I have a tremendous amount of respect for Andrew Sullivan. His blog "The Daily Dish" is perhaps the finest one man show online, and he has contributed significantly to making blogging a respectable profession.
Sullivan's writing is beautifully clear, passionate and painfully honest, and one day, I'd like to be able to write like him. His perspective as a British, gay, conservative in America makes him one of the most interesting talking heads around, and I for one, could not go a day without reading him.
Sullivan's stern shift away from Bush Republicans has given him a home amongst liberals, but his brand of libertarian republicanism is far from the progressive thinking found on pages like these.
Last Friday on Real Time with Bill Maher, Sullivan stated emphatically (and rather loudly over Naomi Klein) that the current crisis on Wall Street "does not validate Noam Chomsky, this validates Ron Paul." Sullivan bared his oft concealed bullying Republican fangs, trashing the 'big government' liberal guests and claiming victory of his traditional conservative views. On his blog on Monday, Sullivan posted a YouTube clip of Ron Paul titled "Ron Paul was right," saying "I've never been prouder that I endorsed the only truth teller in this circus of lies."
Sullivan's argument (and Ron Paul's for that matter) was as follows: The general population is responsible for the crisis on Wall Street. They took loans they could not afford to pay back to compensate for declining wages from the 1970s onwards. "No one is ever forced to take out a loan they cannot repay," stated Sullivan. "If we actually had capitalism...If we actually had fiscal conservatism, none of this would have happened."
According to Sullivan, small government, free markets and personal responsibility are the keys to economic growth and prosperity, and neither the current incarnation of the Republicans or Democrats understand this. Markets function well by themselves, and the less government has to do with them, the better.
Sullivan's Friedman-esque world view is interesting, and his critique of the bastardized corporate socialism espoused by the Bush Administration is right on the money. But the free market conservatism he believes in works only in a fantasy world that has never, and will never, exist.
Naomi Klein, author of the brilliant Shock Doctrine attempted to set Sullivan straight, likening his views to idealists on the extreme left. "Where is this ideal capitalism of which you speak?' she asked. But Sullivan was having none of it, asserting as fact that capitalism was the best way to create economic growth ever discovered.
The problem is, capitalism in its raw form (a la Milton Friedman) is a totally mythological creature that has nothing to do with practical economics. The history of western economic growth is predominantly that of massive protectionism, central planning and government spending. As Cambridge professor Ha Joon Chang writes:
Most of today's rich countries deployed tariff protection for extended periods in order to promote their infant industries. Many of them also actively used government subsidies and public enterprises to promote new industries. Japan and many European countries have given numerous subsidies to strategic industries. The US has publicly financed the highest share of research and development in the world. Singapore, despite its free-market image, has one of the largest public enterprise sectors in the world, producing around 30 percent of the national income. Public enterprises were also crucial in France, Finland, Austria, Norway, and Taiwan.
One of the biggest protectionists in U.S history was Ronald Reagan, the so called champion of free market economics. In 1984, White House Chief of Staff, James Baker, bragged that Reagan had "imposed more import relief than any president since Herbert Hoover."
It is the dirty secret that small government conservatives refuse to accept.
In an ideal world, I too am a small government, fiscal conservative. I believe a mammoth state intervening in people's lives and businesses can be harmful, immoral and counter productive. But we live in a highly industrialized modern nation with hundreds of millions of people reliant on infrastructure and efficient planning. Without government, this falls apart (as we have seen under Bush), and therefore I regard myself practically as a big government liberal. We need a state, and we need it to work properly.
The argument as I see it, comes down to how resources are distributed by the state. Sullivan believes the state should not penalize the rich and tax away their money. I believe that most people with enormous wealth got that way with a great deal of help from the government, and should pay more tax out of gratitude and patriotism. Bailouts are common in U.S corporate history, and most profitable industries have been nurtured by the state at some point in time. Take the internet for example, a project funded largely by the tax payer, on which Sullivan makes a very nice living.
Perhaps he should think about that before railing against redistributive government policies, as in his alternative universe, "The Daily Dish" would probably not exist. And that would be a world not worth living in.
Ben Cohen is the editor of The Daily Banter and a contributing writer to www.espn.com and Boxing Monthly Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org