalism in which party hacks made their attachments explicit. But of course the political parties would much prefer it if the same case for their looting could be made without the motives being disclosed.

The innovation of the think tank was the first step toward helping the parties put a veneer of science and public spiritedness on their looting. Beyond their pretensions, however, it is the dreadful reality that government-centered think tanks are nothing more than intellectual covers for special interests, and this is true of the right and the left. Today their main function is to launder money so that intellectuals and others within their walls can appear to avoid overt conflicts of interest.

How can you know the difference between the fake and the real institutions of research? Their proximity to power is the best clue.

Cato sailed Bandow down the river with some pretty rough and wholly unnecessary words. His mistakes were indeed a lapse in judgment. But it is hardly unusual in a city where to be part of a machine fueled by power and money is the very essence of professional life. It’s not any life I want, but there is no reason for pretending as if this were some incredible moral failing in an otherwise pure and clean profession.

At the same time, such revelations are harmful to libertarianism in so many ways. We are already accused of being shills for capitalists, apologists for the rich, in the pay of the exploiting class, and all the rest. We therefore live under a special obligation to make sure that we write and think according to principle and not payoff. The rule is not a hard one: if it feels seedy, it probably is.

Only those who demand no privileges from government, and who desire only that society be left alone, can make the claim to impartiality. I’ll end with this strong reminder from Mises about the difference between liberalism and antiliberalism:

The parties of special interests, which see nothing more in politics than the securing of privileges and prerogatives for their own groups, not only make the parliamentary system impossible; they rupture the unity of the state and of society…. Society cannot, in the long run, exist if it is divided into sharply defined groups, each intent on wresting special privileges for its own members, continually on the alert to see that it does not suffer any setback, and prepared, at any moment, to sacrifice the most important political institutions for the sake of winning some petty advantage.

To the parties of special interests, all political questions appear exclusively as problems of political tactics. Their ultimate goal is fixed for them from the start. Their aim is to obtain, at the cost of the rest of the population, the greatest possible advantages and privileges for the groups they represent. The party platform is intended to disguise this objective and give it a certain appearance of justification, but under no circumstances to announce it publicly as the goal of party policy. The members of the party, in any case, know what their goal is; they do not need to have it explained to them. How much of it ought to be imparted to the world is, however, a purely tactical question.

All antiliberal parties want nothing but to secure special favors for their own members, in complete disregard of the resulting disintegration of the whole structure of society. They cannot withstand for a moment the criticism that liberalism makes of their aims. They cannot deny, when their demands are subjected to the test of logical scrutiny, that their activity, in the last analysis, has antisocial and destructive effects and that even on the most cursory examination it must prove impossible for any social order to arise from the operations of parties of special interests continually working against one another….

Liberalism does not have the least thing in common with any of these parties. It stands at the very opposite pole from all of them. It promises special favors to no one. It demands from everyone sacrifices on behalf of the preservation of society. These sacrifices — or, more accurately, the renunciation of immediately attainable advantages — are, to be sure, merely provisional; they quickly pay for themselves in greater and more lasting gains. Nevertheless, for the time being, they are sacrifices. Because of this, liberalism finds itself, from the very outset, in a peculiar position in the competition among parties….

Thus, it is easily seen that liberalism cannot be put into the same class with the parties of special interests without denying its very nature. It is something radically different from them all. They are out for battle and extol violence; liberalism, on the contrary, desires peace and the ascendancy of ideas. It is for this reason that all parties, however badly disunited they may otherwise be, form a united front against liberalism.

The enemies of liberalism have branded it as the party of the special interests of the capitalists. This is characteristic of their mentality. They simply cannot understand a political ideology as anything but the advocacy of certain special privileges opposed to the general welfare.

One cannot look on liberalism as a party of special interests, privileges, and prerogatives, because private ownership of the means of production is not a privilege redounding to the exclusive advantage of the capitalists, but an institution in the interest of the whole of society and consequently an institution that benefits everyone….

Liberalism is no religion, no world view, no party of special interests. It is no religion because it demands neither faith nor devotion, because there is nothing mystical about it, and because it has no dogmas. It is no world view because it does not try to explain the cosmos and because it says nothing and does not seek to say anything about the meaning and purpose of human existence. It is no party of special interests because it does not provide or seek to provide any special advantage whatsoever to any individual or any group. It is something entirely different. It is an ideology, a doctrine of the mutual relationship among the members of society and, at the same time, the application of this doctrine to the conduct of men in actual society. It promises nothing that exceeds what can be accomplished in society and through society. It seeks to give men only one thing, the peaceful, undisturbed development of material well-being for all, in order thereby to shield them from the external causes of pain and suffering as far as it lies within the power of social institutions to do so at all. To diminish suffering, to increase happiness: that is its aim.

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