Thursday, August 21, 2008

Never Mind Kansas -- What's the Matter with Thomas Frank?

Thomas Frank is the author of the anti-conservative screed What’s the Matter with Kansas? (released in Europe as What’s the Matter with America?, which suggests to me that Kansas wasn’t all that aberrant after all). He likes anti-conservative conspiracy theories, particularly anti-market ones.

Virtually every column he writes takes one of two juvenile forms: either he (1) accuses conservatives of deliberately harming people or screwing things up to advance their sinister agenda or, even more annoyingly, (2) picks some bizarre boondoggle associated with Republican politicians but in no logical way an outgrowth of conservative (and certainly not free-market) ideology (waste and ineptitude at the Department of Labor, in one recent column), then claims, like a child yelling “Tag! You’re it!” that since the boondoggle is nominally “conservative” (or in the case of the Department of Labor, was merely spoken of in a positive way once by religious-right activist Paul Weyrich), said boondoggle is not merely conservative but in fact a perfect representation of conservatism at its best, thus proving all conservatives (like me) to be evil morons (like Thomas Frank).

If you don’t think I’ve got his formula pegged, check out his August 6, 2008 Wall Street Journal column (he does this over and over again — and on a slightly more abstract note, check out his column from yesterday lamenting the creation of a Milton Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago).

If he really believes, though, in constant sinister calculations by conservatives (who always get exactly the results they wanted in the political realm!), I have a great conspiracy theory for him: I think the Wall Street Journal hired him as the ongoing default left-wing columnist precisely to remind their right-leaning readers what complete idiots there are on the left. (Has it never crossed your mind that this might be why you were cast in the role, Mr. Frank?)

Luckily, I am not the only one who has such suspicions about Frank — so too, I think, does Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, who savaged his new book (which is about conservatives being evil). Good for her — and good for the left’s self-improvement.

(One odd sidenote: Kakutani’s review of this dimwitted leftist may be good, but according to New York magazine, she shares a flaw with a free-market writer of my acquaintance — like Reason’s Brian Doherty, she has been criticized in print for making excessive use of the word “limn.” Coincidence?)


Todd Seavey said...

Brief note of apology: I now realize that if I had time travel powers like those of the Time Trapper (mentioned in yesterday’s entry) I could perhaps go back to 2003 and become the first person to use this title formulation in an anti-Frank piece instead of, say, the 6,000th or so.

JayMagoo said...

Mr.Seavey uses tortured logic, innuendo and name calling that would be the envy of any Republican, preacher, or conservative to try to find fault with Mr.Frank’s book. He does not use factual rebuttal. Mr. Seavy therefore fails miserably. He does call attention, however, to the ridiculously empty arguments Republicans, preachers, and conservatives use when trying to defend their indefensible positions.

E5 said...

How is Todd’s citing that Mr. Frank is using straw man arguments to attack conservative principles “tortured logic”?

Can you please dumb this down for me, Jay, I’m just a stupid conservative myself?

As it stands now, it seems to me that Todd’s point is that Mr Frank presents as part and parcel to conservative ideology, positions and policies that are not “conservative” at all… yet done by opportunists (who sometimes may claim – falsely – that their behavior is conservativeism).

An analogy would be that if Mr. Frank criticized Christianity based on the actions of a self-described Christian who blows up an abortion clinic, killing doctors, patients, staff, and bystanders. Now, before you accuse me of being a “crazy Christian” (not that you were planning on it, but you might), know that I am atheist and have sever criticisms of Christianity as well as most other religions – both for their attempts to influence public policy through the gov’t and for their attempts to indoctrinate people outside of govt. But regardless: when leveling criticisms of Christianity, or conservativism, to make honest arguments, one should make sure they are first correct in their definition of the object of their attach, and second, that they are attacking principles of this ideology, not behavior of people falsly claiming it.

But rest assure, no real conservative would be for a law mandating the left start using honest arguments… so Mr. Frank’s job seems secure.

MLS said...

The problem for Frank (and those on the left who despise the “free market”) is that they are simply wrong on the issue. Markets tend to deliver better than central planning. That’s an empirical fact. Period. Now, one can argue about the extent of the government or the balance of the mixed economy, but there is no sound rationale for HATRED of functioning markets. That’s a great emotional tool for socialists, but not for anyone serious about, you know, having society function.

I remember the year after Kansas came out when a former professor of mine remarked that Thomas Frank’s popularity is one of the better examples of a mathematically illiterate America. Maybe if Frank paid attention in algebra class instead of hating his rich parents, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting’s book of the month club could focus more time on David Brock’s latest masterpiece.

John said...

Incidentally I caught about 15 minutes of Mr. Frank on CSPAN last night talking about his new book before my TV started to short circuit (granted, this may be partially due to the fact that said TV is wood-panelled and about 18 years old and not entirely due to Frank’s irritating sophistry).

At any rate, every word Frank said fits perfectly into Mr. Seavey’s assessment of his modus operandi. The one example that I am unfortunate enough to remember was Frank saying that “no-bid contracts” handed out by the government is the ESSENCE of free markets. Haha!

He continued on to say that even though Bush has increased gov’t spending enormously, the number of actual bureaucrats has stayed the same because all this federal cash is simply handed out to politically connected corporations to do the stuff gov’t used to do. This is pure corporatism, NOT a free market nor conservative in any meaningful sense.

I should note that I’m not dogmatic about free markets and am basically a protectionist, but Frank’s line of reasoning (if that is even the right word) is patently disingenous. Good post by Mr. Seavey.

C Woodhall said...

I want to ask a question, but first I want to identify myself as a pro-free market conservative like Todd Seavey who wrote this column and like (some of) the people who have written their comments above. And as a pro-free market conservative, the time has come to ask – What’s the matter with us?

A corollary of the idea that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time is that you can’t make a living as a pundit making the same argument over and over again unless there is at least a kernal of truth at the heart of the argument. Thomas Frank’s M.O. is to tar conservative free market ideology by pointing out the failed policies of politicians who run as free market conservatives. But why, when real free market conservatism works so well, are there so many opportunities for Mr. Frank to do so?

The truth is that politians can and do get elected campaigning on promises to serve the free market, then throw those policies overboard once they are in office. For example, looking at the 2004 presidential race, which of the two candidates was more obviously the free market conservative? G. W. Bush got elected at least in part due to the support of voters of our ilk, yet the above column shows how easily his policies can be linked to crony capitalism (Iraq no-bid contracts), outright socialism (the prescription drug benefit program), and traditional style general governmental incompetence (whether in the DOL or FEMA).

In the 1970s, apologists for the Soviet Union, when confronted with undeniable evidence of human rights abuses in that nation, would claim that the abuses were not caused by Communism, but rather by policies that were adopted that were actually the opposite of Communism. Their line became, ‘it’s not that Communism has failed, it’s that Communism, in its proper form, has never been tried.’ Replace the word Communism in the above sentence with the phrase free market, and you get the conservative response to Thomas Frank. But the phrase wears thin the more often it is repeated.

In my opinion, the most important book of the 20th century was F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. In it, Hayek shows that the most oppressive policies of the Soviet Union were not due to a failure to implement Communism, but were actually foreseeable consequences of Communism properly understood and implemented as intended. As more and more self

identified ‘conservative’ politicians fail to realize the positive results of the free market they profess to support, is it time for conservatives to examine the fact that certain elements of human nature are not compatible with the free market in pure theory

or practice, and it is we who need to find a way to modify our most extreme views in some way that will make it possible for elected politicians to both survive and permit the market to perform with the efficiency that it is truly capable of?

Todd Seavey said...

The profound difference is that _regardless_ of whether Communism = communism, it can’t be reconciled with the laws of economics even when fervently supported by politicians and their supporters.

Free-market policies, by contrast, have _neither_ been much tried nor even much proclaimed, except in so far as someone like Bush tosses a few free-market comments into speeches amidst numerous manifestly protectionist or pro-government-spending comments, the latter more often the ones pursued by politicians.

If people actually started voting for Libertarians in large numbers or Libertarian policies were actually implemented in a serious way, one could then feel free to criticize negative fallout in a way analogous to the socialist experience. Until then, I don’t think the two stories are very parallel.

C Woodhall said...

Thanks, Todd — First of all, I agree with everything you say in that last post (I’ll bet $100 you will never hear that exact combination of words spoken on Crossfire or The O’Reilley Factor), but I’m suggesting there might be more to the story. You say Communism can’t be reconciled with the laws of economics. That statement is true (by any definition of the word true), but remember that laws of economics are not immutable like the laws of physics, but are attempts to describe human nature as it actually is. If all humans were free of pride, greed, and the lust for power, communism (or any of a thousand other utopian theories) would work just fine. Hayek’s accomplishment was to show how the existence of such human avarice will force any honest attempt to implement communist policy into oppression.

In logic terms, perhaps we can truthfully say, if A, then B. But if the condition A is an impossibility, the truth or untruth of such a statement is meaningless. Your statement: if people would vote for Libertarians who really implement Libertarian policy, good things would follow (I know I’ve paraphrased what you actually wrote, but I don’t think I’ve altered your original intent), is true, yes! So why is the totality of the American electorate (not a stupid group, in the aggregate, by any means – in the course of 200 years we have turned a nation insignificant on a global scale into a hegemon more dominant than any the world has ever known, and for the good of mankind, all things considered), giving only a tiny percentage to the Libertarian party?

Again I want to point out that the arguments in this post are given gently, from an ideological friend who agrees with you, and not by a foaming at the mouth type liberal who would probably by now have resorted to personal attacks against you. Come November, I will follow the advice you give above and vote for Bob Barr for President, and, in the meantime, I will do everything I can to convince anyone who will listen to do the same. But I have to admit that sometimes I feel like I am doing the same thing that Thomas Frank is doing: Screaming at the general public – Stop doing what you think is best for your interests – I know what is best for you – So shut up and do what I say!

Chris Ekstrom said...

The notion that a Kansas City boy like Thomas Frank has gone so wrong troubles me. The midwest is justly known to be one of our nations final redoubts of Americanism & yet this clown actually sold lots of books to coastal village idiots desperate to scold Kansas along with Ms. Frank. Perhaps the WSJ did hire him for a bit of comic relief; how about Paul Krugman next? (If the world has failed to end yet)

Todd Seavey said...

Today, as it happens, he has an odd new variation on that theme: a column in which he says Kansas is full of people like an underemployed Republican he met who prefers the Democrats on economic issues (and various others — not really sure why he’s stilla Republican at all, really) and that Obama should be more like that Kansan, which is to say, earthy and populist (not Republican):

More importantly, though, tells you that you can’t click on “Columnists” unless you’re a subscriber but in fact lets you read the columns as long as you know their URLs or enter them by another route. I’m hoping it’s the former part, not the latter, that gets corrected as a glitch one of these days.