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Free thinking?

A report on the recent Cato Institute conference in New York.

Alan Miller

Topics Politics

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It is becoming increasingly clear that President George W Bush and his team are losing favour across America – among Republican supporters as well as opponents.

Attending the grand Waldorf Astoria Hotel, New York, for an event entitled Policy Perspectives by the libertarian think-tank, The Cato Institute, I was impressed and surprised simultaneously. Kicking off with the keynote address was Tucker Carlson, host of MSNBC’s The Situation With Tucker Carlson and shining star of the libertarian media.

A fast-thinking wit, Tucker laid out some funny anecdotes from his youth and professional experience (he was the youngest host in CNN network history and has interviewed most big-name US politicians). Tucker’s main assertion was that the problem with Bush is that he is not an ideologue. As Bush cannot think systematically about politics and admits freely he ‘is not good at reading long books’, he is symptomatic of the broader problem that has affected Republicanism.

Bush has indicated that ‘Prosperity must have a purpose’, and that ‘prosperity uncoupled from purpose is simple materialism’ – which Tucker railed against, claiming that big government plans smack at trying ‘to make me a better person – I don’t want you to make me a better person’.

Contrary to Liberals, Tucker argued, Republicans deep in their heart know that they are wrong. ‘The Left believes in politics whereas the Right doesn’t.’ He went on to spell out how this is a problem for those who are committed to the idea of small government – how do they inspire people for less government as a rallying cry?

However, the real issue, Tucker declared, was that ‘Republicans have become perceived as being corrupt’. He lamented what he saw as the decline to ‘wallowing in the perks of power’ – a view suggested by David Brooks the day before in the New York Times (1), and the scandals surrounding such characters as the Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

This theme continued throughout the rest of the presentations. Roger Pilon, founder and director of Cato’s Center for Constitutional Studies, argued that the combination of the Progressive Era’s enthusiasm for big government alongside ‘no sense of larger mission’ of Republicans spells doom.

Bruce Bartlett, who was in the Office of Policy Development at the White House under Reagan and then at the Treasury Department until the end of Bush Senior’s administration, continued this line of attack – arguing that none of Bush’s policies make any sense politically and that they are all ultimately self-destructive. ‘Corruption’, he concluded ‘has become institutionalised’.

I was struck by the fact that, in describing the transition from Reagan to Bush Senior, nobody mentioned the end of the Cold War. Yet this was precisely the moment when competing ideas and broad, ambitious political projects became discredited. Moreover, once the conclusion was drawn that the very act of imposing our will on the world made things worse not better – the twentieth century revisited as the Gulag and human destruction – then it is understandable that there was a general retreat from ideology.

I challenged Tucker’s assertion that the Left believes in politics, suggesting that it along with the old Right had given up on the notion that humans can be a force for positive change in the world. In fact, human action is seen as the problem on all sides. While I think that Tucker is right that many see the current establishment in terms of corruption, this is more a reflection of today’s misanthropic climate rather than an active political critique. I suggested that we have – across all political hues – stopped trusting one another to make a difference. Tucker’s response was that this was only true of politicians and not ordinary Americans, who trusted one another just fine.

The lunch address was given by the entrepreneur Kenneth Langone, who spoke inspiringly of his background and work, his civic pride and patriotism to give back to a system that had served him well. He then went on to argue vehemently against New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer and his campaign of ‘smear and fear’, which had turned its attention to Langone while he was at the New York Stock Exchange (2).

I asked whether the reason why everyone is so eager to go along with the idea of corporate corruption is because we have accepted the premise that any big project or bold plan is ultimately inspired by greedy, selfish individuals. Perhaps that is why Spitzer’s investigations into corporate dealings seem to be so welcomed.

Unfortunately, the decayed view of human action is a real barrier to changing anything right now. While speakers called for some new ‘guys’ and ‘ideas’ they became quite disorientated around the question of what is to be done.

Developing a new critique that puts people first as history-making subjects is a precursor to any real change. That seems to be the real challenge of our times.

(1) ‘Running Out of Steam’, David Brooks, New York Times, 8 December 2005

(2) See ‘Bondoggle of a Case’, Wall Street Journal, 30 September 2005

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Topics Politics

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