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    Should I laugh or cry?

    Eric links to a piece by Thomas Frank at the WSJ, in which he accuses conservatives of being too suspicious of Washington bureaucrats. Frank writes:

    Mr. Issa’s suspicions may be grotesque but they are also typical of the conservative movement. The government and its bureaucrats are, to the right, ever a malign force — jealous, power-hungry and greedy. But it’s hard to blame someone for failing after you’ve worked so hard to make them fail.

    But back in 2008, he insisted that “the problem starts and ends with the federal government.” Among other things, he charged, its regulators “weren’t just asleep at the switch but in many ways . . . gave the green light for these practices,” meaning the trading of mortgage-backed securities.

    On this point, at least, Mr. Issa got it right. The regulators did fail us. They were too cozy with industry and too blinkered by the free-market faith to see the reality unfolding under their noses.

    I’m not a particular fan of Issa’s, but I’m getting really sick of hearing about how economic policy governed by unbridled “free-market faith” is the cause of our current problems. What meaningful deregulation of anything has there been in the last decade–especially related to the housing market, where one of the big problems was insulation from feedback? And I don’t know that the problem with regulators is that they were too “cozy with industry”; rather, to hear the language they used and use, they seemed to think that pushing through their decision-distorting policies justified bringing in the private sector as “partners” when it was useful to do so.

    At least, my sense of mischief compels me to point out, Thomas Frank is an apt person to be counseling against being too suspicious. Those of us who subscribed to Harper’s a decade ago remember his piece on the soon-defunct band Yum-yum, in which…well, I’ll let the Reason piece that ran at the time tell it, since it’s online:

    In February, a new buzz about Yum-Yum started on e-mail listservs and phone lines among people who both knew the band and read Harper’s Magazine. The March issue of Harper’s contained a 10-page feature story about Yum-Yum, written by Chris Holmes’s childhood pal and former roommate Thomas Frank. Frank is a rising leftist intellectual star who edits The Baffler, a magazine of cultural criticism, and writes critiques of advertising and big business.

    What made this obscure failed rock band of interest to Harper’s? Frank had a theory about the band, one with which almost everyone who had independent knowledge about Yum-Yum disagreed. The Yum-Yum record, Frank postulated, was not intended as a sincere work of popular music. It was instead an ironic gesture, an attempt to “fake fake itself” (his italics). Pop music was the “fake” being “faked.” The album was, Frank asserted, a “critique” of “the pop-music industry” even as it was a product of it. Thus, the story fit well with the main mission of Harper’s: helping middle- to highbrow intellectuals confirm their inchoate contempt for the modern market order.

    By the time I got my copy of the March Harper’s, I had already heard, via e-mail lists or phone calls, complaints about the story’s dubious premise from about a dozen Yum-Yum-conscious Harper’s readers. The executive editor of Spin magazine, Craig Marks, was peeved enough to write in The Village Voice that he found Frank’s account “bafflingly misguided.” Marks suggested the real story was probably that “Holmes, too embarrassed to admit to his hard-ass buddy that…he actually liked girly-pop…fed Frank a steaming plate of cred-saving b******t. And Frank bought it….Now that‘s ironic.”

    If memory serves, the Harper’s article was even more obnoxiously smug than Brian Doherty’s excerpts would lead you to believe; nevertheless, Frank’s impulses are very easy to empathize with. (If you’d backed yourself into profiling your friend in a national magazine, wouldn’t you be looking for some way…any way…not to admit, in your head and on paper, that you’d discovered in the course of doing your research that he was failing in his ambitions?) But that didn’t make his view of things accurate then, and in a strikingly similar way, it doesn’t now.

    Frank tries to personalize the animus against Washington: “The government and its bureaucrats are, to the right, ever a malign force–jealous, power-hungry and greedy.” Okay, sure, there are some small-government types who seem to be fueled by resentment or uncharitableness; but I think it’s fair to say that most of us just think that expecting big government to work well (the way most of us mean when we say “work well”) goes against what we know about human nature. Which is to say, when you get a bunch of people–anyone–together where they’re mostly removed from scrutiny, then encourage them to think it’s their job to queen it over a population of 300 million, it’s not all that surprising that they start to think largesse is theirs to give and take at their own discretion.

    Or as Eric says:

    But if I may say a few words in defense of conservatives here, it would be that the government was never actually being run by conservatives, but by untouchable, unaccountable, and above all unelected bureaucrats. It matters very little who is supposedly in charge of them, as they can’t be fired and they often have more power than their purported superiors who have to run for office, and who dare not offend the movers and shakers in the bureaucracy.

    Even if through some bizarre miracle there were a libertarian majority in Congress, I doubt they’d be able to do much. Government would still fail to fix problems, and problems that government tries to solve invariably demand more government to fix. It’s part of the design.

    Added on 22 May: Thanks to Eric for the link back. In case I haven’t already linked to Classical Values enough this week, Eric put up a related post about whether it’s possible to define the “Republican base” usefully. I sincerely think it’s worth a read.

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