Thursday, June 09, 2005

The Problem with Janice Rogers Brown

The problem with Janice Rogers Brown, who was confirmed to the DC Circuit yesterday, is a problem shared by many in the conservative movement: myopia. In particular, I think Ms. Brown and other conservatives who rail against concentrated government power and its risks give too short shrift to concentrations of power in other aspects of our society. Consider this quote from the Times article:
"We no longer find slavery abhorrent," she told the conservative Federalist Society a few years ago. "We embrace it." She explained in another speech, "If we can invoke no ultimate limits on the power of government, a democracy is inevitably transformed into a kleptocracy - a license to steal, a warrant for oppression."

Ms. Brown clearly believes that liberal governance and the administrative state that has developed since the New Deal is a form of slavery. Her concern? That the administrative state is too powerful and lends itself to kleptocracy. In my mind, this begs the question of who, exactly, will be the kleptocrats in her vision? Is it the people elected to run the country? Is it the bureaucrats who staff the government? Is it the citizens of this country?

It can't be the first or second, at least while they are in office or with the government, as there are specific laws and rules governing their behavior. Thus, for example, President Bush and Vice President Cheney, as much as they would no doubt like to be personally reaping the fruits of oil leases out West, cannot do so because they have had to put their oil company investments under independent control. Citizens - and by citizens I really mean the vast bulk of the electorate that doesn't have a financial stake or a means to influence most individual administrative decisions - won't be reaping many benefits from this kleptocracy that Ms. Brown describes. Who then, will be reaping benefits of Ms. Brown's administrative kleptocracy? Three words: corporations & wealthy individuals.

That's a no-brainer. You and I lack the financial wherewithal to game the adminstrative and political systems. Rent-seeking, as the economists, like to call it, is not an option for the average working stiff. Sure, we can join groups like the NRA, the AARP, the SEIU, or others, but while they may have some influence in shaping social policy, they have much less of a role in affecting the economic and resource policies which feed any kleptocratic system.

I suspect, of course, that Ms. Brown's concern is the "rent-seeking" accomplished by social interest groups. The article notes that she dislikes government regulation and dependency because she feels they threaten fundamental freedoms. Putting aside the question of dependency for a minute, though, what mechanism does she suggest will take the place of government regulation to prevent the formation of the kleptocracy she is concerned about? We do away with government regulation and the administrative state and what replaces it? The tort system? A unified electorate? Both of those options require far more money, time, and organization than I suspect most citizens have or can muster.

The regulatory state didn't appear out of thin air, you know. Nor did the welfare state. The regulatory state was an outgrowth of the anti-monopoly movement in the 1870s and the progressive movement in the early 20th century. It was formed to counteract the corrosive power of corporate monopolies and to mitigate the harm they caused to the American working class. (I know that's simplistic, but feel free to call me on it in the comments.) The welfare state, meanwhile, was created because the existing social and political system failed to provide sufficient wealth for most people to survive, especially after retirement. In an era of declining class mobility and only marginal increases in absolute wealth, I am quite certain that this may still be true in many instances.

So, history shows us that an un-regulated market place leads to monopoly and corporate abuse, and that non-governmental systems of social support and welfare fail to provide basic standards of living for retirees and the less fortunate. If that's true, then what will take their place? What mechanism will prevent the further concentration of power in the hands of corporations and the wealthy? What mechanisms will provide for some base level of welfare for the poor, the sick and the elderly? Do we just put up with economic abuse? Do we just let the poor and old die and fuckem if they can't feed themselves? I guess that's what Ms. Brown would like to see happen, because I haven't heard any suggestions from her as to what system she'd like to see in place. Unfortuantely, now that she's on the DC Circuit, I likely never will.