Once again, not about nonprofits

Catching up on her New Yorkers, the Nonprofiteer stumbled upon Louis Menand’s review of a book by George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan, who argues that democracies are set up to produce bad policies.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, Professor Caplan claims things would be better if fewer people voted instead of more.  Moreover, those fewer people should have knowledge of economics–at least the micro- ultra-capitalist kind espoused by Milton Friedman and his Chicago-school buddies, not to mention by Professor Caplan himself.  This knowledge should be a prerequisite for having input into policy decisions and a voice in choosing the nation’s leaders. 

Menand does a fine job of analyzing and deconstructing this argument, but he misses one trick.  People who think political problems have economic solutions are called fascists–and that’s not an epithet but a definition.  The 20th Century provided ample evidence that fascism does not, in fact, make policy choices superior to those of democracy.  One hopes we don’t have to re-learn that lesson in the 21st Century.

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5 Responses to “Once again, not about nonprofits”

  1. Sam Davis Says:

    “Meet the new boss, just like the old boss.”
    –The Who

    I believe the position Caplan and others are taking is precisely that economic problems do not have political solutions, and that policies predicated on that notion constitute fascism or one of its close ideological kin.

    Fascism, socialism and communism are ideological cousins, with only minor differences between them. The best explication of this I’ve ever read can be found in Leonard Peikoff’s book “The Ominous Parallels,” published in the 1980s. Peikoff also gives a warning call about the political direction of the country, a warning that is even more timely today than 20 years ago. I believe the book is still in print.

    Recently, it occurred to me that American voters might be a lot less enamored of the policy proposals of leading Democrat and Republican candidates for president if they could see their policy prescriptions side-by-side with many of the policies put in place by Mussolini and Hitler. (Overt racism is not a necessary component of fascism, although it fulfills one of the pre-requisites, that of having an easily-identifiable “enemy.”)

    The parallels would be devastating – from Hillary’s health care proposals to McCain’s ideas about guaranteeing “clean elections and government.” And, almost all the candidates have identified an “enemy,” another of the litmus tests for fascism. Almost all of them certainly fail the “American first principles test,” which I define as policy proposals resonant with the ideals our nation was founded on.

    Of course, this is nothing new. Most leading politicians have, for the last seventy years, advocated managing economic problems and a wide range of other real or imagined human sufferings, through expanded, interventionist government. The manifestations of this go hand in hand. Domestically, the US has become a “welfare state” and abroad has morphed into a neoimperalist “warfare state.” Both flow from the same ideology of using government to “make things better,” a central premise of – you guessed it -fascism, socialism and communism.

    Nazis and Fascists in the 1920s and 1930s were rightly perceived universally to be evil, likely because they had not learned how to disguise themselves effectively. Today, their ideological offspring are disguised in America, wrapped in the flag, parading an endless series of crises before us, with the end prescription always being to give the political power elite still more power to manage our lives.

    The exact parallels to failed authoritarian experiments of the past are ignored. The obvious failure of pseudo-authoritarian policies in our own country over the last seven decades are ignored. We are encouraged, daily and regularly, by the media on all sides to view one set or another of these politicians as saviors who will rescue us from our world of suffering.

    This scenario has been played out as prelude to autocracy many times before, by Julius and Octavian Caesar, by Napoleon, by the Perons, and during the last century by our own American political leadership. Only the names have changed, the game remains the same. If this slide toward despostism continues, the only unanswered question is which “leader on a white horse” will be the one to finally seize total power and do away with any remaining freedoms and rights we have.

    The result has been tyranny every time before; unless trends are reversed, there is no reason to think it will be any different this time around.

  2. Anita Bernstein Says:

    I do envision Caplan and Mussolini disagreeing on at least one issue: the notion of free trade. Old-line fascists draw a boundary line around their own nation-state (well, maybe including Ethiopia too). The new-liners with doctorates in economics also fancy themselves defenders of individual liberties: “consumer sovereignty,” “revealed preference” etc. But on the whole, I’d say the fascist shoe fits.

  3. Sam Davis Says:

    The neo-fascists who claim to be defenders of individual liberty are, of course, nothing of the sort, as Anita Bernstein points out. Neither are the ones who call for “economic justice,” since this is also code for political solutions to economic problems.

    This issue does relate to fundraising, in the following way.

    As Tocqueville pointed out in his early study of American democracy, the typical New World response to a social problem was volunteerism – by individuals, by churches or by committees being formed to address the problem.

    Even the committees which were formed in those days to lobby government – the Abolitionists come to mind – tended to revolve around getting the government to stop doing something. In the case of the Abolitionists, they wanted a stop to legal sanction of slavery in half the country.

    Today, our culture militates toward looking to government to fulfill social needs, and provide funding for a whole array of activities that, a century ago and earlier, would have been handled by non-government organizations.

    All of those organizations conducted fundraising, quite successfully, although as I understand it there were few professionals at that time.

    The key is that individuals close to the locus of social needs came together to meet them, usually effectively and efficiently. The history and success of these early American nonprofits is now largely unknown, since their existence and success would doom the careers of many professional politicians and obviate the “need” for a massive nanny state headquartered in Babylon-by-the-Potomac.

    Those organizations represent a unique facet of “American first principles” that stands in stark contrast to the politically-driven, lobbyist-influenced, special-interest-group-pandering, inefficient provision of those services by government.

    The latter we may fairly characterize as being neo-fascist or neo-authoritarian, while the former truly resonates with “first principles” of the nation.

    Politicians defend using government to provide these services by invoking “democracy,” which any sober analysis of the Washington and state capitol process will show is a sham. The process actually is the organized looting of all taxpayers to benefit special interests, to the extent the special interest has influence on Capitol Hill.

    A wide range of special interests line up at the federal trough, many of whom would never survive if they were dependent on voluntary contributions.

    I believe fundraisers need to become better acquainted with the history of American volunteerism and philanthropy. Much of it is, as mentioned, unknown today – we tend to hear about Carnegie and Mellon and Ford, etc. – but not about the mutual aid societies, the local committees, etc., that were a major part of the overall picture.

  4. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Sam Davis: You misread me. I’m not condemning political solutions to economic problems but economic solutions to political problems. “The market” does not equal “the polis,” no matter how many times right-wing economists try to persuade us otherwise.

    Professor Bernstein: The distinction you draw about the importance of the nation-state in traditional fascism is a valuable one. Amazing how the economists’ tendency to give primacy to their discipline leads them to be a-historical, so that economics “demands” protectionism at one time and free markets at another–whatever tends to keep the ruling elites in power.

  5. Bill Dalton Says:

    Well, it’s always encouraging to see that we can come full-cycle in our
    thinking —
    and still make money at it by writing a book.

    Seems to me, that a similar argument raged throughout the whole time
    our Founders were struggling to write the Constitution.
    (At that time some felt strongly that only the landowners — and, I
    guess, slave owners ..– should have the right to vote. Personally, I
    think only those who wear headscarves … )

    B. Dalton
    Salem, Oregon

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