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Thomas Frank and the Case for Actually Studying the Other Side’s Ideas

Tedious lefty scold Thomas Frank has today published an excerpt from his new book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule. The excerpt contains the unexceptional platitudes that one may expect from pens such as Frank’s, though there are a couple of interesting bits of ignorance worth noting.

1. Frank writes: “The government and its vast workforce serve the people: The idea is so deep in the American grain that we can’t bring ourselves to question it, even in this disillusioned age.” But as it turns out, somebody has questioned that, and in fact was awarded a Nobel prize for his work. His colleagues continue the inquiry, and there is an entire branch of economics dealing with the question. We have indeed  brought ourselves to question the unquestionable. Somebody with more than a passing familiarity with political ideas would know that.
2. And then Frank adds: “Fantastic misgovernment of the kind we have seen is not an accident, nor is it the work of a few bad individuals. It is 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.” There are a few people who consider the market the “ideal nexus of human society.” They are not the people in charge of the Republican party, or of the Bush administration, or of the GOP congressional caucus. These people are generally not in charge of anything bigger than the punch-bowl at the Ayn Rand fan club meeting, or even smaller outposts of irrelevance. Bush has been notable not for any kind of market fundamentalism but for the opposite: his big-government instincts — “We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move.” And those people who think that markets are the Platonic ideal of human society? They noticed. Bush and his administration can be accused of many things, but market fundamentalism is not one of them.
3. Frank notes with contempt that conservatives “they believe things that would get them laughed out of the American Sociological Association.” Frank believes that is a withering criticism, which is funnier than believing things at odds with a sociologist. This is progressive hubris at its self-parodying best and requires no further comment.
4. Frank does not seem quite to understand that his argument that conservatism is in thrall to anti-state fervor is directly at odds with his complaints about the spending, waste, debt, lobbyist McMansions in Virginia, lucrative contracts, &c., which he hopes to pin upon conservative ideas. You can’t have both a minimal state and gazillions of dollars in fat no-bid federal contracts. If Frank bothered to actually understand conservative ideas, he would find that those ideological conservatives who complain about Bush, and they are legion, indict him on big-government charges: prescription-drugs benefits in the case of the anti-statists, Iraqi nation-building for the Buchananite blood-and-soilers. Rush Limbaugh complains daily that Bush has failed to achieve his objectives because he has failed to act as the leader of a conservative movement.
One does not get the feeling reading Frank that he understands that there are stark ideological divisions within the conservative world and that most of those ideological considerations are more or less irrelevant to the Republican party as such, which is a political organization first and an ideological organization … not second, but maybe fourth or fifth.
5. And as for the literary quality of this endeavor, try to read this stentorian speechifying without cringing: “As we make our rounds of conservative Washington, we glimpse something much greater than single acts of incompetence or obstruction. We see a vast machinery built for our protection reengineered into a device for our exploitation. We behold the majestic workings of the free market itself, boring ever deeper into the tissues of the state. Ultimately, we gaze upon one of the true marvels of history: democracy buried beneath an avalanche of money.” You almost expect a Free Silver tirade to follow, don’t you?
In short, Frank writes badly about an ideology he shows no sign of knowing anything about. On the other hand, he does use the word “boodler,” which is lovely.

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