The Agenda

Will Wilkinson on Contradictions in the Progressive Master Narrative

I was very impressed by Will’s thoughts on how wealth does and does not translate into influence:

 

Suppose I want to spend $250m to start a conservative Christian college. Or suppose I want to donate $10m to my alma mater to fund an endowed chair in sociology for study of the causes of American inequality. If you ask me, both of these count as political spending, in the broad sense. Suppose I want to spend millions on institutions that will aid the poor in my hometown. Will this not affect voter demand for overlapping taxpayer-funded public programmes? Is there any way of neutrally regulating large philanthropic gifts? I don’t think so. Even a total ban is not really neutral; it simply redistributes power to those with the greatest influence over government spending, and I highly doubt this ends up redounding to the benefit of the lower and middle classes.

In the absence of any remotely intelligible or feasible proposal to limit the unequal ability of wealthy people such as the Koch Brothers or Peter Lewis or George Soros to affect opinion through ideological institution-building, progressive commentators at ideologically progressive institutions are left mainly with the opinion-shaping tools wealthy progressive patrons have put at their disposal. That’s why, I think, we see very little principled criticism of ideological institution-building in general, but many breathless attempts to characterise Koch-style free-market, limited-government libertarianism as ideological cover for plutocracy or oligarchy or whatever. This stuff is about as serious as the idea that Barack Obama is some sort of crypto-Marxist, radical Kenyan anti-colonial egalitarian, but it serves its low purpose.

Although the premise that the wealthy conspire to promote their class interests is part of the progressive master narrative, many progressives—especially those in the can for the Democratic Party—don’t act like they believe it. They act as if there are good, progressive rich folks and bad, anti-progressive rich folks. In most tellings of the master narrative, progressive commentators opportunistically use class-interest rhetoric to discredit the small minority of wealthy people who build and support institutions ideologically opposed to the causes favoured by the wealthy people who build and support progressive institutions. Those wealthy people and their expensive repudiation of class interest are honoured by going unmentioned.

A truly coherent telling of the progressive master narrative would reveal how the apparently hot antagonism between, say, the American Progress Action Fund and Americans for Prosperity conceals a deeper, perhaps-unwitting symbiosis by which the Koch brothers and John Podesta’s mysterious billionaire paymasters in the Democracy Alliance combine to secure their advantages and thereby the demise of true democracy. I would be pretty excited to hear about that. [Emphasis added.]

I don’t have much to add. The operating assumption of many people seems to be that good, progressive rich folks are selfless while bad, anti-progressive rich folks are self-dealing, a stance that disregards the economy of esteem, the many different forms rent-seeking can take (subsidy-seeking vs. regulation-fighting), etc. 

Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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