One Year Later

On the one year anniversary of Donald Trump entering the presidential race, it is worth looking back. Before Trump, it was possible for right-leaning Americans to take comfort in the principles that inform conservatism. Ours was the side of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and ordered liberty. Theirs was the side of state central planning, coercive mandates and regulations, and identity politics. Our team was lining up a deep bench of accomplished and impressive presidential candidates, while they were talking themselves into a robotic, uninspiring and corrupt Hillary Clinton.

On June 16th, 2015 Donald Trump entered the arena and proceeded to destroy every illusion conservatives held about the Republican Party. GOP voters nominated a candidate who they believe speaks for them, someone who says out loud and in public the things they are too cowed by political correctness to say. Were this the sole explanation for Trump’s support, it would be easier to dissect: backlash against political correctness is indeed warranted and worthwhile.

Alas, the Trump movement is more than rage against the establishment machine; embedded within the celebrity-fueled movement is an identifiably left-of-center policy agenda causing consternation among conservatives. The most visible aspect of this agenda (because it is what Trump talks about on the stump more than anything else) is protectionism, the belief that free trade and the global economy have been net negatives for Americans, a view that until Trump was associated almost entirely with the anticapitalist left. Opposition to free trade is rooted in Bastiat’s timeless counsel concerning the “seen and the unseen.” As a 2013 Mercatus study declares: “The benefits of free international trade are often diffuse and hard to see, while the benefits of shielding specific groups from foreign competition are often immediate and visible.” Efficient supply chains resulting in broader access to cheaper goods are not as readily apparent as decaying towns and rotting factories. It requires only a rudimentary understanding of economics or, failing that, minimal imaginative capability, to grasp Bastiat’s meaning and thus shed the adolescent belief in government’s capacity to manage society’s problems. 

Trump is suspect on his commitment to the first two amendments in the Bill of Rights (he likely doesn’t know what is contained in the rest), which should be disqualifying for any Republican candidate for President. He advocates for higher minimum wage laws, possesses no understanding of religious liberty or pro-life sentiments, believes “the rich” ought to pay more taxes, is the definition of a crony capitalist, and is indistinguishable from Bernie Sanders on trade. His army of followers include a toxic minority of vile racists and white nationalists who have drunk so deeply the left’s cultural messaging that they proudly adopt skin-deep identity politics, clamoring not for smaller government but for a redistribution of government spoils to the white working class.

This amounts to a final capitulation to another of Bastiat’s warnings: a free society’s descent into a will-to-power fight between factions, each using an ever-expanding law to obtain spoils, applying the force of the state to expropriate from its opposition. The Trump movement is a giant white flag surrender to Big Government that effectively substitutes the Tea Party/libertarian-infused brief against Leviathan with factional populism demanding its share from “Daddy” Government.   

These painful realizations confronting conservatives and right-libertarians since Trump’s emergence lead to the depressing conclusion that the American right is not the principled defender of small government that we wanted to believe. Instead it is an angry, frustrated mob reaching for the shiniest object it can as a salve to feelings of impotence, futility and betrayal. The early Tea Party represented a return to principle, a call to reduce spending, to halt the expansion of government, and to restore the Constitutional order and separation of powers gradually deteriorating under both parties. It is a shame that such an opportunity was squandered.

And yet… while I will not vote for Trump, neither will I vote for Hillary. The progressive ethos animating the Democratic Party is orders of magnitude worse than Trumpism. Riddled with contradictions and confusion, progressivism is about deception. Secular preachers of social justice insist they have “the facts” and “science,” but actually they are nothing more than a fashionable clique of Sneetches, preening and strutting and signaling, all to convey their tolerance. Ironically, the highest virtue in the cult of diversity is conformity.

And that conformity begets a unified worldview based on lies.

The left lies routinely about guns, abortion, Islam, the minimum wage, climate change, rape culture, unemployment, healthcare, the effects of the welfare state, and much besides. I’ve no doubt that a significant chunk of Trump’s support is fueled by angry reaction to these lies. I am sympathetic. I only wish we had the good sense to hold in our minds competing truths: political correctness and progressivism are a scourge on society, and Donald Trump is unfit to be the avatar of our opposition against it.

All that remains is to enlist in our little platoons.

Michigan and Special Interest

Everybody loves roads.

Elizabeth Warren likes to lecture about roads and President Obama loves speaking about investment in crumbling infrastructure. Get past the talking points and into the weeds and the MSNBC set will offer something about “rebuilding America” as their pet panacea for, well, everything. Even Rand Paul has teamed up with Barbara Boxer on a bill that would fill the coffers of the federal highway fund via revenue brought in by a lower corporate tax rate. Libertarians can hardly go five minutes without being condescendingly informed that our free market paradise could never happen because who would build the roads?!?!?!?!?

In Michigan this week, Republican governor Rick Snyder saw Proposal 1 – a ballot measure to hike sales taxes to finance road and highway improvement – go down by an 80-20 margin. The governor and his party supported this bill which would have increased the average household’s annual tax burden by as much as $545 a year. The key support for the measure came from a lobbying consortium representing several concrete, asphalt, paving and excavation interests in the state. They outspent the opponents of the tax hike by 30 to 40-1.

Proposal 1’s “sound defeat undermined the media assumption that Big Business and Big Government working together represents a public consensus,” says Tim Carney in a piece for The Washington Examiner. Carney ends his column urging conservatives to build on this and sees it as an effective way to make the case against cronyism more broadly: “This points towards the way to sell limited government: When government has more power, it empowers those with connections to government.”

It is naive to think special interest lobbies will ever be eliminated. As long as we put the people’s representatives forward, interest groups will be there to gain their favor. The only way to limit lobbyist influence is to limit the number of laws coming from Washington. Bastiat feared an overabundance of legislation would lead to “legal plunder” which would give incentive to special interests to use the legal system for its own advantage. Illegal plunder earns universal scorn whereas legal plunder is considered “democracy.” But because we are never going to convince self-interested politicians who think they are divas to curb their enthusiasm for passing laws, we might as well abandon the dream of a lobby-free zone in Washington.

Instead, we should focus our attention on the small instances where Big Government-Big Business collusion is exposed, as just happened in Michigan. And we should heed Carney’s advice to highlight how ballot measures such as Proposal 1 “undermine the common liberal trope that the push for lower taxes is the agenda of Big Money, and that higher taxes is the populist agenda.” This is a crucial point.

President Obama, that fierce populist champion and avatar of the working man, showed in his first major act in office just how comfortable Big Business is with the progressive agenda. The stimulus was nothing more than a massive special interest kickback to blue state governments, public unions and friends of the progressive left. The most infamous example is Solyndra, a solar panel firm granted half a billion dollars by the Obama administration for no other reason than the CEO was a huge Obama bundler. The federal bureaucracy is notorious for how it awards contracts to connected firms over more qualified bidders, a fact that became known to most Americans during the Obamacare website’s China Syndrome moment. CGI Federal, a subsidiary of a Canadian firm infamous for completely botching a Canadian gun registry, was given the insanely lucrative contract in part because a Princeton classmate of Michelle Obama’s was the Senior VP. Even Rick Perry was not immune to the special interest lure when he was governor of Texas. Despite presiding over the best economic record of all states since 2007, Perry routinely offered state subsidies to chic tech companies such as Tesla, Google and Apple to entice them to open plants in Texas. That many companies express interest in locating in Texas speaks to the favorable tax and regulatory climate, sure, but the subsidies certainly play a role too.

Conservatives are generally fans of federalism and celebrate the idea of states experimenting with distinct economic models. By foregoing uniform economic policies drawn up in Washington to be applied nationally, we encourage competition between states as they experiment in various ways. Illinois is probably going to have to walk back its progressive obsession with high taxes and oppressive regulations because they are bleeding jobs and capital to neighboring Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan, all of whom have lowered taxes and cultivated friendlier business climates in the last several years. Unfortunately, state competition for business goes too far when it devolves into a circus of competing subsidies and special treatment, also known as the “Redevelopment Racket.” Cynics say this is the way the game is played, but Michigan offers hope for a brighter alternative.

As Rick Perry and other conservative governors prove, conservatives can also be guilty of catering to special interest lobbies. However, a conservative politician engaging in crony capitalism is straying from established principle whereas a progressive doing the same is adhering to the only principle he knows: grow government. And despite the myth progressives maintain about high tax policy equaling populism, Michigan reveals the truth of the matter. Special interests representing road construction lobby the Michigan government for more spending and more taxes to pay for it, all so they themselves can get rich off the exclusive bid grant. The government – in this case a nominally conservative one – agrees that improved roads are desirable and does the bidding of the special interest by insisting that the voters agree to a pretty stiff tax hike. Perhaps voters would be more open to the measure if they thought the deal wasn’t riddled with corruption and back-scratching to begin with? At the end of the day, governments rarely look for ways to get what they want on the cheap. Why bother being frugal when powerful lobbies are there to suggest a simple tax increase?

Corruption and cronyism know no ideology, but government itself is the engine that drives them. Therefore, the party of government needs to come to terms with this reality and perhaps reconsider their dogma surrounding the benevolent Leviathan. Until then, let us hope for more Michigan-style tax proposals being met with boisterous thumbs down and that they serve to show the public exactly how deals are made in politics and what always lies beneath calls for more “populist” tax increases.

Stupid Laws and Unintended Consequences

The scourge of progressivism is always on display, but sometimes the sheer stupidity of its arguments goes to eleven.

Behold the progressive left’s comprehensive rebuke of Rand Paul’s recent argument that cigarette taxes and the black markets which consequently ensue are partly responsible for Eric Garner’s death. Because racial division benefits the Democratic Party politically, there exists a profound desire on the left to sustain such a beneficial narrative for as long as possible when afforded the opportunity. Conversely, an even stronger desire to prohibit the narrative from being hijacked by other focal points manifests whenever someone challenges the established left wing conventional wisdom.

On MSNBC’s Hardball, Rand Paul offered this completely reasonable opinion on Eric Garner’s tragic death:

I think it is hard not to watch that video of him saying ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe’ and not be horrified by it. I think it is important to know that some politician put a tax of $5.85 on a pack of cigarettes so that driven cigarettes underground by making them so expensive. But then some politician also had to direct the police say, ‘hey we want you arresting people for selling a loose cigarette.’ For someone to die over breaking that law, there is really no excuse for it. But I do blame the politicians. We put our police in a difficult situation with bad laws.

The last thing the left wants is their racial injustice narrative derailed by concerns over taxes or big government (which is not unlike radical feminists’ desire that the agenda outweigh the truth). Hence the surreal spectacle of countless left wing pundits levying passionate rebukes of Paul and the broader right who picked up on his critique. Jon Stewart made the splashiest headlines with his “What the fu*k are you talking about?” zinger on The Daily Show.

Joan Walsh weighed in to pronounce Paul’s 2016 hopes “wrecked,” while Gawker, Vox, Rachel Maddow’s stenographer Steve Benen, and Jeffrey Toobin all joined the chorus condemning Paul for his comments.

Meanwhile, Jonah Goldberg, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and others on the right responded to the left’s claims with justified scorn. There are some lines of attack that go unanswered because they are not worth responding to, such as charges that Republicans wish to “throw grandma off the cliff” (by reforming Medicare) or wishes to “see kids starving in the streets” (by cutting food stamps). But then there are some arguments belched out of the left’s hive mind that demand swift correction and incessant mockery. The argument that taxes had nothing to do with the Eric Garner tragedy is just plain stupid.

With the opposite of all due respect for Jon Stewart, let me explain just “what the fu*k” Rand Paul and everyone else with a brain is talking about. New York progressives believe that nothing is immune from their regulatory reach, especially those activities which they define as bad. Smoking is indisputably bad for individual health, ergo there must be government restrictions on access to this legal product. That constitutes the “seen” whereas all the unintended consequences that go into enforcing these laws constitute what is “unseen.” By and large, the right knows at least that the unseen exists as a real phenomenon that must be accounted for in public policy, while the left treats the unseen at best as an abstraction and at worst as a sort of urban legend, a myth invented by unsophisticated rubes who can’t quite wrap their puny minds around the need for government to operate as independent arbitrator.

The unseen in the matter of Eric Garner is the human response to incentives. Had there been no six dollar surtax on cigarettes, there would have been no need for the emergence of a massive smuggling racket, whereby trucks would smuggle cigarettes up from the South by the half million. Contrary to popular liberal mythology, human nature is not malleable and thus not prone to radical shifts in personal behavior just because the authorities believe that passing a law equals solving a problem.

Who smokes cigarettes? It’s not coastal elites or academia’s assembly-line activists, that’s for sure. It’s middle American whites and inner city minorities. It’s nice and noble that nannies wish for them to quit, but you know what is not nice and noble? Making packs in New York City and Chicago $14. You think by magic all these smokers are going to magically and radically change their behavior? No, they’re going to look for cheaper avenues to acquire smokes. Progressive do-gooderism and a failure to understand market dynamics, incentives and human behavior leads them to passing these sorts of taxes and levies on the poor in all of our big cities. And the left gets mad when the people don’t comply with their central plans, so they create a strike force (as Cuomo did) to crack down on those nefarious criminals who dare to sell “loosies” outside of the jurisdiction’s onerous taxes.

Progressives want everything to be about social justice and race, and nothing to be about economics or the perverse incentives created by well-intentioned government programs. Both things can be true: Eric Garner was a victim of excessive force by above-the-law police and he was also the victim of the tragic unintended consequences that often arise when black markets emerge in response to bad policy. This is not complicated, but judging by the left’s reaction, I guess it is.