Recently I went to a celebration of one of the founders of the federal agency called Legal Services Corporation, where I was reminded how much of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was supported, and even at times led, by conservatives. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, for example, convinced the American Bar Association to support the creation of Legal Services. I was reminded of a time when conservatives, on the whole, sought similar things for this country as liberals—albeit through different routes.
We have strayed so far from that path today we may never find our way back. We are witnessing an election where nominal conservatives are no longer seeking to build a better government, but are seeking to make the government so weak that it would have virtually no say other than the most basic police and military forces. These are not the anarchists who wear black and set fire to trash cans at demonstrations. As Jane Mayer, New Yorker staff writer, reports, these anarchists are the richest of the rich who, in a 1976 meeting of Libertarians, decided “to hide their true antigovernment extremism by banishing the word ‘anarchism’ because it reminded people of ‘terrorists.’” These more pernicious and sinister (to me) groups of extremely wealthy men (yes, men) understand that anarchy would result not in individual freedom, but in a few of the truly wealthy controlling every aspect of our lives and deciding in their palatial homes, far from the teeming masses, who among us would be blessed by their “charity” and who would be destroyed by it.
Mayer outlines not only the chilling story of the political rise of these wealthy extremists, but their terrifyingly successful campaigns beginning in the 1960s to turn what once was considered lunatic fringe political extremism into mainstream political thought. This book is about the Koch brothers, but it is about others as well. Mayer paints an alarming picture of how long these extremists have been working to roll back not just Johnson’s Great Society or Kennedy’s New Frontier or even FDR’s New Deal, but Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism. They want to go back to when there were no national parks and nearly everything was owned by the robber barons for whom people worked for days for pennies and who doled out charity as a form of control.
Even more disturbing is the evidence Mayer compiles of just how successful they have been in changing the political dialogue. The takeover of the NRA by gun manufacturers is just the tip of the iceberg. The anti-climate change campaign was virtually transparently funded by the carbon fuel industry. Even less obvious changes in general beliefs have been wrought as well. For example, most people today believe that a large part of the 2008 financial crash was the result of banks in conjunction with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac giving mortgage loans to low-income people. Most liberals think of this as an example of the “Big Banks” exploiting low-income people. In fact, as Mayer documents, studies proved that this was not a major factor in the crash. But this lie, which kept the focus on the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac loans, allowed banks to argue credibly that it was the government interference with the “free market” that caused the crash.
What does the future hold? The final chapter of Mayer’s book gives us a window into that as well: in the face of their 2012 defeat, the libertarian anarchists have decided to show a kinder, gentler side even though, as Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (a notorious conservative think tank) said, “I know it makes you [fellow libertarian anarchists] sick to your stomach.” Past masters at framing issues into vicious soundbites (remember when “entitlement” was not a dirty word?) that are repeated throughout our culture, they seek to promote the buzz phrase “well-being” as the goal of the libertarian analysis. “James Otteson, a conservative professor of political economy at Wake Forest University, called it ‘a game changer’ . . . recount[ing that] a prominent ‘left wing political scientist’ who ‘rails’ against Republicans and capitalism, had been so entranced by the idea of studying the factors contributing to human well-being that he had said, ‘You know, I’d even be willing to take Koch money for that.’”
This well-written book is a difficult read. Unfortunately, the inherent racism and sexism in this movement gets only negligible mention. However, so much of such importance to know is laid out and documented for all to see.
“Jesus said, ‘He who has ears, let him hear.’” (Mark 4:9)