Saturday, January 07, 2006

Libertarian Integrity for Sale, Cheap!

This article is going into this weekend's edition of Liberty For All:

My friends, we have arrived. Libertarians are so much a part of the political mainstream that we can be vital partners in even the most mundane political scandals. The fall of respected Libertarian thinkers Doug Bandow and Peter Ferrera in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal offers some important lessons for all of us.

Business Week started the ball rolling in mid-December by reporting that Bandow had been fired by CATO Institute, where he was a senior fellow, and the Copley News Service who syndicated his columns in hundreds of newspapers. In the wake of this news, the Future of Freedom Foundation also decided to server its ties with Bandow.

Bandow and Ferrera admitted to taking up to $2,000 a piece from Abramoff over 12 years to write columns favoring the business interests of Abramoff and his clients on various Indian reservations and in the North Marianas Islands. This is all coming out now that Abramoff is on trial for fraud.

The sin is not that Bandow and Ferrera wrote these columns. They didn’t have to lie in their coverage of these issues or say anything they did not actually believe to write them. The only mistake they made is that they did not disclose the payments in exchange for the articles.

Such disclosure could have been easily made. One simple sentence per article would have made all the difference between continuing as influential and respected intellectuals or seeing their distinguished reputations suddenly extinguished.

Ferrera for his part didn’t see the problem. “I do that all the time,” said Ferrera. “I’ve done it in the past and I’ll do it in the future.” His boss at the Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI), Tom Giovanetti, tended to agree. Taking the “everybody’s doing it” defense, he first said that critics of this policy are applying “a naive purity standard” to the op-ed business.

Since the Business Week article, IPI has issued a flurry of press releases trying to prove that they get it. It’s a highly amusing dance, considering that at the same time they are also facing hard questions about another op-ed payola scandal involving columns by their new analysts Susan Finston and Merrill Matthews supporting increased patent protections for the drug companies that employed them as lobbyists weeks earlier.

It’s a slippery slope, one I personally live on. I write articles in this space covering the Libertarian Party and its national committee (LNC), and I receive financial support from many people, including members of the LNC, so I can travel to their meetings and other events. There is a very thin yet very bright fine line between right and wrong here. I have announced from the beginning and made no secret of my support. By these rules of ethics, I’m barely on the right side of the line but enough to be considered perfectly ethical. Ferrera and Bandow kept their support secret, which puts them just barely on the wrong side of this line, and has given everyone cause to distrust them completely.

Ferrera explains, “It’s a matter of general support. These are my views, and if you want to support them that’s good.” That’s exactly how I feel too.

And as free market advocates, isn’t it all right and good that we sell our skills if we find willing buyers? It’s not a problem, in and of itself, when Finston and Matthews publish the same articles one day wearing a lobbyist label and the next as policy analysts. After all, their families have to eat and for all we know maybe they sincerely felt they could do more to honestly influence public policy in their new positions.

Yet there are limits to the free market, there are certain things that cannot be sold and retain their value. If writers show themselves to be without integrity, then their wordsmithing skills have no more meaning. If public policy institutes simply become a convenient way for lobbyists to give their views an aura of journalistic integrity, then all of their work becomes suspect.

Bandow admits his views changed once he was no longer influenced by Abramoff’s payola. Lately he has come to a more natural Libertarian perspective, that the Indian tribes he once promoted are really just another “well-funded special interest seeking political favors.” So while he was claiming to represent the Libertarian ideals of Cato when he wrote those articles, he was really representing the lobbying arm of Big Government.

Franklin Foer, writing for the New Republic all the way back on May 9, 2005, puts it very well. “There is, indeed,” Foer wrote, “a libertarian case to be made for the (North Marianas Islands’) exemption from federal regulation, although it’s hard to imagine such a case attracting so many fervent believers.” Foer points out the one-sided dishonesty of opinion that is purchased under the table. None of these Libertarian authors ever bothered to mention that exemption from federal regulation for the North Marianas includes the freedom of Chinese companies to import what amounts to slave labor to US territory, nor how keeping government off the backs of the Choctaws protects their insanely socialist government that keeps their leaders rich and their people poor.

An essential aspect of the free press is that it be independent. I’ve written extensively before that this independence should not be confused with objectivity. We can’t reasonably expect any writer or journalist to be completely without bias. But we can reasonably expect that every writer is speaking honestly. We choose to trust various pundits and organizations because we find their views consonant with our own. But if we later find that their views are controlled by the government or those seeking its favors, how can we trust anything they say again, whether we agree with it or not?

By creating false news stories and manufacturing false opinion, the government and those who wish to control it subvert the role the media is supposed to play in safeguarding our freedom. The most vital check we have against totalitarianism is an informed populace. Bandow and Ferrera have played a small yet significant role in selling out the people to government control.

This scandal runs much deeper than just a few articles or some special favors for a particular special interest. Abramoff has promised to tell all as part of his plea bargain, which has the President and dozens members of Congress scrambling to rid themselves of any donations that may be linked to him and his front groups. This comes on the heels of similar revelations of payola deals between our government and the Iraqi press to plant pro-US stories there.

This may be a coincidence, but I was curious to find the last article Bandow had published while he still retained his good name. It appeared in the Japan Times on December 15th, the day before the Business Week story. The article, “Iraq has been and will be a U.S. problem,” states the plain yet little mentioned fact that the other nations of the world have little interest in helping us clean up the mess in Iraq that we made all on our own and despite their warnings against our actions at the time.

Bandow takes a rather wistful approach to the subject. He says, “No nation is lurking around the corner to bail out the U.S. as the U.S. has so often bailed out other nations.” By making his point he means to divert our attention from the growing pressure on President Bush to articulate an exit strategy. “There are many reasons to favor an expeditious U.S. withdrawal from Iraq,” Bandow writes, “ but set aside that debate.”

It’s hard to understand this view from any Libertarian perspective. But it will all make sense if it turns out this article was connected to our government’s efforts to plant favorable stories about the war at home and abroad.

Foer’s article indicates that there are still more shoes to drop in this affair. He also names highly respected Libertarian author Clint Bolick as a recipient of Abramoff’s largesse, and traces most of this activity back to Abramoff’s relationship with anti-tax crusader Grover Nordquist and his Americans for Tax Reform. It is curious that this story sat for six months in the New Republic before producing consequences. It’s only a matter of time before the mainstream media picks up on the rest of Foer’s revelations.

We knew this would happen. Indeed, in a sense we hoped it would. We are big enough now to be bought off, to be offered the temptations of corruption.

This is the point where we have to ask ourselves, what are we doing here? Is it enough that our opinions now matter to the establishment? That we can play a role in changing little bits of public policy here and there for the better?

Or do we still believe that government itself must fundamentally change to restore Liberty to the people?

For myself, it is not enough to convince government to have the right policies controlling gambling or pharmaceuticals. We need to take that power away from government entirely. If we let them keep control of every aspect of commerce, the right policy is but a short lived phenomenon. If control of commerce is returned to the people, we can all enjoy the blessings of liberty for generations.

It is true that if the Libertarian Party is to become truly competitive, we would do well to examine the examples of the Democrats and Republicans and take from them the tactics that have made them so successful. However we have trouble sometimes determining which of their methods truly further our goals.

The test can be found in the simple rules of honor. We can and should raise a lot of money and employ many standard electioneering tactics to create a loud public policy voice and make Libertarian candidates competitive. All these things can be done without having to lie, cheat or steal. But if we stoop to the deception and corruption of our opponents, we quickly become no better than they are even if we still profess Libertarian beliefs.

One of the few selling points we have as Libertarians is our integrity. We are the lone voice of reason and common sense in a world of deception. As the liberals like to say, we are the only ones left with the guts to speak truth to power. People like that about us. Why else would people come over to our side when we not only don’t have the power to grant government favors, we expressly want to dismantle the entire system of special interest politics. We don’t offer temptation, only freedom.

Or at least that’s what we would like to think. If we suffer through enough examples such as Bandow’s, then we will lose our claim to this integrity. People will come to see Libertarianism as just another corrupt special interest group jockeying for a place at the government trough.

And if more of us choose temptation as Bandow did, would people be wrong in believing this? Foer says it all too well, “Abramoff has... exposed the corruptibility of true believers.”

As of this writing, Ferrera remains gainfully employed by ISI, and Bandow has been recently hired by Citizen Outreach run by Chuck Muth. They may still be able to get paid well for publishing their opinions, but for myself, I will never be able to take those opinions too seriously again. The fact that at least two, and maybe more, people who have done so much to promote Liberty have been ruined over giving in to just a few thousand dollars worth of temptation fills my heart with great sadness and leaves me with a deep concern for the future of our movement.


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