Democrats have their Thatcher in El­iz­a­beth War­ren, if they dare

The Tribune (SLO) - - Opinion - BY GE­ORGE WILL

Mar­garet Thatcher’s de­scrip­tion of her­self as a “con­vic­tion politi­cian” alarmed some Bri­tons but de­lighted oth­ers be­cause her con­vic­tions were in­com­pat­i­ble with the flac­cid cen­trist con­sen­sus that had pro­duced their na­tion’s 1970s stag­na­tion. In 1979, vot­ers rolled the dice, send­ing her to Down­ing Street.

In Mas­sachusetts Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren, Democrats have their Thatcher, if they dare.

When elected leader of Britain’s Con­ser­va­tives, Thatcher, dis­gusted by a col­league’s rhetor­i­cal mush about a glo­ri­ous “mid­dle way,” slammed onto a table Friedrich Hayek’s tome “The Con­sti­tu­tion of Lib­erty” and ex­claimed, “This is what we be­lieve!” To­day, with a forthright­ness per­haps more brac­ing than pru­dent, War­ren ad­vo­cates a rad­i­cal agenda that is ap­prox­i­mately Thatcherism – cap­i­tal­ism in­vig­o­rated – in­verted.

War­ren is too busy in­veigh­ing against “cor­rup­tion” to de­fine it pre­cisely, but she prob­a­bly means what econ­o­mists call rent-seek­ing, which in the con­text of pol­i­tics means bend­ing gov­ern­ment power for pri­vate ad­van­tage, ei­ther by con­fer­ring ad­van­tages on one­self or im­pos­ing dis­ad­van­tages on com­peti­tors. Al­though War­ren’s in­veigh­ing is vir­tu­ous, her pro­gram would sub­stan­tially ex­ac­er­bate the prob­lem by deep­en­ing gov­ern­ment’s in­volve­ment in the al­lo­ca­tion of wealth and op­por­tu­nity.

She was a reg­is­tered Re­pub­li­can from 1991 to 1996 be­cause “I thought that those were the peo­ple who best sup­ported mar­kets.” To­day, she fa­vors “big struc­tural change.” Her Ac­count­able Cap­i­tal­ism Act would pro­duce the sem­i­na­tion­al­iza­tion of large cor­po­ra­tions, with fed­eral char­ters re­quir­ing (among other things) 40 per­cent of their di­rec­tors to be elected by em­ploy­ees. Such ac­count­able-to-gov­ern­ment (not to mar­kets) cor­po­ra­tions must have “a ma­te­rial pos­i­tive im­pact on so­ci­ety ... when taken as a whole.” This gaseous met­ric will be de­fined and ap­plied by gov­ern­ment. Such fed­er­al­iza­tion of cor­po­rate law would in­evitably be the thin end of an enor­mous wedge of gov­ern­ment con­trol, crowd­ing out mar­ket sig­nals. As would her Cli­mate Risk Dis­clo­sure Act. And her Amer­i­can Hous­ing and Eco­nomic Mo­bil­ity Act. And her Af­ford­able Drug Man­u­fac­tur­ing Act (gov­ern­ment-run pro­duc­tion of generic drugs).

What law pro­fes­sor Richard Ep­stein calls War­ren’s “sur­rep­ti­tious so­cial­ism” would, he says, “likely lead to the largest flight of cap­i­tal from the United States in his­tory.” For­eign in­vestors – do­mes­tic ones, too – will not want to put wealth in cor­po­ra­tions sub­servient to the po­lit­i­cal agen­das of gov­ern­ment. And the agen­das of var­i­ous “stake­hold­ers” deemed to have rights com­pa­ra­ble to those of share­hold­ers who ac­tu­ally own cor­po­ra­tions, and to whom cor­po­rate di­rec­tors have the fidu­ciary duty to max­i­mize their shares’ value.

Wield­ing one of the pres­i­dent’s fa­vorite ad­jec­tives “rigged”, War­ren says that to­day’s gov­ern­ment “works for those at the top.” In­deed. Sprawl­ing, com­plex, opaque, re­dis­tri­bu­tion­ist gov­ern­ment usu­ally does: It re­dis­tributes wealth up­ward to those – the con­fi­dent, af­flu­ent, ar­tic­u­late, well-lawyered – who can ma­nip­u­late its pul­leys and levers. By mul­ti­ply­ing those de­vices, War­ren would, in­ad­ver­tently but in­evitably, make gov­ern­ment even more re­gres­sive.

Al­though War­ren is crit­i­cized as “di­vi­sive,” se­ri­ous pol­i­tics should di­vide the polity by tug­ging its pub­lic ar­gu­ments up from the su­per­sti­tions and fetishes of iden­tity pol­i­tics, to the realm of ideas. Colum­nist Mur­ray Kemp­ton said that the sim­i­lar­ity be­tween Amer­i­can pol­i­tics and pro­fes­sional wrestling is the ab­sence of hon­est emo­tion. Not the way War­ren goes about it. She is a clenched-fist can­di­date, boil­ing with in­dig­na­tion and bristling with pro­pos­als, in­clud­ing some that are puni­tive to­ward dis­fa­vored Amer­i­cans. Most pro­gres­sives feel this way, but most vot­ers might pre­fer some­one who will lower the po­lit­i­cal tem­per­a­ture by low­er­ing the stakes of pol­i­tics.

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