A Politics Born to be Subsidized?

From Michael Lind’s NYT Book Review piece on Thomas Frank’s new book, The Wrecking Crew:

Frank’s analysis of why there are so many libertarian think tanks in a country with so few libertarians is dead on: “The reason that we have so many well-funded libertarians in America these days is not because libertarianism suddenly acquired an enormous grass-roots following, but because it appeals to those who are able to fund ideas. … Libertarianism is a politics born to be subsidized.”

Now, I’ll admit up front to not having read Frank’s new book, so feel free to disqualify everything I’m about to say. But it seems to me that Frank’s analysis of libertarian think tanks is crafty, clever, and not at all accurate.

Let’s start by recognizing a couple of things:

1) Many former Republican staffers are now lobbyists for corporate interests, and they trade on their knowledge of how Washington operates and their personal connections within government in order to secure favors for their clients.

2) Many free-market think tanks are funded in some part by corporations. Often, though not always, these corporations have a direct financial interest in some issue which the think tanks in question work on.

3) Most free-market think tanks tend to be more associated, at least by others, with the GOP than with the Democratic party. Some of these think tanks court the association; others try to avoid it.

Frank does a nifty job of conflating these facts. But I still don’t buy his effort to stuff libertarianism into his complaints about GOP mismanagement and corporate favor-trading. As I’ve pointed out before, none of the above means that libertarianism, or most of its professional advocates, partakes in or encourages the lobbyist-driven favor state. That free-marketers often work with, or try to work with, Republican politicians is a function of that fact that Republicans tend to be more favorable — at least rhetorically — to free market ideas. It doesn’t make those think tanks complicit in the handouts that are so often part of the legislative process. And there’s a difference between a staffer-turned-corporate lobbyist pushing for favorable regulation that, say, sets up some sort of market barrier for its competitors and a libertarian think tank accepting corporate support to do what it would do anyway: arguing that the government should, in general, tax and regulate less. Nor does the existence of non-profit advocacy groups, of any ideological variety, undermine or dilute free-market ideas; I doubt you’ll find a single libertarian who’d disagree with the notion that individuals and corporations should be free to donate their money to whatever causes, ideas, and institutions they approve of.

It’s also worth pointing out, I think, that the favor-state Frank seems to despise thrives best under the larger, more intrusive government he favors. As a friend pointed out to me, “Frank’s regulated economy appeals to those who are able to hire lobbyists.” In other words, because of the complexity and political considerations of the regulatory process, those who can afford to hire expensive lobbyists to bend it in their favor are most likely to support it. I’d be surprised, for example, if Frank didn’t support some sort of fairly strong action to address global warming; yet as Jim Manzi has pointed out, climate-change policy is rife with opportunity for corporate gaming (indeed, a lot of major corporations are already spending massive amounts trying to pass climate legislation they believe is in their favor). If Frank is really worried about the corporate-lobbying behemoth in Washington, it seems to me he ought to address the root of the problem: the government’s willingness to set up elaborate bureaucratic systems. The more power the government wields, the more influence rich corporations and individuals will seek over how that power gets used. Lobbyists and the selling of connections and influence are merely inevitable symptoms of a powerful regulatory structure.