The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Conservatives don’t get that some problems are public, and it’s hurting them

William F. Buckley Jr. pictured in his office in New York. (Cynthia Johnson/For The Washington Post)

Conservatives don’t really get that some things are "public," and it’s hurting their ability to handle the challenges of the early 21st century.

Don’t believe me? The economics blogs were shocked last week at the idea that libertarian economist Milton Friedman’s macroeconomic legacy is missing from the conservative movement. So it might be useful to remember that one of the leading intellectual lights of the early conservative movement, William F. Buckley, got his start red-baiting the great economist Paul Samuelson.

In his first book "God and Man at Yale" (1951), William F. Buckley went through four of the new, post-war Keynesian introductory economics textbooks, paying special attention to Samuelson’s blockbuster "Economics" (1948), and accused them of preaching a "brand of collectivism." Buckley conceded that, when it came to them, one wouldn’t find "textbooks who advocated the overthrow, violently or otherwise of all vestiges of capitalism" but that "approach is not needed to accomplish, ultimately, the same transformation." Buckley listed all the campuses that were using Samuelson’s textbook in an appendix to help organize campaigns against it. Samuelson would later say "make no mistake about it, intimidation often did work in the short run" when it came to campus management and Keynesian textbooks.

So what upset Buckley about the book? Buckley didn’t like the various policy suggestions, like the support of inheritance taxes or an emphasis on checking monopoly power. He’s upset that the "economics of such men as Jewkes, F.A. Hayek, Ropke, Anderson, Watt, and von Mises" were absent, or only brought up to be discarded as strawmen.

But what really upset him was the idea that the economy was now a public issue. As Buckley emphasizes in his own paraphrase of Samuelson, "economics has become a matter of public policy, not individual action...Let us bear in mind that unemployment is a public problem" (italics in original) because "the individual firm, the individual himself, is powerless to cope with the complexities in times of stress."

That is true. Samuelson’s book uses the metaphor of a car lacking a steering wheel three times throughout it. For example: "The private economy is not unlike a machine without an effective steering wheel or governor. Compensatory fiscal policy tries to introduce such a governor or thermostatic control device." Though Milton Friedman introduced a lot of new tools and ideas, and ended up in a much different place than Samuelson (and was a hero to conservatives like Buckley), he too was part of this debate on how to best stabilize the economy. This stabilization could be monetary or fiscal, discretionary or rules-based, but the fact that the government was undertaking it meant that the overall state of the economy was a public problem.

One can spend an entire lifetime debating the distinction between "public" and "private," but for this post let’s use an approach from John Dewey. In "The Public and Its Problems" (1927), Dewey argued that the public is involved wherever an action between two people has consequences "that extend beyond the two directly concerned." Given "that they affect the welfare of many others, the act acquires a public capacity." And as such needs a public response. And conservatives reject this.

This is found across all of conservative thinking these days. For a few examples:

• When it comes to the safety net, libertarian populist Tim Carney argues that the federal government is way too big, and should only focus on defense and "maybe the safety net." Maybe? The current safety net provided through the federal government, in his mind, is better provided by private, civic "voluntary organizations." Even though this change would involve "huge disruptions" it’s worth it to remove the public role in the safety net.

• At a recent House hearing on poverty, Texas Republican Congressman Roger Williams asked if "a lot of this debate is the fact we’ve lost our family values? We’ve got single parents and so forth and we need to get back to that?" Charles Murray, in his recent book "Coming Apart" (2012), argues that a private solution of elites shaming the poor is better than any government response to the trials faced by working-class whites. Conservatives define equality of opportunity as simply equality before the law, meaning that equality of opportunity is presumed unless the government messes it up.

• Rick Santorum argues that even referencing the "middle-class" is "Marxism talk," and goes on to argue that the weak economy is because of people who "have all sorts of issues that they have to overcome to be successful." Back in the 2012 election, Mitt Romney attacked the President for discussing inequality in his campaign rally, because those conversations belong in "quiet rooms." These are examples of Presidential candidates taking important economic issues and placing them squarely in the private sphere.

Meanwhile, for liberals, inequality is a public problem. As President Obama said in his Osawatomie, Kansas speech, "this kind of inequality – a level that we haven't seen since the Great Depression – hurts us all."

How? President Obama gives a couple of targeted reasons. Huge inequality can make us more vulnerable to economic instability, and a weak middle class makes stronger recoveries and innovations less likely to happen. Huge inequalities can "distort our democracy," making it harder for government to answer the needs of the people. These supplement other arguments like inequality can cause severe deprivation, stigmatizing, unacceptable forms of domination and block equality of opportunity.

Those arguments are important, but he describes "an even more fundamental issue at stake." And here is the idea that "gaping inequality gives the lie to the promise that's at the very heart of America: that this is a place where you can make it if you try." Stagnation, entrenched multi-generational inequality, and runaway incomes reflect an economy where a rising tide doesn’t lift all boats and the rising from one class to another is next to impossible, causing a problem for everyone.

Conservatives spend a lot of time discussing how inequality isn’t as big as we think, or how the poor have a much better life because certain durable goods are cheaper, or how austerity and liquidation are better for the overall economy than stimulus. But what they really think is that these don’t belong in the realm of the public, and that’s the realm of policy.

But where does this leave us?

In so much as the economy and inequality is a public problem, the recent move to libertarianism among GOP insiders won’t advance them much here. To build on Matt Steinglass’ point, a lot of recent arguments for "libertarian populism" present corporate welfare and efforts to boost the situation of working people or combat inequality through public means as two sides of the same coin. If there’s no public, then the only thing the government can do is cause problems for individuals. If all the public does is suspect, there’s no honest conversations about how to structure markets to ensure better outcomes.

Meanwhile, as Josh Barro notes, the federal deficit spending kept the economy afloat, while local and state governments crumbled under the economic stress. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, inequality grows and median incomes stagnate. There’s nothing about the challenges faced by our economy in the early 21st century that allows us to retreat into fantasies of a purely private world.

And to bring us back to the beginning, it also means that the Federal Reserve’s policies are serving as a stand-in for bigger, ideological arguments on the right about the public and the economy. The argument coming out of the Great Depression, and it is a radical argument, that the economy as a whole needs public steering rather than an "invisible hand" still manages to confound many conservatives, who’d prefer to eliminate any notion of the public from their ideology.