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The Ignorance of the New Yorker

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09/17/2010Jeff Riggenbach

[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "The Ignorance of the New Yorker."]

"One can only shake one's head sadly at such a grotesque panoply of misinformation and outright falsehoods. One is tempted to dismiss anyone who takes it seriously as delusional."

The August 30 issue of the New Yorker contains an article called "Covert Operations," by Jane Mayer. As of this writing, halfway through September, the piece seems to have just begun to attract the attention of libertarians. But attract their attention it should, if only because it's an almost textbook-quality example of what happens when you try to write about libertarianism in current events without having at least a basic understanding of the libertarian tradition.

On the surface, Mayer's article is an exposé of what she takes to be the perfidy of the Koch brothers, Charles and David, "longtime libertarians," of Wichita, Kansas. Particularly egregious, in her mind, is the case of David Koch, who has had the sheer effrontery to move from Wichita to Manhattan and (please imagine gasps of dismay in the background) seize for himself "perhaps the most coveted social prize in the city," a trusteeship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, by the simple expedient of becoming what Mayer calls "one of the city's most prominent philanthropists." She writes that "Koch began giving spectacularly large donations to the arts and sciences" during the early 1990s. He "donated $2.5 million toward the [American Ballet Theatre] company's upcoming season, and had given many millions before that." Back

in 2008, he donated a hundred million dollars to modernize Lincoln Center's New York State Theatre building, which now bears his name. He has given twenty million to the American Museum of Natural History, whose dinosaur wing is named for him. This spring, after noticing the decrepit state of the fountains outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Koch pledged at least ten million dollars for their renovation.

Meanwhile, Koch had also made himself into an important "patron of cancer research, focusing on prostate cancer." He serves "on the board of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where, after he donated more than forty million dollars, an endowed chair and a research center were named for him." But wait, there's more. For "in addition to his gifts to Sloan-Kettering, he gave fifteen million dollars to New York-Presbyterian Hospital, a hundred and twenty-five million to M.I.T. for cancer research, twenty million to Johns Hopkins University, and twenty-five million to the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston."

Yet we must not be deceived, Mayer cautions. For lurking behind this façade of the public-spirited benefactor and leader of polite and civil society is an evil, antisocial monster, a man who is "out to destroy progressivism," and is secretly planning and funding its demise. His brother Charles, who at least has the decency to stay in Wichita, instead of coming to New York and trying to pass himself off as a well-meaning person of good character, is up to the same dastardly scheme.

In plain English, with all the muted hysteria removed, Charles and David Koch are guilty of using some of their money to fund organizations they think can help to advance the political ideals they believe in, even when those ideals are politically incorrect. This gross insensitivity to political correctness, this calling for "drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry — especially environmental regulation," is simply beyond the pale, of course. It's almost like publicly using the "N-word" or some comparable vulgarity. No wonder Mayer is driven to approvingly quote one "Lee Fang, of the liberal blog ThinkProgress," who "has called the Kochs 'the billionaires behind the hate.'" Expression of libertarian ideas, you see, is a kind of "hate speech."

All this is the rankest nonsense, of course. And it is so because it is based on ignorance of the libertarian tradition. It is clear that Mayer hasn't the foggiest idea what libertarianism is all about. It seems likely that she has made no effort at all to find out what it's all about. Instead, she has been content to go with what she thought she knew about libertarianism — which runs roughly as follows:

  • Libertarianism is a variety of conservatism; libertarians are, you might say, the most extreme conservatives.

  • We live in what is still, essentially, a free-market society. A few trivial regulations have been placed on big corporations in this society, after great and usually futile struggles by well-meaning men and women who hoped to protect the poor and defenseless from these rapacious corporations, but in the main, the free market is what we see around us.

  • Conservatives, who include libertarians, are working through such institutions as Fox News, the Tea Party movement, and the Republican Party to change government policy in an even more free-market direction. Conservatives want to cut back the pitiful handful of regulations the well-meaning men and women have managed to impose on big corporations; they want to cut back the few pitiful programs well-meaning men and women have managed to set up to ameliorate the misery of the poor.

  • Libertarians want to end these regulations and programs altogether. They want to do these evil things because they want the rapacious big corporations to have complete freedom to grind everyone else under their evil heel. These rapacious big corporations want free-market policies because free-market policies will guarantee them bigger profits.

One can only shake one's head sadly at such a grotesque panoply of misinformation and outright falsehoods. One is tempted to dismiss anyone who takes it seriously as delusional. Yes, of course, something like this is what most Americans think they know about libertarianism. But this level of ignorance is simply inexcusable in an intellectual journalist: a person who writes professionally for periodical publication about recent developments and events in the world of ideas. Such a professional should always be guided by the knowledge that there is always more to any given thing than meets the eye — particularly the uninformed, casually glancing eye. It is part of the job of the intellectual journalist to provide an accurate, if perhaps somewhat oversimplified, understanding of ideas that are commonly misunderstood.

Yet Jane Mayer skips along blithely, promoting further misunderstanding. She writes, for example, of how "Charles and David Koch were particularly influenced by the work of Friedrich von Hayek," and notes that there is little surprising in this, since "Hayek's belief in unfettered capitalism has proved inspirational to many conservatives."

She sees the Koch brothers as representative in a way of a recent trend. "In recent decades," she writes, "members of several industrial dynasties have spent parts of their fortunes on a conservative agenda." She describes several planks in the 1980 Libertarian Party platform, the platform on which David Koch ran for vice president of the United States, which she takes as emblematic of the larger libertarian movement of the time, and notes that "William F. Buckley, Jr., a more traditional conservative, called the movement 'Anarcho-Totalitarianism.'" Then, in what can only be called a pièce de résistance of cluelessness, she describes the libertarian movement as "a pro-corporate movement."

This would be laughable, I suppose, if it were not such a common misperception already, and if the repetition of it in the pages of a nationally respected magazine weren't likely to further perpetuate one of the great urban myths of the world of ideas. The tacit assumption here, as I noted earlier, is that large corporations favor a laissez-faire policy — that they seek a free market. In fact, the overwhelming majority of corporations, exactly like the overwhelming majority of individuals, do not favor a free market.

"The tacit assumption here is that large corporations favor a laissez-faire policy."

The overwhelming majority of corporations have never favored anything even remotely resembling a free market. They have favored a managed market, whether with themselves as the managers or with government doing the managing under their guidance and influence. It wasn't well-meaning men and women who hoped to protect the poor and defenseless from rapacious corporations that gave us the monstrous tangle of laws and commissions that now "regulates" business in this country. It was business itself that gave us these regulations.

In most cases, it was business itself — big business, specifically: those giant corporations Jane Mayer and her ilk are so afraid of — that wrote these regulations. Regulation of business in this country is and always has been a device by which a handful of big corporations dominate the market with the government's assistance, using laws to force their smaller competitors out of business and guarantee the big corporations stable shares of the market without the uncertainties and hazards of having to actually compete for customers.

As Albert Jay Nock put it, 75 years ago, "American business never followed a policy of laissez-faire, never wished to follow it; never wished the State to let it alone." As Nock saw it,

a policy of economic individualism … can not exist where the State makes any positive interventions upon the individual in his economic capacity. It can exist only where the State confines itself to purely negative interventions, such as punishing fraud, enforcing the obligations of contract, and the like. In this country the State has made positive interventions upon the individual from the beginning, in rapidly increasing number and variety.

And at whose behest did the state begin making these positive interventions? American business, Nock wrote,

has sought State intervention at every tack and turn of its affairs, often — in fact, quite regularly — employing most disreputable measures to obtain it. We all remember the cynical remark of one of our representative industrialists, that it was cheaper to buy legislatures than to buy voters.

Worse yet,

when the State made some primary intervention to confer an economic advantage — as in the case of our railways, for instance, — and its beneficiaries got into a tangle with one another over the use of it, the regular thing has been to run to the State for another intervention to straighten the tangle out. Then another tangle, another agonized plea to the State, another intervention which piled complication upon complication, particularity upon particularity … and then the same sequences, with ever-multiplying complications and ever-increasing particularity, repeated again and again. …

Who hectored the State into the shipping business and plumped for setting up the Shipping Board? Who pestered the State into setting up the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Federal Farm Board? Who got the State to go into the transportation business on our inland waterways? Who is always urging the State to "regulate" and "supervise" this, that and the other routine process of financial, industrial and commercial enterprise?

This was written, as I say, in 1935. It was published in a major American magazine and reprinted two years later in a collection of Nock's essays, Free Speech and Plain Language, which was brought out by a major American publisher, William Morrow and Company. Nock used the word "libertarian" to describe himself during this period, and properly so. He was personally acquainted with many and exercised a direct intellectual influence on most of the founding fathers and mothers of the contemporary American libertarian movement, which got underway in the 1940s, during and just after World War II. It is difficult to do much research at all on contemporary American libertarianism without at least repeatedly running across the name of Albert Jay Nock.

The same might well be said about the name of Murray N. Rothbard, whom movement historian Brian Doherty has rightly called "the most uniquely and characteristically libertarian of libertarians; the one whose influence explains most about what makes the ideas, behavior, and general flavor of American libertarianism unique; the most illustrative and paradigmatic of the foundational figures of modern libertarianism."

Rothbard took Nock's points about economic intervention by government on behalf of corporations and reintroduced them into modern libertarian discourse nearly 50 years ago in a series of articles that drew on historian Gabriel Kolko's then-current books, The Triumph of Conservatism and Railroads & Regulation. It would be pretty hard to put very much effort into even a journalist's quick study of the contemporary American libertarian movement without repeatedly running into the name Murray Rothbard.

There is, however, not the slightest evidence to support the claim that Jane Mayer, the celebrated and award-winning journalist, has ever heard of, much less read, either Nock or Rothbard. If she had bothered to read those two luminaries of the libertarian tradition, she'd know that libertarians have been denouncing government policies designed to benefit corporations since at least two decades before she herself was born. And in fact, libertarians have been denouncing such policies far longer than that. It is Republicans, not libertarians, who favor handouts to and special privileges for big corporations. And Republicans are not libertarians.

How should those of us who do know something about libertarianism respond to Jane Mayer's historically illiterate article? I suppose we might weep and gnash our teeth and tear our hair over the state of intellectual journalism these days. But perhaps we would do better to count our blessings, and remember that, as Oscar Wilde put it more than a hundred years ago, "there is much to be said in favor of modern journalism. By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community."


Jeff Riggenbach

Jeff Riggenbach was a journalist, author, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A member of the Organization of American Historians and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, he wrote for such newspapers as the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle; such magazines as Reason, Inquiry, and Liberty; and such websites as LewRockwell.com, AntiWar.com, and RationalReview.com. His books include In Praise of Decadence (1998), Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism (2009), and Persuaded by Reason: Joan Kennedy Taylor & the Rebirth of American Individualism (2014). Drawing on vocal skills he honed in classical and all-news radio in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston, Riggenbach also narrated the audiobook versions of numerous libertarian works, many of them available on Mises.org.