Peter Berkowitz’s column in the Wall Street Journal from a few weeks ago reminded me of an epiphany I received back when the New Yorker piece on the Koch brothers was generating “buzz.” (Okay, it was more than an epiphany; it was an occasion to throw a knife at the radio.) Berkowitz made the point that highly educated people say really dumb things about political movements, like the Tea Party, because they don’t know American political history. “Vast numbers of other highly educated people read and hear these dubious pronouncements, smile knowingly, and nod their heads in agreement,” Berkowitz wrote. “University educations and advanced degrees notwithstanding, they lack a basic understanding of the contours of American constitutional government.” The particular aspect of American politics that critics of the Tea Party ignore is the premise of limited government. “Far from reflecting a recurring pathology in our politics or the losing side in the debate over the Constitution,” Berkowitz asserts, “the devotion to limited government lies at the heart of the American experiment in liberal democracy.” It was the position of both the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists who differed only on how to prevent centralized government from displacing individual liberty. If more commentators and op-ed writers understood this starting point for the United States, Berkowitz implies, they would not be so dismissive of the Tea Party. The same goes for the way that Terry Gross and Jane Mayer discussed the anomalies of Charles and David Koch. Back toward the end of the summer Mayer appeared on Gross’s NPR show, Fresh Air, to talk about her New Yorker piece and again the ignorance of simple American assumptions was palpable – at least to my radio. At one point, after Mayer described the Koch brothers upbringing on anticommunism and opposition to all forms of centralized power, Gross asked:
So the Koch brothers were brought up by a father who was fervently anticommunist. They grew up with anti-government, anti-big state beliefs. How much of their work now in funding libertarian causes and anti regulation, how much of that do you think is just like personal political philosophy and how much of it is like, this will help my corporation make profits?
Mayer responded:
Well, I think there is no separation between the two in their thinking. They believe that prosperity will result for themselves and others, I guess, if you get rid of all kinds of state regulations and just allow the marketplace to bloom, as they would put it. They see both things as being united, really.
What threw me was the throwaway “I guess.” As if Mayer has been oblivious to arguments over the last three decades, from Reagan to Obama, about the way capital formation occurs and how sometimes, just a little bit, higher tax rates tend to temper investment and savings. Her “I guess” was a big “whatever” to a fairly simple truth about modern society, namely, that less regulation is good for business and what is good for business has a way of benefiting lots of other people. Imagine, for instance, all the goods and services that Lindsay Lohan creates through her limited talent – the hairdressers, the trainers, the cooks, the maids, the drivers, the photographers, the psychiatrists, not to mention the taxes she pays which help pay for the police who are always bringing her to court. Does Ms. Mayer really believe that the New Yorker would pay her as well as it does and give her the kind of space for her stories if it was on a budget like Terry Gross’? But aside from Mayer and Gross’s understanding of economics is the point that Berkowitz noted. Some of the the smartest people in the media actually reveal some of the greatest ignorance of the way America works. Berkowitz blames the universities for offering an inferior education. My own theory is that these journalists don’t get out much. I remember when some of them mocked president George H. W. Bush for not understanding how bar code scanners work at the grocery store. That may have reflected his infrequent presence at Piggly Wiggly. But at least he knew something – even if poorly executed – about the relationship between limited government and free markets. Ms. Mayer seems to think the enterprises like the New Yorker benefit from higher corporate tax rates and more government regulation, I guess.