Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Palpable Problem with Populism

George F. Will has a masterful article on the op-ed page of today's Washington Post. He takes to task the two leading populists of the Republican and Democratic parties -- respectively, Mike Huckabee and John Edwards -- for their ill-conceived political/economic philosophies.

Whenever I hear John Edwards' bugle call for class warfare, his self-loathing attacks on the rich (that is, the productive) people of this country, one thing repeatedly comes to mind: I have never been given a job by a poor person.

Whenever I hear Mike Huckabee make a similar appeal, I just think of that other politician born in Hope and realize he is a similarly empty vessel whose appeals to emotion and class hatred would embarrass anyone who could be self-reflective about them. He's not so much interested in doing the right thing as he is convinced that anything he does is right.

But George Will goes far beyond these visceral reactions of mine and grinds Huckabee and Edwards to dust with -- gasp! -- research and facts.

For instance:

[Huckabee] and John Edwards, flaunting their histrionic humility in order to promote their curdled populism, hawked strikingly similar messages in Iowa, encouraging self-pity and economic hypochondria. Edwards and Huckabee lament a shrinking middle class. Well.

Economist Stephen Rose, defining the middle class as households with annual incomes between $30,000 and $100,000, says a smaller percentage of Americans are in that category than in 1979 -- because the percentage of Americans earning more than $100,000 has doubled, from 12 to 24, while the percentage earning less than $30,000 is unchanged. "So," Rose says, "the entire 'decline' of the middle class came from people moving up the income ladder." Even as housing values declined in 2007, the net worth of households increased.

Any Republican planning to vote in the New Hampshire primary or in subsequent primaries should read Will's first paragraph about the winner of the Iowa caucuses and ask, Is Huckabee really one of us?
Like Job after losing his camels and acquiring boils, the conservative movement is in distress. Mike Huckabee shreds the compact that has held the movement's two tendencies in sometimes uneasy equipoise. Social conservatives, many of whom share Huckabee's desire to "take back this nation for Christ," have collaborated with limited-government, market-oriented, capitalism-defending conservatives who want to take back the nation for James Madison. Under the doctrine that conservatives call "fusion," each faction has respected the other's agenda. Huckabee aggressively repudiates the Madisonians.
Huckabee's slick exterior has tricked a lot of people into thinking he shares their values. Radio talk-show host Monica Crowley hit the nail on the head this afternoon, when she compared Huckabee (and other candidates) to the hokum Wizard in her favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz. Huckabee can be be all things to all people because he does it with smoke and mirrors. His down-home, aw-shucks manner gives people the option to think, "He's just like us. Therefore he thinks like us, believes what we believe, and wants what we want. And we want him."

Laura Ingraham put it well on her own radio show Friday when she responded to that line of "reasoning": I don't want someone just like me to be President; I want someone better than me.

Will's op-ed piece, headlined "Iowa's Histrionic Hucksters," reminds us of the paradox of populism:

Although Huckabee and Edwards profess to loathe and vow to change Washington's culture, each would aggravate its toxicity. Each overflows with and wallows in the pugnacity of the self-righteous who discern contemptible motives behind all disagreements with them and who therefore think that opponents are enemies and differences are unsplittable.

The way to achieve Edwards's and Huckabee's populist goal of reducing the role of "special interests," meaning money, in government is to reduce the role of government in distributing money. But populists want to sharply increase that role by expanding the regulatory state's reach and enlarging its agenda of determining the distribution of wealth. Populists, who are slow learners, cannot comprehend this iron law: Concentrate power in Washington, and you increase the power of interests whose representatives are concentrated there.

I truly hope Will's Sunday opinion article is widely read and well digested. (And, while you're at it, check out George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan's Outlook section piece, "5 Myths About Our Ballot-Box Behavior," derived from his book, The Myth of the Rational Voter. Without saying so directly, Caplan explains why so many people would cast their votes for con men like Huckabee and Edwards.)

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