Once upon a time, about 25 years ago, the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne was often worth reading. He seemed to be a liberal of some curiosity and independence of mind. His columns were usually original and unpredictable. He was among the rare journalists who attended the American Political Science Association conventions when they were held in DC; he’d be spotted attending the better (usually conservative) panels, and scooping up an armload of papers in the paper room. His widely acclaimed and highly readable book Why Americans Hate Politics was notable for his careful treatment of the rise of conservative thought.
Today Dionne is a lazy and utterly predictable partisan hack.
What happened? Not sure, but he seemed to take a turn toward the usual liberal madness some time during the George W. Bush administration. Bush seemed to have that effect of a lot of liberals. (Paul Krugman, who once made some sense, is said to walk around in circles talking to himself at the few academic conferences he still attends.)
Anyway, Dionne’s column yesterday is a real doozy. He tries to blame the Austrian school of economics for gridlock in Washington. Dionne was picking up on a comment from Ron Paul on the campaign trail in 2012 about how “We’re all Austrians now.” Here’s E.J.:
Paul’s words are worth remembering not only because they are entertaining but also because he has a point. To a remarkable degree, our politics are haunted by the principles of Austrian economics and their sweeping hostility to any actions by government to keep downturns from becoming catastrophes or to promote greater economic fairness.
Now, the Austrian theory is highly controversial; actually, make that almost completely rejected by mainstream economists today, almost none of whom foresaw or predicted the housing bubble and subsequent bust. Who did? Ah, yes—some of the Austrians. Funny thing, but Austrian economic theory seems to explain the recent world better than conventional economic theories.
Apparently it is much too difficult for Dionne to represent the basic Austrian theory accurately, which is that the kind of macroeconomic interventions liberals, following Keynes, like to impose make booms bigger and more unstable, this making the busts worse. Moreover, the interventions like the Obama stimulus make the misery of the bust worse and more prolonged. Markets, while harsh at the bottom, self-correct quicker than government, and end the misery sooner, like tearing off a bandaid.
Instead, Dionne says this:
Hayek and Mises perceived little difference between democratic governments that used their power to plan against recessions and dictatorships that did the same thing. In this view, the policies of Franklin Roosevelt led down what Hayek called the “Road to Serfdom” and were thus objectively comparable to those of Hitler or Stalin.
Later, Dionne quotes the European historian Tony Judt:
Hayek believed, Judt said, that “if you begin with welfare policies of any sort — directing individuals, taxing for social ends, engineering the outcomes of market relationships — you will end up with Hitler.”
As I say, I guess it’s too difficult to actually read Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, or his more complete Constitution of Liberty, to see what his argument actually was, so easier just to go with Judt’s comic book version instead. In both of his great books, Hayek endorses the principle of social insurance (and even a mandate for everyone to buy health insurance—egad*), but is concerned with the tendency toward making social insurance programs into redistribution programs. Wow—crazy stuff, I know. But you can see that Judt’s formula that Hayek opposed “welfare policies of any sort” is flat wrong.
And is Hayek’s broader point that centralized economic planning would lead to tyrannical government really so far-fetched? The linchpin of Hayek’s argument was that the plans and desires of the statists would require the undermining of the rule of law, because steadily increasing arbitrary power is necessary for their centralized schemes to work. I wonder whether Dionne has checked in lately with the Little Sisters of the Poor? Or has taken notice of the IRS harassment of groups opposed to Obama? I wonder what he makes of Obama’s unilateral executive decisions simply to suspend parts of the health care law that are politically inconvenient?
Maybe it’s time adapt the old Gilbert O’Sullivan tune into “Dionne Again, Naturally”:
To think that only yesterday
I was cheerful, bright and gay
Looking forward to who wouldn’t do
The role I was about to play
But as if to knock me down
Reality came around
And without so much as a mere touch
Cut me into little pieces
Leaving me to doubt
Talk about, God in His mercy
Oh, if he really does exist
Why did he desert me
In my hour of need
I truly am indeed
Dionne again, naturally
* See The Constitution of Liberty, University of Chicago Press definitive edition currently in print, p. 406.
PAUL ADDS: Dionne must have misplaced those papers he scooped up at the American Political Science Association meetings. He is now incapable of accurately stating the views of leading conservative thinkers. In this article, for example, he completely misstated the nature of American conservatism and mischaracterized the views of leading conservatives, most notably Robert Nisbet.
As Steve says, Dionne has been past his sell-by date for at least 20 years.