Today’s column was inspired by the latest twist in our still shambolic response to Covid — the continuing refusal of many Americans to get vaccinated and the insistence of some of them on swallowing horse paste instead. I tried to link this horrifying, if comic, development to the long relationship between right-wing extremism and patent medicine. But I didn’t have space to put this in the broader context of how money influences politics and policy.The simple fact is that none of us are saints. Even those who claim to be working for the common good can be and often are influenced by the prospect of personal reward. As conservative economists like to say, incentives matter.Indeed, it’s usually conservative economists who make this point most strongly. Half a century ago George Stigler of
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Today’s column was inspired by the latest twist in our still shambolic response to Covid — the continuing refusal of many Americans to get vaccinated and the insistence of some of them on swallowing horse paste instead. I tried to link this horrifying, if comic, development to the long relationship between right-wing extremism and patent medicine. But I didn’t have space to put this in the broader context of how money influences politics and policy.
The simple fact is that none of us are saints. Even those who claim to be working for the common good can be and often are influenced by the prospect of personal reward. As conservative economists like to say, incentives matter.
Indeed, it’s usually conservative economists who make this point most strongly. Half a century ago George Stigler of the University of Chicago published a hugely influential paper titled “The theory of economic regulation,” which argued that government regulators — like the boards setting rules for electricity generation and pricing — weren’t like the wise, selfless guardians of Plato’s “Republic”; they were human and hence subject to influence, which in practice meant that regulators were often captured by the very industries they were supposed to regulate.
It was a good point, if perhaps too extreme — regulators may not be saints, but they aren’t always purely creatures of self-interest either. But it was too narrowly applied. Stigler’s followers have used his logic to make the case against regulation, arguing that regulators will be corrupted by special interests. But why restrict that insight to government officials? In particular, why not apply it to their own political movement?
After all, surely the same logic that applies to regulators also applies to politicians and pundits, including those on the right who denounce regulation. And for that matter, it applies to intellectuals too, especially in those situations where the possible rewards for expressing the “right” opinions go beyond prestige and promotion into the realm of cold, hard cash.
And as far back as I can remember, the world of conservative opinion and thought has, in fact, consisted largely of bought men and women. (I’ll talk about liberals in a minute.)
I don’t think it was always thus. I’m not a huge fan of Milton Friedman’s legacy, but I do believe that he — and for that matter, Stigler — said what they did out of genuine, unforced conviction. Things have, however, changed since their heyday. In fact, they’ve changed twice.
First came the rise of “movement conservatism” — a highly organized set of interlocking institutions, all backed by billionaires and big corporations, of which the Republican Party was only one piece. There were also media organizations, especially Fox, think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and more. By the aughts (we never did come up with a better name for this century’s first decade), these institutions had created a safe space, a guarantee of a stable and fairly lucrative career, for people willing to say the right things — tax cuts good, regulation bad — and not rock the boat.
I never thought I’d be nostalgic for the era when big money ruled the right. But traditional corporate influence looks benign compared with where we are now. At this point, to be a conservative in good standing you have to pledge allegiance to blatant lies — Democrats are Marxists, the election was stolen, basic public health measures are sinister assaults on freedom.
Why are so many people who have to know better willing to go along with these lies? Again, self-interest — partly ambition, and yes, partly financial reward. Obviously the snake-oil industry doesn’t have anything like the resources of more respectable Republican-leaning industries like fossil fuels or tobacco. But it offers more opportunities for personal enrichment: Ben Shapiro is presumably well paid for hawking “superfoods” in a way he couldn’t be for, say, promoting oil wells.
OK, what about liberals? They’re people too, with all the usual human flaws; there are plenty of prominent liberals who I know personally to be driven by ego and to some extent by monetary considerations, people like … actually, not going there. But they live in a different environment from conservatives.
The old Will Rogers line — “I am not a member of any organized political party — I am a Democrat” — still applies. Political science research confirms that the Republican Party, and conservatism in general, is an ideological monolith, albeit one largely under new management. Democrats and the center-left in general, by contrast, are a loose coalition, and to prosper in that coalition you have to satisfy multiple constituencies. This makes it harder to sell your soul, because it’s not clear who you’re supposed to sell it to.
In the subculture I know best, politically active economists, those on the left, no matter how passionate they are about their politics — and no matter how self-centered — feel the need to retain academic credibility and, for those who do consulting, credibility with serious business interests. (See, I told you nobody is a saint.) Many of my economist friends look very favorably on President Biden’s policies, but they wouldn’t risk their reputations by claiming that Biden has Nobel-quality economic insight — or selling nutritional supplements.
So the blend of craziness and corruption taking place on the American right is special, without anything comparable on the left. Don’t both-sides this.
An oil field in the placenta.
According to Rand Paul, scientists advising against horse paste just hate Trump.
Hoping that New Orleans comes back soon.