Selected Skirmishes: Kathie Lee & Me

Downsize these moral poseurs!


The cruelest among us were delighted when the homecoming queen of daytime TV, Kathie Lee Gifford, found herself in a bit of a stew over the child labor used to stitch together her affordably priced line of apparel. The pundits couldn't resist the visual: Priss Lady Perfect cracking the whip on hapless Third World laborers. "Work! Push! Cody needs a new pony!" mocked one.

Her public image as tattered as the meager frocks worn by adolescent seamstresses in Central American sweatshops, Kathie Lee did the noble thing. She traveled to Honduras to make absolutely certain that proof of age would be strictly required for entry to all work facilities. Then she jetted back to Washington, D.C., to engage the president of the United States in a sophisticated, far-ranging dialogue on the political economy of exploitation. The consensus solution: Stop the madness by prohibiting the exported fruits of child labor.

It was a gala press conference, and both Our President and Ms. Gifford certainly felt the Little People's pain. And that was a big turnaround for the co-star of Live with Regis and Kathie Lee.

But the hipsters who howl in ecstasy at the very thought of Kathie Lee feigning humanity for Camera Three are likely to be down at the bookstore putting Michael Moore's Downsize This! on the best-seller list. Such cynics, for all their scofflaw bravado, are mere romantic buffoons. Wrapped in a warm cocoon of self-righteousness, they believe that all of life is a morality play. It is an outrage to them that commercial transactions dominate our lives. It is an outrage to me that so many would put their public preening ahead of the welfare–and freedom–of their fellow man. The single best thing Kathie Lee has ever done for others is the one thing she never had to think about: making herself rich and famous.

As grotesque a thought it is to all involved, Kathie Lee and Michael Moore are the very snuggliest of bedfellows. Both tingle when enmeshed in a huge, indulgent conceit: that their public poses matter in real lives. Their passions are, in fact, so many harumpphhs of the idle rich and yawners to the world's down and out. In a delicious irony, however, both have something of substance to succor a modicum of poverty. It is as million-dollar corporate profit centers–TV shows, books, cruise-ship flacking, movies–that they have generated actual value for themselves and their fellow man. And it is only this commercial gross margin (exploitation?) which allows Kathie Lee and Comrade Moore to matter to anyone at all.

More power to them–not. Because, in fact, our do-right duo–wracked with the guilt of capital gains–yearns to seize so much additional power. Beyond what they might produce, beyond what they might donate, beyond what they might wish for, they extrapolate the indulgence of feel-goodism past their own portfolio. Ms. Gifford proudly lobbies for laws prohibiting imports tainted by child labor, while Mr. Moore snarls at NAFTA and GATT and any public policy that allows U.S. companies to import basically anything at all. Boffo! Helping the poor and oppressed by banishing their products from our shelves!

Like Gifford, Moore believes in a personal, meaningful relationship with the marketplace. If jobs are shifted from, say, autos, to, say, semiconductors, that can only be proof of the existence of evil. Only a bad man would want to take away the life we grew up with in Flint, Michigan, with Pop at the GM plant and Mom at home with the kids. Paradoxically, such a nice life was made possible by perhaps the meanest man of all times, Henry Ford.

It wasn't Mr. Ford's soul that brought the American auto industry to world prominence–it was his soulless efficiency. That this redounded to the (huge) benefit of his workers and customers–and the workers and customers of his many competitors–was ironic. Indeed, it is the central irony of social life that people do good by doing well. One of F.A. Hayek's great insights was his explanation of the chasm dividing "value" and "merit." The former is a product of forces not wholly within the grasp of any one person; it is what the "market"–consumers forking out–will bear. The latter is the goodness of a man; it is how well he behaves, holding all of us constant.

The idealistic boys and girls who dot the public stage and who inevitably dominate the media by striking moral poses will never tire of berating this state of nature.

But, as Hayek aptly posited, this helplessness in the face of market forces is the protective coating of a free society. Because the market allocates according to value, consumers realize their liberty. Better yet, merit is safely respected–as its own reward. When the rules are set such that values are allocated on merit is the instant I muscle-up to abscond with a charter membership on the Merit Board. Because the last place in the world any sane person wants to be is the island where Michael Moore gets to rig the leading indicators, and Kathie Lee gets to decide how much people are worth.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett (hazlett@primal.ucdavis.edu) teaches economics and finance at the University of California at Davis.