This is a limited revival of mecmoss.com, the blog that I suspended, yielding to popular demand, a couple of years ago. The revival is for the purpose of directing my once-loyal fan base to a posting in the blog of my favorite economist, Prof. John H. Cochrane of The Hoover Institution (“The Grumpy Economist”), on the disturbing topic of the rise of the far left in American politics – and of the role of certain economic theories in abetting that rise. Here is the link: https://johnhcochrane.blogspot.com/2020/10/understanding-left.html
Professor Cochrane’s essays are featured regularly in the Wall Street Journal, and his blog is terrific. (I call his blog-posts “Grumpies.”)The following is an edited version of a message I wrote to the professor in response to the above-cited Grumpy. You don’t need to read his post to understand my message, but if you appreciate this message, you certainly should read his post.
Excellent Grumpy. I enjoy your posts on politics. The idea that economics and politics can be understood as separate – or even separable – disciplines, an idea that you reject, strikes me as naïve. There are few, if any, economic-policy objectives that can be addressed or achieved without consideration of the political actions needed in order to accomplish them and the political effects of their accomplishment.
I think this excerpt is the heart of your essay: “We are presuming a common goal to produce a free and prosperous society, and somehow this crowd missed the lessons of history and logic of how to achieve it. Let’s not be so patronizing. If their answers are so different, it must be that they have a different question in mind. What is the question to which all this is a sensible, inevitable answer? Ask that, and only one question makes sense. Power.” [I take first of those last two sentences to be shorthand for “What are they seeking, if not a free and prosperous society?”]
This issue has been with us since classical antiquity. Different nations or movements at different times had different goals: some tried to produce a prosperous society, a few even considered prosperous and free, but each recognized that power was the means to achieve its goals. It is a shame that many had so much fun acquiring the power and exercising it, that they never got around to the “free-and-prosperous-society” part. The American left, since my law school days in Berkeley, has been seeking to acquire power. During those “Free Speech Movement” days, many observers thought the central theme was sex, drugs, and rock & roll, and hey, while we are at it, how about we stage a fun revolution? But in Berkeley, as in Castro’s Cuba, it took just the blink of an eye for the serious Marxists, even in the midst of the partying, to train their sights on a bigger goal: seizing power. Castro had Cuba, Mario Savio and his Berkeley claque took aim at America, and in those days everyone figured all those bad boys would outgrow all of this. Alas, they never did. Your answer holds: power is the answer, power is the main thing the left seeks.
Fair enough, but if power is what they seek, why does the left choose leftism as its pathway to power? The primary answer is, the essence of leftism is central control, Hayek’s “central planning” model, in which government might not own all the major enterprises, but it controls them. The legal right to control is power. In the U.S., that legal right is conferred by laws (e.g., Acts of Congress) and, nowadays to a far greater extent, regulations – e.g., the stuff contained in the U. S. Code of Federal Regulations, the place where over 80,000 pages of Dodd Frank regulations and nearly 20,000 pages of Affordable Care Act regulations reside. Control is exercised through the 9.1 million people who are employed by the federal government, representing nearly 6 percent of total employment in the United States. https://thehill.com/opinion/finance/438242-the-federal-government-is-the-largest-employer-in-the-nation An example of leftist exercise of control: being able to direct a Lois Lerner (former head of the IRS) to harass Republican taxpayers and US companies controlled by Republicans. Leftism and control go together like ham and eggs.
There is a secondary second reason the left favors leftism: free markets, relatively un-regulated markets, make it easier for people outside of the power-circle to become prosperous enough to resist governmental control. Free markets facilitate competition, provide easy entry, reward performance. Regulations can represent barriers to entry of new business ventures and barriers to growth of those new ventures; the more extensive, complex, and burdensome the regulations, the more difficult it is for new ventures to gain clearance and compete. . Example: The 5 biggest companies in the country by market cap are MSFT, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google, and each of them is in tech, an area both highly-regulated and highly vulnerable to additional regulation. These companies are virtual partners with the federal government in terms of working through the intense regulatory maze, and in the process, these companies can become – and arguably have become – political partners with the Democratic Party; the dividing lines between the interests of the tech world and those of the Democratic Party are blurred, to say the least.
Hayek was dead right about free markets being better than central planning if you seek economic growth, but he was wasting his breath by trying to talk to the left. Sure, the lefties pay lip service to economic growth, and they (like the leaders of the PRC) understand that a certain amount of capitalism is useful, but the left’s idea of “economics” is finding out how much re-distribution of incomes and wealth – and how much governmental-regulation of personal and economic activity – can be accomplished without snuffing-out the private sector. To them, relatively-free markets and a lively private-sector are a necessary evil, an irradicable bug but not a feature; the Chinese get it that you cannot keep the masses in line unless you keep them at least modestly-prosperous. But the prospect that the bond markets will someday lose faith in the US economy and start demanding higher interest rates on US treasuries and the economy will falter is, to them, the boogeyman – a phantom terror that exists only in the minds of their grandparents.
Our education system,through fifty years of leftward drift, has created generations of adults, especially young adults, who see little reason to resist the centrally-planned economic system that has been growing like a cancer in this country since before they were born; they just assume, with some justification, that there is no reason to resist the spread of leftism. Why kill, say, the Dodd Frank and Affordable Care acts when those enormous, costly, ineffectual, and often counterproductive regulatory-monsters do not appear to be putting anybody out of work – and indeed are providing nice careers for the hordes of rent-seekers who are paid to enforce them or manipulate and work with them. Today’s young and elite lefty concentrates on finding smarter ways to work with the regulated state and play it for as much as his or her gifts will allow. These people don’t dislike the centrally-planned environment, it is their home. Not that all our younger people are above average, but the half that are above average have figured out that even if few of them are sufficiently smart and skilled to be upper elites, most of them are good enough to be able to lead highly-prosperous lives in the socialist-style state, so why mess with it? Especially when so many of them can find a nice home in the tech world.
The young techies will be fine. The real victims of this model are the people within our middle class or beneath it, our non-elites: the bourgeoisie, the working class, the Deplorables. The Trump voters. Little-noticed in this battle to resist socialism is that these non-elite people were, until the accelerated advance of the elites in the last two decades, the biggest beneficiaries of free-market capitalism and of our nation’s physical and social mobility. But now, modern leftism has made the elites wealthier (take another look at Silicon Valley and tech in general, Wall Street and finance in general, and the media) and has left the non-elites behind – and paying way too much for healthcare and financial services and becoming way too dependent upon government favors and handouts.
Although many non-elite non-tech jobs are being phased-out by tech, there are still plenty of non-elite tech jobs and service jobs – and the pandemic has shown there always will be. The non-elites, President Trump’s constituency, people whose fortunes finally started back up during his first term, will be the biggest economic-losers if the nation takes a hard left turn in November. Free-market capitalism is the best bet for the non-elites, but it is hard to pitch Milton Friedman to them when the media monopoly prevents them from even receiving the pitch – and when government keeps expanding the dole.
You, professor, are in the process of being banned from speaking freely and even made to pledge allegiance to leftist principles, but half the country is about to face even-more direct threats to their well being, and that unfortunate half contains the people who are least able to grasp the danger involved in their succumbing to the fake promises of the left. You are talking to your peers, people whose monetary stake in this election seems fairly low – and so they are a tough audience for our side of the story. But nearly half the country does not even get the chance to hear your side of the story at all. A lot is at stake in this election.