Frankly Speaking

So, Thomas Frank, of What’s the Matter With Kansas fame, took a shot at “Beltway libertarians” in general and America’s Future Foundation in specific in today’s Wall Street Journal. I’ve worked for AFF for a while, and many of my friends are involved with the group, so I’m probably biased, but Frank’s column seems like a convoluted cheap shot that entirely misses the point. Here’s Frank, sketching out his thesis:

Here, in the very home of the taxing, regulating leviathan, the libertarian is such a commonplace and unremarkable bird that no one gives him a second glance. Here he is a factotum of the establishment, a tiny voice in a vast choir assembled by business and its tax-exempt front groups to sing the virtues of the entrepreneur.

And therein lies his dilemma. Almost by definition, our young libertarian’s job is to celebrate the profit motive from the offices of a not-for-profit organization.

That’s not entirely untrue. My day job is with a free-market advocacy group (not the first one I’ve worked for, either), and we do think the profit motive is often a useful motivator. But it’s not the only virtuous thing in the world, and you’d be hard pressed to find a libertarian — professional and otherwise — who says so. Most of us tend to think that non-profit work and private charity is, in fact, a really great thing — an antidote and alternative to government programs, not a cause of inner tumult. (I mean, look at me: Do I look conflicted?)

Frank goes on, describing what he heard at an AFF panel a few weeks ago:

The audience of young professionals learned about the need to find a job that you loved. It heard the inevitable complaint that “there are plenty of people who are choosing for-profit over nonprofit” when their heart tells them to do the opposite. A panelist asked the audience to imagine a foundation worker saying to his boss, “I love what I do, but in the end I’ve got a wife and three kids, and we live in McLean, and the mortgage is through the roof, and my commute sucks, or whatever, I need a little bit more cash,” only to have his employer turn him down.

What’s this got to do with anything? The episode he describes has rather little to do with anyone’s free-market purity and, instead, a lot to do with the recognition of a pretty obvious fact: Mon-profit work is often very personally satisfying, but it often pays less than the private sector, especially for the fairly well-educated cohort that tends to work at think tanks.

And then we get this:

Selling out is not a threat to the market order; selling out is how the market gets its way. Just look at the city in which all these remarks were made. Private-sector Washington is one of the wealthiest places in America. Public-service Washington lags considerably behind. The chance of ditching the one for the other is what accounts for everything from the power of K Street to the infamous “revolving door,” by which a public servant takes a cushy corporate job after engineering some extravagant government favor for the corporation in question – or its clients.

The libertarian nonprofits that line the city’s streets often serve merely to rationalize this operation after the fact, giving a pious shine to the policies that are made in this unholy manner.

To their credit, the nonprofit libertarians I watched the other night did not ask for sympathy. Their own doctrine won’t permit it. Having spent years urging lawmakers to wreck the social order that once made occupations like theirs tenable, they will cling stubbornly to their free-market idol all the way down.

Where to begin? You won’t find many hardcore libertarians amongst the ranks of those who hand out favors to the private sector from their government posts and then move into cushy jobs. You’ll find a lot of partisan Republicans, yes, but that’s hardly the same thing. Just as most progressives recognize the difference between a true-believing liberal and a Democratic staffer who takes a job at a corporate lobbying shop, there’s a similar difference at play here. In fact, most of the libertarian professionals I know abhor the way the Washington favor-trading industry works. We’re happy to see real free-market policies go into effect, but the rent-seeking that usually gets labeled “free market” by liberal pundits may actually be more frustrating to most of us because of the way it gets used to discredit our ideas.

As far as his contention that free-marketers have successfully worked to make non-profit jobs untenable, well, that seems pretty suspect. Scratch that, it’s flat out wrong. Without the explosion of wealth we’ve seen over the last three decades, there would be no ideological non-profit industry. Most of the major free-market institutions were started in the late seventies, and the movement has grown rapidly since then. There are far more jobs in free-market advocacy and policy analysis than there ever were before a few now-prominent think tanks — Cato, Heritage, etc — set up shop in Washington. (That’s true on the left as well; the last few decades have seen an explosion of jobs at environmental advocacy groups in particular.)

I can see that he’s trying to work his What’s the Matter With… shtick on young libertarian non-profit employees. Woe is them, for they only hurt themselves! But it just doesn’t work.

So what is it that Frank’s getting at here? For libertarians to be true to their ideology, they should quit their non-profit jobs and work in the private sector? No, that can’t be it. Libertarian policies have mean it’s not feasible to hold down a non-profit free-market advocacy job? No, that’s not it either. Maybe he’s just saying that many young professional libertarians in Washington are facing tough choices about their lives and careers. Well, sure, but that particular dilemma doesn’t make anyone a libertarian; it makes him or her a thoroughly average young urban professional, regardless of political leanings. And if that’s all he’s got, that makes Frank — perhaps unsurprisingly, given his track record — a pretty poor judge of the people on whom he’s reporting.