“The best government is the least government.” For decades, this maxim touted as a path toward individual freedom and choice has served as a guidepost for the Right, informing policies in all areas and especially, business. By no coincidence, Big Tobacco and Big Oil are among the industries that have benefited.
While it is true that the federal government can sometimes overreach its bounds, political freedom is now often understood as less government—a simplistic, fundamentalist sentiment that government is always the problem. This misguided idealism is demonstrably false, but how did it become so entrenched and so influential?
During the summer after my freshman year at Wesleyan University, in 1989, I had a chance to glimpse the spirit and backbone of this “free-market fundamentalist” message — along with the mechanisms for spreading it — at work.
A few months earlier I had stumbled upon an advertisement on campus for a political economy fellowship at George Mason University’s Institute of Humane Studies. This week-long series of lectures on economics and political liberty seemed right in line with my interests; the free travel, room and board gave it all the more appeal. So I applied and was accepted.
I enjoyed reading the assigned books and texts, but the lectures and discussions were odd. Instructors often interpreted the texts selectively, like a biblical literalist reads the bible, glossing over contradictions and extracting the pieces that reinforced a particular world view. This view, it so happens, was free-market fundamentalism: “The best government is the least government.” Indoctrination may be too strong a word, but it was quite clear that the seminar’s purpose was to prepare the program’s fellows to become ambassadors for “liberty” and to spread the word in our professional careers as “second-hand dealers in ideas,” as instructors described the noble possibility before us.
In addition, those running the program made it clear that a network of support, including financial scholarships and access to think-tank internships, would be available to those who continued this line of “scholarly” inquiry.
I knew something was amiss, but I did not see the whole picture. To be clear, some of the program’s ideas were sound. The lectures pitched the idea that market forces are powerful and can be underappreciated, which is true. They showed that bad, unintended consequences can result from government intervention in the economy, which can also be true. But from here, the pitch made a grand leap to free-market fundamentalism. The government is always the problem, always the enemy.
For example, prior to the George Mason program, I had read Alan Blinder’s book “Hard Heads, Soft Hearts: Tough-Minded Economics for a Just Society.” Among other parts, I enjoyed the section on acid rain that argued how reducing sulfur emissions that cause acid rain could be most efficiently accomplished by creating a market for pollution permits and steadily reducing the number of permits for auction each year. This idea, right-of-center though it was at the time, was particularly taboo in the context of the “liberty” seminars. The seminars treated pollution as if it did not exist or, if it did, would simply take care of itself as civilization advanced.
The seminars were similarly hostile to the idea that government has a fundamental role in deterring fraud. Prior to the seminars, I had also carefully read F.A. Hayek’s political classic “The Road to Serfdom.” I recall striking a particularly raw nerve when I used quotes from that book that directly contradicted the seminars’ lessons. From the old underlined paperback copy of “The Road to Serfdom” that I still have, I recall that this passage, “the prevention of fraud and deception (including the exploitation of ignorance), provides a great and by no means, yet fully accomplished object of legislative activity,” was most unwelcome. Other Hayek quotes arguing that environmental, health, and labor laws may well be worthwhile and fully compatible with a competitive economy raised hackles too.
By the end of the program, it was clear that the curriculum was designed more to help corporations fight regulations than to advance scholarly inquiry and understandings of political freedom. It was a thin scholarly veneer over a freedom fraud. That much I knew.
Had I known that the Institute for Humane Studies was generously financed by the Koch brothers as convincingly documented by Jane Mayer in her recent book “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind The Rise of the Radical Right,” the underlying rationale for the seminars would have been clearer still. The more a company is involved in making potentially harmful products, the greater the incentive to promote a “philosophy” maintaining that government regulations will only make things worse and will sacrifice liberty and/or lead to tyranny.
In Dark Money, Mayer notes that Charles and David Koch had followed in their industrialist father’s footsteps, both in expanding the petrochemical and refining businesses he had started and in dabbling in far-right political affairs. But it was in the late 1980s that their efforts became more organized under their new political director, Richard Fink. Fink sold Charles Koch on a grand plan he set forth in a white paper called “The Structure of Social Change.” The paper approached the manufacture of political change like any other product.
As Fink later described it in a talk, it laid out a three-phase takeover of American politics. The first phase required an “investment” in intellectuals whose ideas would serve as the “raw products.” The second required an investment in think tanks that would turn the ideas into marketable policies. And the third phase required the subsidization of “citizens” groups that would, along with “special interests,” pressure elected officials to implement the policies.
Charles Koch admired the plan and provided Fink with the resources to begin implementation. In participating in the “liberty” seminars in the summer of 1989, I was supposed to be a part of Fink’s first phase: a cog in the production line for the “raw products” of free-market fundamentalism. At the time, though, I was mostly unaware of what I had stumbled onto and how the program would ultimately fit into a large, multi-decade effort to change the way people think about government.
The full expanse of this immensely influential long game has become more apparent thanks to the public release of tobacco company documents in the 1990s and 2000s as well as the efforts of scores of diligent researchers. The Koch brothers have played the most critical role in promoting free-market fundamentalism, but they were not alone. Others, such as RJR and Philip Morris, either followed their example or worked alongside them.
In one sense, these efforts have paid off handsomely for the Koch brothers and other narrow interests who benefit from the corruption of inactive government. But there has also been immense collateral damage. A movement spawned to be programmatically against government ultimately undermines the institutions that are required to support political freedom. In Congress, for example, the Freedom Caucus displays a kind of “Jihad against government” that has contributed to legislative gridlock, to a growing frustration with our governing institutions, and now to a desire for Trump-like executive authority to solve pressing problems as a lone autocrat.
The Founding Fathers and political leaders from George Washington to Ronald Reagan have acknowledged the important role of government in promoting civil society and in protecting freedom. Going forward, we should take lessons of liberty from their words directly, and not filtered through large corporate interests—especially those prone to pollution or fraud.
Opinion by Christopher Arndt
(Edited by Cherese Jackson)
Christopher F. Arndt, author of The Right’s Road to Serfdom: The Danger of Conservatism Unbound From Hayek to Trump, is a former partner at Select Equity Group, Inc. He has served as Director of the New York Chapter of Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) and is currently on the board of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Action Fund.
Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University
Book: Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind The Rise of the Radical Right
Book: The Right’s Road to Serfdom: The Danger of Conservatism Unbound From Hayek to Trump
Top Image Courtesy of Christopher Arndt
Inline / Featured Image Courtesy of DonkeyHotey – Flickr License