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Perverting the Aim of Government

June 19, 2020 (1,374 words)

A few weeks ago Marc Thiessen devoted one of his Washington Post op-eds to the success of the recent SpaceX launch on May 30. It marked the first time in history NASA astronauts launched in a commercially built and operated spacecraft, on its way to the International Space Station.

Mr. Thiessen used this as an opportunity to trumpet the power of American free enterprise. He called it “one small step for man, one giant leap for capitalism.”

He reports: “It took a private company to give us the first space vehicle with touch-screen controls instead of antiquated knobs and buttons. It took a private company to give us a capsule that can fly entirely autonomously from launch to landing – including docking – without a human crew. It also took a private company to invent a reusable rocket that can not only take off but land as well.”

One can imagine conservative-libertarian enthusiasts across the nation, silently fist pumping and mumbling to themselves about government waste and inefficiency, as they read this over their morning coffee.

And Mr. Thiessen does make a very good case, rattling off a series of cost comparisons between NASA and SpaceX that can’t help but make one sit up and take notice. Even the non-conservative comes away from his op-ed feeling hey, government isn’t the answer for everything. Maybe the privatization of space travel is the right way to go.

taking some of the wind out of Marc Thiessen’s sails…

Then last night I was reading more of Rich People Things by Chris Lehmann, specifically his “The Lobbying World” chapter. What Mr. Lehmann has to say here about Washington lobbyists takes the wind out of Marc Thiessen’s sails. The case for free enterprise and privatization being an undisputed societal good is not quite as open-and-shut as Thiessen would have us believe.

While Chris Lehmann’s observations in this book are now approximately a decade old they still apply, and they still resonate.

“Some thirty thousand lobbyists clog the high-end restaurants and leafy suburban estates of the metropolitan world I live in. It’s true that the ranks of registered lobbyists number just over 11,000 – but lobbying, like the campaign fund-raising system, is a fungible thing; the majority of Washington’s influence peddlers are tricked-out nowadays with job titles like consultant, messaging strategist, or advocate – thereby sparing them the casual stigma of being identified with Jack Abramoff’s profession, and more importantly, the pesky disclosures that come with full certification as a lobbyist.” (page 145)

“It’s no coincidence that the great boom in lobbying has coincided with the consolidation of the Reaganite conservative revolution in the 1980s, as Thomas Frank has argued in his 2008 book, The Wrecking Crew.

On the face of things, this shouldn’t stand to reason. The conservative revolution was all about shrinking the size of the federal government, after all, and instituting crucial market-inspired reforms into the supposedly inefficient and bloated federal bureaucracy, such as cost-benefit analysis of proposed federal rules on private industry. “

“The Reagan White House even instituted a separate federal agency, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, granting affected industries the opportunity to reverse proposed new federal rules that presented too big a potential setback for their bottom lines

“The ideologically-charged brand of conservative misrule that has so deeply disfigured federal governance, is not, as Frank argues, the stuff of happenstance or personality-driven scandal. It is, rather, ’the consequence of triumph by a particular philosophy of government, by a movement that understands the liberal state as a perversion and considers the market the ideal nexus of human society.

“’This movement is friendly to industry not just by force of campaign contributions but by conviction: it believes in entrepreneurship not merely in commerce but in politics; and the inevitable results of its ascendance are first, the capture of the state by business, and second, what follows from that: incompetence, graft, and all the other wretched flotsam that we’ve come to expect from Washington.’” (page 148)

“Of course, the genius of the conservative regime that created this stupendously toxic lobbying climate is that most Americans who follow the doing of Congress in our context-challenged national media see something like the backward march of meaningful health-care reform and write it off as yet more evidence of the inherent inefficiency – nay, the actively evil nature – of government.” (pages 150-151)

If I read Chris Lehmann and Thomas Frank correctly, it’s the pot calling the kettle black for a conservative like Marc Thiessen to complain at this late date about government waste and inefficiency, when it was conservatives of the Reagan era that “disfigured federal governance.” It is conservatives who have facilitated “the capture of the state by business,” resulting in “the incompetence, graft and all the other wretched flotsam that we’ve come to expect from Washington.”

a thorough cost analysis is far above my pay grade…

It is certainly far above my pay grade to speculate on what impact “The Lobbying World” may have had on NASA’s expenses all these years. Such as the cost “per seat” to put an astronaut into orbit, or launch a kilogram of cargo, or any of the other line items Mr. Thiessen effectively chronicles in his short op-ed. As I just mentioned, the time may indeed have come for the federal government to cede the future of space exploration to private industry. Lord knows there are plenty of other pressing (and underfunded) social programs that government is tasked with helping to provide.

However it strikes me as a little disingenuous for a Washington insider like Mr. Thiessen to use this latest turn in the space race to continue his capitalism-is-great crusade in such a linear, blinders-firmly-in-place manner.

Visionaries like Elton Musk and Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson have taken a keen interest in space travel, and can afford to dump piles of their spare cash into the effort. But this this celebrity advocacy does not readily translate into a slam-dunk defense of the capitalist’s basic premise: Namely, that ownership of the “means of production” across our entire economy should always be left in private hands.

This is the heart of the national debate we are having – or almost had – about the “merits of socialism,” as it has been pejoratively labeled. The debate was derailed before it got started, simply by opponents invoking the dreaded specter of socialism. When what we should be talking about is something completely different. We could be taking our cue from the way Catholic social teaching has framed this contentious issue for about a century and a half now:

While acknowledging the important role of private property in a society that respects human dignity and is committed to human flourishing, experience has shown those lofty aspirations are actually thwarted when – in certain situations – ownership of the “means of production” accumulates in privately-held monopolies.

It’s disheartening when a smart, successful Catholic like Marc Thiessen doesn’t factor this aspect of Church teaching into his thought process. He is obviously a bright guy, and a very talented polemicist. If only he would apply his gifts to broadening public understanding, instead of stoking the partisan divide.

And speaking of that divide, it may be of passing interest to note my three sons are of a conservative-libertarian mindset. They are currently 28, 23, and 20 years of age, and they worship at the same ideological altar as does Mr. Thiessen. On those rare occasions when they are all gathered at the family abode, their passion over government waste and inefficiency reaches such a crescendo that I often have to step out for air.

(For the record our only daughter is currently 21. She is cute and charming and knows how to get things done in a “Legally Blonde” kind of way. And to her credit she shows no interest in political squabbles.)

Spinning the final query of Thiessen’s op-ed, I would say this: Private-sector innovation may be allowing us to explore the further reaches of our solar system, but that’s no reason to continue denying the obvious. There are proven pitfalls to the hands-off, business-friendly approach Mr. Thiessen favors, in vast and vital areas of our economy such as health care, the energy sector, and internet access.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
June 19, 2020

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