Nader Goes Around the Bend
Is the anti-corporate crusader so left he's almost right?
Ralph Nader, the legendary anti-corporate crusader, is the father of many regulations and even more nonprofit advocacy groups. How odd that this liberal hero has authored a book that lavishes praise on right-wing stalwart Pat Buchanan and approvingly cites Grover Norquist, George F. Will, and the Cato Institute.
In Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State, Nader lays out an agenda to bring together conservatives, libertarians, and liberals in the battle against corporate welfare, rampant surveillance, and the military-industrial complex.
At its best, Unstoppable is a wonkish rallying cry for a much needed left-right convergence against the corrupt corporatist center. At its worst, the book is an object lesson in the deep-seated impediments to any such coalition.
The heart of Unstoppable is a 25-point agenda for left-right conÂvergence. But Nader's sense of what is plausibly appealing to conservatives and libertarians can be a bit off-kilter. Auditing the Defense Department, curbing corporate welfare, reforming taxes, and breaking up "too big to fail" banks-all of these could certainly find cross-ideological agreement. Indexing the minimum wage to inflation is less likely to meet with a warm reception among non-Democrats.
Nader, for all his outsider status, is a deeply political creature. And in classic Naderite fashion, most of his 25 prescriptions are political reforms rather than policy proposals. Some of them are very good. He wants to give taxpayers standing to sue in courts, "push community self-reliance," "defend and extend civil liberties," and rein in presidential war powers.
Unstoppable accurately diagnoses some of the venality of today's politics, including corruption on the right. Nader winningly groups problems under the labels of "corporatism" and "corporate/statism." He praises principled conservatives and libertarians, and points out how "conservatism" is often abused and twisted to serve the powerful. "The corporatist Republicans let the libertarians and conservatives have the paper platforms," but then they "throw out a welcome mat for Big Business lobbyists with their slush funds who are anything but libertarian or conservative in their demands." I couldn't have said it any better.
One sharp observation is how conservative rhetoric is used to advance stultifying pro-incumbent economic policies. "Since established ways and institutions usually reflect the existing distribution of power, wealth, and property," he writes, "conservatism has been associated with societies where the few dominate the many, ultimately through the use of the police force when all other silent and overt repressions fail."
This use of "conservatism" evokes foreign, nearly fascist, regimes more than American conservatism, but it also echoes New Left historian Gabriel Kolko's important and perceptive use of the word. Writing in the 1960s, Kolko authored a gripping revisionist history of Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressive Period, titled The Triumph of Conservatism. By "conservatism," Kolko meant above all the preservation of the status quo.
Nader is right: This sort of conservatism often trumps other conservative values, such as free markets, limited government, or the humility to eschew central planning. It's the kind of conservatism that championed, for example, the 2008 Wall Street bailouts. The financial industry's giant institutions were revered as accomplishments of capitalism and engines of growth, rather than being correctly pegged as government dependents.
When market turbulence threatened these Masters of the Universe, many conservatives fought to save them, apparently on the notion that longstanding institutions or industries automatically deserve government protection when times get tough. In the end, the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program didn't limit itself to the orderly liquidation of failed financial firms, but made sure to save Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and Bank of America. That's "conservative" only in the most crooked and Kolkoian sense.
Nader demonstrates how pro-market arguments get corrupted into pro-business arguments, and how conservatives and libertarians end up being dupes of the corporations. These are helpful distinctions for the center and left, and contain important warnings for libertarians and the right.
But Nader's whole project of forming a left-right convergence against corporatism often crashes against his bad definition of corporatism: "Corporatism or 'corporate/statism,' as Grover Norquist calls it, is first and foremost a doctrine of corporate supremacy," he writes. "Whatever advances that system of power and status over the constitutionally affirmed sovereignty of the peoples comprises the widening, all-encompassing corporatist agenda."
I define corporatism as state-industry collusion against free enterprise. It's a fairly obscure word, and so Nader is entitled to his own definition. But by totally omitting the central role of government in corporatism, Nader's definition fails to be a useful foundation for left-right convergence. This failure-unsurprising for a liberal gadfly of big business-infects the book and perhaps fatally undermines its mission.
For instance, in an important section called "The Hijacking of the Conservative Label," Nader details some "conclusory and provocative charges" that the corporatist right uses "to end deliberate, evidential thinking." His list of allegedly argument-suppressing lingo includes the phrases "free market," and "stifles competition."
So in trying to engage conservatives and libertarians against corporate welfare, Nader asserts that "free market" is just a buzzword that corporate lobbyists use to dupe credulous anti-statists. But when the economic freedom litigation firm Institute for Justice points out how food truck regulations "stifle competition," are they really just being "conclusory," and trying to "end deliberate, evidential thinking"?
Nader also derides the "right-wing, neocon, corporatist American Enterprise Institute." This mention caught my eye, since AEI happens to employ me as a visiting fellow, with the job description of writing and talking against corporate welfare and crony capitalism. I am called many names, but corporatist is rarely one of them.
My AEI colleagues include James Pethokoukis, who consistently advocates breaking up the big banks, and Ed Pinto, who crusades against Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and other mortgage subsidies. Kevin Hassett, who heads AEI's economics department, famously blasted George W. Bush for ethanol subsidies and oil subsidies, while also calling for a carbon tax.
Nader's calling AEI "corporatist," moved me to search AEI's website for the phrase "Export-Import Bank" (Ex-Im), a federal agency that subsidizes U.S. manufacturers, mostly big ones like Boeing. Of the 25 mentions of Ex-Im at AEI.org, I counted 19 as negative. The rest are either neutral or are written by Norm Ornstein, AEI's most liberal scholar.
Compare AEI's treatment of Ex-Im to the corporatist agency's treatment by Nader's publisher-Nation Books, a sister company of the The Nation magazine. In 2012, The Nation's George Zornick attacked "Far Right Republicans" for threatening to curb or kill the "important" Ex-Im," which "serves a crucial role in boosting American exports."
Along the same lines, Nader in Unstoppable repeatedly praises the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) as a scrappy opponent of corporatism. Yet in 2013, you could find senior PPI fellows telling Congress to create "a several-billion-dollar 'war chest'" for President Obama "to meet or beat any incentive offered to a company by a foreign government to lure production there." Liberal blogger Matt Yglesias rightly pegged this idea as "a large federal slush fund the executive branch can use to randomly subsidize politically powerful firms."
By making "corporatism" solely about corporations, and not about the unholy alliance between government and industry, Nader misses his own side's culpability in the latter. Advocating corporate welfare for U.S. manufacturers, just like erecting barriers to free trade (a prominent part of Unstoppable), involves harnessing government's power to save domestic manufacturing jobs.
Big-government populism and progressivism easily and often yields corporatism, which Nader seems to miss. In the opening pages of the book, he holds up Franklin Roosevelt as an example of anti-corporatism. This is the same FDR who gave us the National Recovery Act, an attempt to cartelize industry and protect big businesses from the nasty unpredictability of competition. FDR once even tried to move Thanksgiving earlier to please the retail lobby, which wanted a longer Christmas shopping season.
Later, in calling for left-right convergence on the environment, Nader praises "the legacy of conservative philosophers" and their followers, naming U.S. Forest Service founder Gifford Pinchot. Yet Pinchot epitomized Progressive Era corporatism. Historian Samuel Hays wrote in Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency (1959) that Pinchot's consistent "support of grazing interests did not arise merely for his search for political backing for the transfer [of forest land to the Forest Bureau he headed]. These attitudes revealed his basic view that the reserves should be developed for commercial use rather than preserved from it."
Nader doesn't understand that state power is the sine qua non of corrupt corporatism. In Unstoppable, he bristles at the suggestion. After knocking AEI, he lights into former Cato Institute president Ed Crane for pinning the ultimate blame on government. "Who started the merry-go-round?" of corporate-state collusion, Nader asks. "Can anyone think the state started this dynamic?" His answer: "Business tied to greed and power misbehaved long before Big Government started."
Nader's argument here is weaker than anywhere else in the book. He blames Wall Street, rather than central planners and self-dealing lawmakers, for creating Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. "Corporations have their own ideological imperatives," Nader explains, without providing any supporting evidence. "Governments, such as ours, are not of themselves very ideologically driven."
That seems backwards. Part of the problem with corporations is that they have too little ideology-they have only profit motive.
And Nader seems not to understand how K Street and Capitol Hill interact. Americans were appalled to learn in recent months about hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman turning members of Congress and the Federal Trade Commission against Herbalife, a nutritional company he had shorted. To Nader, this probably looks like a simple case of a greedy investor corrupting government.
But back in 2006, hedge funds were barely involved in Washington. Their political action committees were modest and their lobbying efforts were low-rent. Then liberal Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called together leading hedge fund millionaires and billionaires and told them to get more involved. So they did, tripling their political action committee spending and multiplying their lobbying budget by 12 (and hiring Schumer's top banking aide as a lobbyist).
Congress abused Microsoft in the late 1990s until the computing giant started spending more on politicians and lobbyists; it's doing the same to Apple now. Once Big Government ropes these companies into the K Street swamp, that's when the ugly corporatism arises.
Liberals can work with libertarians and conservatives for better policies. More importantly, libertarians and conservatives can learn from the likes of Nader. But first, they need to understand one another better-better than Nader, despite his decades of reaching across the spectrum, understands the right.
For example, here are four things Nader labels as quintessentially "conservative" in Unstoppable: the American Bar Association (ABA), Sandra Day O'Connor, Brink Lindsey, and John McCain.
To review this murderers row of right-wingers: Studies regularly find that the ABA ranks Democratic judicial nominees more favorably than Republicans. (The lawyers' lobby has also pushed for more gun control, gay marriage, and abortion.) Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on various occasions forced the Professional Golfers' Association of America to change its rules under the Americans with Disabilities Act and upheld campaign finance restrictions on political speech. Brink Lindsey, formerly of the Cato Institute, is a libertarian who has espoused "liberaltarianism" and wrote in this magazine that "a clear-eyed look at conservatism as a whole reveals a political movement with no realistic potential for advancing individual freedom." And John McCain? Well, there's a reason his fellow Republicans call him a "maverick"-his hobby is pissing off his own party.
There is undeniably a gulf to be bridged. Kudos to Nader for trying. But if his new book is any indication, Quixotic might have been a better title than Unstoppable.
Related Reason TV video: Ralph Nader on how progressives and libertarians are taking on crony capitalism and corrupt Democrats and Republicans…