Monday, August 17, 2009

Schiff, the Libertarian

The last collection of Bill Buckley’s columns, “Happy Days Were Here Again” (note the past tense), is subtitled “Reflections of a Libertarian Journalist.”

The book is about pretty much everything that interested Buckley, which is to say – it’s about everything.

But the subtitle is telling: “a libertarian journalist?”

Who knew?

Libertarianism has gotten a bad rap because it has been purposely, maliciously misunderstood, usually by pettifogging statists, the sort of people who believe that that the bread one earns by the sweat of one’s brow would be ever so much more tasty and nutritious if it fell to humankind like manna from heaven; or, better still, if it were first collected by demagogues in Washington DC and then parceled out to us, with a sizable bite taken by altruistic congresspersons, presidents and supreme court justices.

The libertarian is the guy who thinks most of the bread should remain with the brow that sweats, which is not to say that the poor should be fed from crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table. The poor, the libertarian believes, should be given a seat at the free market table. He is also the guy who, Buckley-like, believes that no business is too big to fail.

“I desire, perversely,” Buckley said in 1981 in a commencement address at the Cornell University Graduate School of Business, “to sing a song of praise to failure; as well as, of course, to success; and to urge that we reappraise the dialectical voltage generated by these two polarities… Public policy must tolerate, indeed anticipate, economic failure (emphasis original).”

Buckley’s notion is that the dialectical paring – success/failure – is not a mutually exclusive one: To the extent that societies make failure impossible, they make success impossible. To put it in other words: Abolish failure and you abolish risk taking; abolish risk taking and you abolish forward motion; abolish forward motion and you abolish progressive civilization, with all its attendant ills, including rich folk huddled together on Connecticut’s Gold Coast.

These perceptions often drive liberals batty because they are unwilling to surrender what has been for them a successful political narrative, part of which is that rich people are all Shylocks eager for their pound of flesh and that wealth creation is a zero sum game: When the rich lose, the poor win.

Peter Schiff is a libertarian economist who attained a measure of glory three years ago by forecasting the economic crises now upon us. Donors to his possible senatorial campaign think he might be able to start a mini-revolution in what has been called hyperbolically the greatest deliberative body on earth after he unhorses U.S. Senator Chris Dodd, who is not a libertarian, which is why Schiff’s donors recently ponied up the goodly sum of $ 880,777 in a money bomb.

He’s also a great tease.

Though Schiff has stuck his toe diffidently in the political waters, he has not yet taken the plunge into a pool now becoming, for Republicans vying for a senatorial seat, crowded. Dodd, an old political war horse, faces Rob Simmons, a moderate Republican veteran of the U.S. House, Sam Caligiuri, a state senator who has billed himself, somewhat like Schiff, as an agent of change in an epoch that appears to be in an anti-incumbent mood. And there is even a woman gladiator, World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon, banging her shield and anxious to enter the fray.

Dodd, with a mild caveat, has been given a clean bill of health on U.S. Senate ethics rules violations by some senators who, poll show, are less trustworthy than clunker car salesmen. Though Dodd has been “exonerated” by his pals on the senate ethics committee, most of whom couldn’t find Al Capone if he were hiding under their beds, he has miles to go before he sleeps – and the woods are dark and deep.
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