What’s (Still) the Matter with Thomas Frank?

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008

In his new book The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, Thomas Frank cites a post-Katrina Fox column I wrote (one, incidentally, that attacks the Bush administration) and smugly refers to me as a “regular feeder at D.C.’s subsidized libertarian troughs.” The footnote cites my association with Cato, reason, Fox News, and “etc.,” whatever that means.

I’m not really offended by the description, though neither Cato nor reason gets government subsidies. I guess you could technically count a 501(c)(3) status as a subsidy, but neither Cato nor the Reason Foundation lobbied for or created that law, and I’m not sure it’s really fair to blame them for taking advantage of it. I don’t know if Fox News gets any corporate welfare. Probably. But then, now that he’s writing for the Wall Street Journal, Thomas Frank’s checks are signed by Rupert Murdoch, too. And I’ll bet his checks are a whole lot bigger than mine.

Frank’s reference to me is a tiny part of his book, and I’ll concede I haven’t read the rest of the book. I have read his prior criticism of Beltway libertarians, which as far as I can tell is that we’re walking contradictions because we advocate for free markets while living off of the welfare of corporate and private donations–and that without those donations, or in the free mark utopia we advocate, we wouldn’t have jobs.

To a certain extent that’s true. In a free market utopia, there would be little need for people to advocate for free markets. And in a libertarian society, there would be less need for libertarian advocacy. But the idea that there’s something inherently anti-market or anti-libertarian about advocacy groups because they’re funded by donations (as opposed to commerce) shows a fundamental misunderstanding of both free market and libertarian philosophy. There’s nothing anti-market about philanthropies, advocacy groups, the arts, or other components of civil society funded by benefactors.

But there is a fair amount of intellectual laziness in Frank’s swipe at me, which makes me wonder how thoroughly he researched the rest of his book. I’m hardly a foot-soldier in the Bush cabal of “wingers” (Frank’s preferred term) his book criticizes, and implies I’m part of (which is odd, given that I voted for Kerry in 2004, and have no intention of voting for McCain this time around). I do have a column with Fox, but I’ve used it pretty regularly to attack Bush’s policies, including the war in Iraq, his prosecution of the drug war, his contempt for civil liberties, and his imperialist ambitions when it comes to executive power, to name just a few. Sorta’ like Frank is doing with his column on the ultra-conservative Wall Street Journal op-ed page.

It looks like Frank’s research consisted of a Google search on anti-government reactions to Katrina, where he found my Fox column, did a quick scan of my byline, and felt he had enough to lump me in with Heritage, AEI, and the gang. A bit more research would have shown him that the issues I write about regularly are much more in line with, say, the ACLU than with Heritage or the Weekly Standard.

In fact, at risk of sounding arrogant, I’ll gladly put my own record of achieving real-world results for people without access to power and privilege up against Frank’s any day of the week. I think I’d come out favorably.

But there’s no time for nuance, complexity, or subtlety when you’re a good lefty lobbing ad hominem grenades at your perceived ideological opponents. We’ve learned that with Naomi Klein. Cato is Heritage is Reason is Fox. Neocons are libertarians are conservatives are the Christian right. Milton Friedman believes the same things Bill Kristol does. Attack their funding. Draw broad associations. See conspiracies at every turn. But whatever you do, don’t debase yourself to actually addressing their arguments.

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18 Responses to “What’s (Still) the Matter with Thomas Frank?”

  1. #1 |  Danno49 | 

    I wish your would-be detractors could make up their minds. Are you a peace loving, tree-hugging, PETA donating ultra-liberal or are you a war-supporting, Bush-schilling, drug warrior uber-conservative?

    I laugh real hard every time I read about these people who haven’t a clue as to where you really stand on the issues when trying to put a box around you on them.

    Nothing like knee-jerk reactions coupled with poor to non-existent research.

  2. #2 |  Bill | 

    Radley, no doubt in my mind that you’ve gotten more “real-world” results than this guy. But remember, if leftist writers solved all the problems that leftist writers complained about, they’d have nothing to write about, since they’d be living in a left-wing utopia.

    I heard this guy interviewed on NPR and he came off as a pompous “I know what’s better for you than you do” guy who thinks that his shallow understanding of the issues he talks about is much deeper than everyone else’s, but since he loves us so much, he’ll be glad to arrogantly tell us what we really mean to say. And he really didn’t seem to grasp that there was any difference whatsoever between a libertarian and a conservative.

  3. #3 |  Dakota | 

    IMO Pissing off both left and right hardliners most likely means you have taken the time to develop a meaningful political philosophy using thought and reason.

    Its way better then mindless ideologue who defends their “side” with religious vigor.

    Wear their insults as a badge of honor.

  4. #4 |  Chris in PA | 

    You forgot to mention that Thomas Frank is a smug douchebag, but that may have detracted from the emotion-free reasoning tone of your argument, so I’ll say it for you. :)

    Say what you want about people from Kansas, but they’re smart enough to know that a guy who writes a book called “What’s the matter with Kansas?” is not their friend.

    As for the shoddy research, I suspect this book was rushed out for the pre-election fervor.

  5. #5 |  TGGP | 

    Thomas Frank’s Kansas book is bizarrely accepted by both liberals and conservatives despite being completely wrong.

  6. #6 |  thomasblair | 

    I think of it like this: when they look at someone that does not fit neatly along the left-right axis, they get a “does not compute” error. To them, the world is binary – black & white, good & bad, liberal & conservative, right & wrong. Anyone with a carefully reasoned, nuanced position just doesn’t fit their model.

  7. #7 |  FWB | 

    If you haven’t read it yet, I suggest The_Cult_of_the_Presidency_. Bush’s imperalist tendencies and his behavior using unitary executive theory are not only not his, they are the democrats or more exactly the social progressives. Much of what folks like to claim Bush has done began with TR and Woodrow Wilson. Read the book. Come back and chat.

  8. #8 |  freedomfan | 

    Yup. This is another instance of the bipolar fallacy that divides the world into two camps on most issues and assumes that anyone who has said something in opposition to side A must therefore be a cheerleader for side B.

    This is a constant challenge for libertarians. For example, people assume that, when the Republicans are villains, then the Democrats must be heroes, instead of assuming more logically that the Republicans are villains and the Democrats are either villains, heroes or neutral, depending on the issue. (And vice-versa, obviously.) That becomes particularly noisome when one side’s view gets some publicity and people assume that the other side must have the opposite view (whatever that would mean) when, in fact, stripping away the rhetoric, both sides have essentially the same view. Or, one side is caught in a lie, so the other side must be telling the truth, etc.

    BTW, this is the same phenomenon that we so often see in in press accounts of justice cases. We hear how an officer works hard dodging bullets for the community, is a family man, etc. and we are supposed to assume that the defendant is therefore a bad guy, though the officer’s pillar-of-the-community status has no bearing on the disposition of the defendant. Or, we hear that pot was found in the defendant’s home, so we are to supposed to assume that he’s a drug user and that the officers are good guys who were justified in carrying out the violent military-style raid, even when the raid was never to catch a pot smoker.

  9. #9 |  Atabrat | 

    Your writing on no-knock raids alone slays most of what passes for journalism these days–let alone the lazy googlers–and it is a genuine service to the people and our society. Keep up the good work and ignore the no-nothing naysayers.

  10. #10 |  Atabrat | 

    Umm… that’s “know-nothing”!

  11. #11 |  wunder | 

    FWB –
    I think that Radley actually recommended that book earlier this year.
    And, yes, while Bush’s administration didn’t create imperial presidency, they have taken great advantage of it and (perhaps) taken it to new levels. Regardless of who did it first, there are still major problems with whomever takes this idea and runs with it, not the least of which is the likelihood that future presidents will only likely expand the powers further.
    The hardest part for me is figuring out which next president is likely to expand the powers the least.

  12. #12 |  ClubMedSux | 

    I have read his prior criticism of Beltway libertarians, which as far as I can tell is that we’re walking contradictions because we advocate for free markets while living off of the welfare of corporate and private donations…

    I don’t understand this. What’s anti-libertarian about corporations and/or private citizens choosing, of their own free will, to part with their own money in an effort to advocate for greater economic and/or personal freedom?

  13. #13 |  Helmut O' Hooligan | 

    I’d fire back Radley! Don’t let Frank do a Klein-style hatchet job. These two dimwits personify the kind of leftists that led me from leftism to a more libertarian outlook. They are so interested in choosing sides that they fail to see the complexities inherent in a libertarian outlook. They don’t want to take any risky positions because they might get applause from the “enemy.” Thus Frank links Balko to conservatives while the conservatives would probably label him (and me) as a “liberal wackos.” Actually, I view libertarianism as a pretty radical version of the liberal tradition, so that description might be apt.

    Recently, I’ve had some similar problems while debating the draft on a local blog (one of our local Democratic candidates proposed reinstating a draft and/or national service for “egalitarian” reasons). Some contributiors tried to make a (poor) populist case for a draft that sounded like Charlie Rangel’s. When I referred to the draft and national service as unconstitutional forms of involuntary servitude, the Progressives started making strawman insinuations about my patriotism that could have come straight from Karl Rove. And they did so without a hint of irony. Perhaps they’ve been reading Woodrow Wilson when they’re not visiting Michael Moore’s website. It was very, very depressing.

  14. #14 |  old | 

    Not sure why you call this fellow a leftist. He, seems to me, is more of the ‘I’ve got mine.’ political philosophy.

  15. #15 |  Bronwyn | 

    Sure you sound arrogant, Radley, but you’ve earned it!


  16. #16 |  Michael McAuliffe | 

    I’ve never been at ease with the whole overly simplistic left/right worldview. It reminds me of the “bi-polar world” views espoused during the cold war, in which nuanced self interest of non-aligned countries was dismissed in attempts to pigeonhole them into the Soviet or NATO camps. I, like many people lean left or right depending upon the issue at hand.

    I have been referring many people to http://www.politicalcompass.org. While not a perfect solution, it at least adds a y-axis of libertarianism/authoritarianism to the mix. After years of political schizophrenia which saw me moving between the Democratic and Libertarian parties, this site termed my views as part of the libertarian left, spot on in the chart point with Ghandi, ML King, and Dennis Kucinich. My poli-schizo dance ended, and I have been sleeping better ever since.

  17. #17 |  The Agitator » Blog Archive » Morning Links | 

    […] Thomas Frank: Free markets lead to low-income women consensual renting out their wombs to barren upper-income women. He find that icky. Let’s ban it! The free market stinks! Better the rich woman stay childless and the poor woman not get the extra income, lest we offend Thomas Frank’s sensibilities. But what do I know. I’m just a “regular feeder at D.C.’s subsidized libertarian troughs.” […]

  18. #18 |  Morning Links | The Agitator | 

    […] I am (not really) shocked that Thomas Frank would write something misleading. I mean, he’s never done it before. […]