Artillery Row Books

Why free market think tanks are neither evil nor geniuses

Kurt Andersen’s ‘Evil Geniuses’ is a one-sided guide to the imminent future

According to Kurt Andersen, 1971 was when it all started to go wrong. It was the year when Lewis Powell, a conservative lawyer and corporate bigwig, distributed a memorandum marked CONFIDENTIAL and entitled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System”.

Andersen has concluded that there really is a ‘vast right-wing conspiracy’ in America

The note, which was circulated among likeminded businessmen, lawyers, economists and politicians, warned of an effort to undermine American capitalism from within. “One of the bewildering paradoxes of our time,” wrote Powell, “is the extent to which the free enterprise system tolerates, if not participates, in its own destruction.” He complained that millionaires and big business funded universities, the media and publishing, only for them to become the source of a sustained attack on free enterprise. To Powell, the American business executive was “truly the ‘forgotten man’”. It was time for a counterinsurgency: a project that would require “long-range planning and implementation … over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organisations … This is a long road and not one for the fainthearted.”

Few would dispute that this plot was a success: nine years later, Ronald Reagan was in the White House and promising to cut taxes, take on the unions and slash regulation. As Andersen tells it, mission accomplished for the free market crusaders was a disaster for America, rewiring the US economy to turn a machine that delivered rising living standards for the middle class to one designed by and for the one per cent, adding zeroes onto the end of their net worth and leaving the rest of the country in the dust.

Andersen, the co-founder of the satirical magazine Spy, former editor of New York and a regular contributor to the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, says he is naturally wary of simplistic political catchphrases but has concluded that there really is a “vast right-wing conspiracy” in America, and it has won. The book’s title — Evil Geniuses — is not meant ironically.

Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America – A Recent History by Kurt Andersen (Ebury Press)

At the heart of this conspiracy are the usual bogeymen: the fossil fuel industry, the Koch brothers and other superrich backers of free-market causes, DC-based conservative think tanks, the Federalist Society, a conservative legal fraternity that counts four current Supreme Court justices as members.

“How the Right destroyed America” is hardly an original argument, and for a writer capable of subtle and incisive cultural commentary, Andersen is tediously one-dimensional in his portrait of the free marketeers he blames for his country’s woes. The protagonists fall into one of three camps: avaricious capitalists, swivel-eyed ideologues and useful idiots.

The gap between the America in reality and America in theory has grown dangerously wide

Evil Geniuses does not linger on the possibility that the right’s economic reforms might have been necessary, or at least an attempt at an answer to an important question. After all, Andersen argues, the 1970s weren’t as bad as the Great Depression. A collision of crises — defeat in Vietnam, the oil shock, crippling stagflation — created “simultaneous and mutually reinforcing narratives about our failing national moxie.” But, Andersen implies, they weren’t especially serious problems, and they certainly didn’t warrant the conservative revolution that was to come. More generally, if Andersen has any complaints about the arrangements of American economic life before 1980, he is not exactly forthcoming about them.

Apparently incapable of engaging with the substance of the arguments of the free-market revolution’s leading thinkers, Andersen is more comfortable disparaging them as “anti-government diehards and libertarian freaks” and sniggering at their arguments as self-evident absurdities. When a libertarian idea gains traction or wins someone a prize, Andersen rarely overcomes his own bafflement to explain why this might have happened. Milton Friedman’s influential claim that “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits” is presented as patently absurd. Variants of the conservative idea that poorly designed welfare schemes may do more harm than good are deemed too callous to take seriously.

But then, for Andersen (and his book’s liberal target audience) the proof is in the pudding. America is a more unequal country now than it was then, and so the task is not to engage in a good-faith policy argument but, like the narrator at the end of a bank heist film, explain how the thieves got away with it.

Andersen clearly thinks inequality is the defining issue of our time

Because Andersen must tie everything back to the “vast right-wing conspiracy”, he cannot paint a more nuanced picture that might feel more plausible. Can it really be the case that a small group of libertarian-leaning economists and lawyers are responsible for America’s economic problems? If anti-state fanatics have been calling the shots for decades, why is the federal government bigger today than it was 40 years ago? Andersen’s account leaves no space for some of the quirks of contemporary American corporate culture: the well reimbursed managerial class — the big winners from the market-friendly reforms that has Andersen so upset — increasingly vote Democrat. On social issues, the firms they run often produce policies and literature to the left of the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate.

It’s a shame, because something, somewhere has gone wrong. Whether or not you think inequality is the defining issue of our time (Andersen clearly does), economic life in America feels precarious: a surge in so-called “deaths of despair” (suicide, alcohol poisoning and drug overdoses) among working-age Americans suggests deep discontent; the plumbing of social mobility — the heart of the promise of the American dream — needs to be fixed; healthcare, education and housing have exploded in cost, making a comfortable middle class life harder to achieve.

Andersen isn’t willing to contemplate the possibility that the left and the right have played their part in the creation of these problems. Nor is he especially interested in the new technological or global economic factors that mean policymakers in the US aren’t as omnipotent as many assume.

Andersen delivers a compelling account of how America has taken a nostalgic turn

Thankfully there is more to Evil Geniuses than a one-sided retelling of the Reagan era and its aftermath. When Andersen is on more familiar territory, writing about cultural trends rather than political economy, he delivers a compelling account of how America has taken a nostalgic turn at the end of the 20th and start of the 21st century. Once upon a time, one decade’s music, cinema and fashion would be very obviously very different from the next. Today, by contrast, we are stuck in a world of mushy, multi-decade era of throwbacks and remakes, with the 2000s barely distinguishable from the 2010s and in which the new and the strange is shunned in favour of the old and the familiar.

Here, Andersen is making a left-wing version of an argument advanced by influential voices on the right, most recently Ross Douthat in The Decadent Society. Andersen would agree with his description of an American society that is less dynamic, less open-minded and more risk-averse than it once was. The result, for Andersen, is a paradoxical call for Americans to “rediscover and revive the old defining American predisposition to reject old certainties and familiar ways, plunge forward, experiment, imagine, and then try the untried”.

Here, Andersen gets at something interesting. The gap between the America in reality — increasingly sclerotic and risk-averse, less meritocratic, more class-riven — and America in theory has grown dangerously wide.

“Even before the pandemic and its economic consequences, and before the protests and chaos following the murder of George Floyd,” writes Andersen, “we were facing a do-or-die national test comparable to the big ones we passed in each of the three previous centuries — in the 1930s, the 1850s and ‘60s, and the 1770s and ‘80s.”

He might be right, but Andersen’s one-sided version of the recent past makes him an ill-equipped guide to the imminent future.

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