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Hullabaloo


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

 
The Right's "Crony Capitalism" dodge--and how it shows the Left is winning the argument

by David Atkins

There's been a tonal shift in American politics recently, but you would have to be paying very close attention to the conservative Wurltizer to notice it.

One thing you might have noticed lately is that while conservative hostility toward even the mildest Democratic principles remains at a fever pitch, the accusations of "Socialism!" and "Communism!" have been less frequent. A new term has started seeping into the conservative lexicon: Crony Capitalism. If you've been in an argument with a conservative on a newspaper website or Twitter, you'll probably have seen it quite a bit recently.

A libertarian PR guy did a series of marginally viral videos on The Kronies, taking pot shots at unions, Wall Streeters and Ethanol as agents of the all-powerful Big Government (no really, it's that juvenile) which has been the toast of the conservative blogosphere. Townhall had a piece on "crony capitalism" yesterday, accusing attorneys prosecuting asbestos and tobacco cases of being Big Government cronies attacking the poor smokers and housing manufacturers. This stuff is all over the place, and it's pretty recent.

A recent op-ed in the conservative Telegraph states the new conservative position most succinctly:

Real business people, who make their money in open, competitive markets, are entitled to their vast wealth but crony capitalists, who rely on state privileges, don’t deserve our support. The Left and the Right have both got it wrong here: the former wrongly attack all inequality; the latter wrongly defend all of it.
The blunt reality is that all societies are highly unequal, even supposedly communist ones. What really matters is the source of the inequality: are the wealthy rich because they looted everybody else, as was inevitably the case in feudal, pre-commercial societies, or are they prosperous because they profited from serving the needs of others in a competitive market? Is a society open to new talent and ideas, and encouraging of social mobility, or is it controlled by a small economic and political aristocracy that doesn’t let anybody else climb to the top?
Whether inequality is good or bad depends on the answer to those questions; merely bashing the top 0.1pc, as has become fashionable once more, is to substitute clear thinking for destructive, simplistic demagoguery...

This is what the likes of Sir Richard Branson, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or the financier Warren Buffett have achieved and their vast wealth is their just reward. We need more of these kinds of people and we must incentivise them to be as successful as possible.
Most business people and entrepreneurs in the UK fit in this category and, contrary to what many believe, finance, when practised properly, honestly and prudently, is a socially useful activity like any other and should not be singled out for opprobrium.
The second way that businesses and investors can make money is by getting the government to rig markets in their favour – by erecting barriers to entry to restrict competition, by providing them with cheap credit or by allowing them to use their political connections to grab contracts and other privileges. These gains are not the fruit of value-adding economic activity. Rather than helping to grow the economy, they often merely redistribute wealth.
There have been far too many examples of this kind of behaviour in recent years in the West, in Russia, in Latin America and in most other parts of the world. Tragically, our economic systems have been moving away from commercial relationships and becoming ever more politicised.
Get it? Our rich people are awesome. Their rich people are corrupt. And rich people in and around Washington, D.C.? Corrupt cronies.

Two things are going on here. The first is that Anglo-American kleptocrats feel very threatened by the even wealthier kleptocrats in Russia, South America, the Middle East and elsewhere.

But the second and more important development is the acknowledgment that the plutocrats have lost the battle of ideas. The injustice and inequalities of modern capitalism are so transparent and so grating that it no longer works to scream that wanting better wages or universal healthcare is "socialism." The word has lost its sting. Nobody cares anymore. If better wages, universal healthcare and higher taxes on plutocrats is socialism, then so be it. It could be Mithraism for all most people care. If capitalism is defined as a system in which wealthy corporations and their executives make infinite money even as wages for real workers fall, then capitalism starts to become a bad word.

That's a danger sign for the right. Government is clearly not the big bad wolf anymore, big corporations are less popular than ever, and people are getting angrier. Conservatives have lost the argument.

Rather than give ground and acknowledge the failure of their ideology, however, conservatives have a habit of simply changing the language and fighting back harder than ever. "Crony capitalism" is their parry and counterattack.

It's not that unrestrained capitalism is the problem, you see. It's that government favors certain corporations and not others. If we only had a true free market, none of this inequality would happen. This outlandish argument is very similar to the No True Libertarian argument in which every breakdown of government leading to violence and anarchy is dismissed is not true libertarianism. In a true free market, competition would somehow always prevent monopolies and workers would be well compensated. This clueless ideology conveniently ignores child labor, company stores, degradation of workers, murder of striking workers, pitifully low wages, animal cruelty, 16-hour days with 7-day weeks, indentured servitude, mass pollution and environmental destruction, vertical integration, megamergers, the historical inevitability of monopolies absent intervention, and so much more.

To argue that "crony capitalism" is responsible for the predation of the modern corporation and the impoverishment of the middle class is the desperate move of an ideologue whose argument has run its course and whose audience is no longer listening. It's the rhetorical move of a debater backed into a corner with nowhere left to turn for support.

It's an acknowledgement, in short, that the Left has already won the argument. All the Right has left is gerrymandering, legislative rigging, and firehouses full of corporate cash design to distract the voters.

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