Confessions of a reformed activist
tags: political activism,Phillip W. Magness
When advising politically-inclined students – and working at a DC based academic research institute and Public Policy department ensures I have many of these – I often counsel them to eschew electoral politics entirely, to approach policy careers with managed and severely constrained expectations about the results they can expect to achieve, and to generally shed the instinctual habits of activism. To the politically enthused and – more so – the idealist who seeks to better the world in which he or she lives, this message is both exceedingly difficult to receive and counter-intuitive to almost everything they’ve been brought up to believe about democracy, participatory government, and attaining social change. Even persons of an intellectual disposition to distrust the political process – the so-called “liberty movement” of libertarians and classical liberals, which I also intersect with frequently on a professional basis – have trouble shedding the notion that political activism is a viable mechanism for the societal change they so fervently desire.
I maintain firmly that they are not – that most elections are an expensive dead end for at most transitory gains, that political victories seldom yield the promised results, and that even the productive flurry of blogs, op-eds, white papers, policy reports, and public speeches that emanate from the “Think Tank” and journalism realms – some of which, by the way, are quite good – will at most attain small improvements in policy around the margins, or – more likely – slightly alleviate some of the more egregious effects of tremendously bad existing policies on our daily lives. This pessimism is rooted in a recognition that political success and policy outcomes are expressly not a function of simply finding the right “message” or packaging a good idea in a way that sells, even as I wish no ill will upon those who seek to improve the message of their respective causes. Rather, political outcomes are a product of what the institutional structures that produce them will permit and – in some cases – tend to incentivize. Or to put it differently, those who see politics and other types of activism as the route to social betterment are aiming for the wrong target and setting themselves up for perpetual disappointment – even when they appear to “win” the election or the legislative battle.
To the activist types who are bristled by this assertion, I can only say that it is something that the majority of you will come to learn in time. Some of you will encounter disillusionment and move on to more fruitful endeavors. Others will turn to apathy or lose interest in ideas that once excited and motivated your daily existence. A small percentage of you will – unfortunately- settle into a professional activist echo chamber that supplants the prior intellectual excitement you once attached to your respective causes with the complacency of career perpetuation and much talk about what you purport to be doing in the political realm but empirical evidence of success to match it.
So make of that what you will and discover your own path, but I also have a confession to make: I know at least a little about what I tell them because I too went through an activist phase.
For me it all started back in high school, or perhaps a little earlier, and at the time I tended to gravitate toward the libertarian wing of the Republican Party (I now consider myself a liberal empiricist of the old, classical sense in the tradition of Bastiat, Cobden, Smith, and Fox, but to a 16 year old with an interest in political activism “libertarian” was a fair descriptor of where I stood). I was also a product of the public education system, and though I picked up and read just about any philosophical text I could get my hands on, I also pursued the path of “civic engagement” that was urged upon all of us in the classroom and went to volunteer on campaigns. It was exciting to say the least, and I had the good fortune of living in a district next to the one represented by a familiar name in “liberty” circles – Ron Paul, who at the time had just returned to Congress after upsetting an incumbent backed by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich. And Paul to his credit spoke my language on many policies – on economic freedom, on a distrust of bureaucracy, and perhaps more than anything on his denunciation of American foreign policy adventurism. So I went to his campaign events, which later led to volunteer work at general Republican campaign offices in the Houston area over the last few years of high school and the start of my undergraduate experience.
By the end of my first year college, I was practically a one-man Students for Liberty operation on my campus though I predated their founding by about a decade. And like SFL today, I always valued the intellectual side as well as the activism (indeed this is one of SFL’s commendable qualities – precisely the fact that it doesn’t descend into pure politics and, at its strongest moments, retains a commitment to intellectual advancement). From my freshman year in college onward I was our campus’s coordinator for FEE, which in those days basically meant distributing copies of “The Freeman” at every club or social gathering I could squeeze into my schedule. I also wrote liberty-minded op-eds for an “alternative” student newspaper, which was at the time housed at the much larger neighboring University of Houston. And way back in 2001 I had the privilege of introducing then-congressman Paul for a speech he delivered on campus. My dorm room and then off-campus apartment doubled as a storage facility for libertarian literature, an editorial board room for our newspaper, and – for a brief time – even a bulk mail operation to disseminate literature on economic freedom around the Houston area. I carted in an envelope printing/stuffing machine, would hit a button on my computer to make it start, head off to class, and return a few hours later to find a thousand envelopes ready to drop at a nearby post office…assuming the thing hadn’t jammed a few minutes after my departure.
I met many interesting people during my activist phase, including the current Senator from Kentucky who was a regular at his dad’s annual birthday party at a beach house in Surfside, TX. There were also many true friends and truly great people I met along the way. As a 19 year old in college I admit to being star struck a couple times, and I still consider the Pauls among the better lights in a generally contemptible political class. But the people I came to respect the most were the ones who lost. One of them – Joe Vu – was a candidate for Congress from a write-off district that the RNC didn’t care about, though he was among the most admirable people I have ever known. He was a Vietnamese immigrant who had narrowly escaped the fall of Saigon, where he would have faced certain death as a young Catholic anti-communist activist in his own right. He had a distinct appreciation for the economic and civil liberties that I counted among my own core principles, and basically ran for office against all odds in a gerrymandered Democratic rotten borough to show that he could and to provide a choice. He passed away from leukemia a few years later.
There were some more familiar names in the mix. I met our then-governor George W. Bush on three or four occasions and found him at least personally friendly, even as I grew to diverge greatly with his politics during his presidency as it took a distinct turn toward perpetual welfare-warfare statism and a complete disregard for civil libertarian constraint. Also Texas Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry, who I never voted for and never much liked. There were also plenty of less savory annoyances with what passed for Republican politics in Texas at the time (and what presumably persists today), and they were what ultimately pushed me away from the political scene. An intellectually shallow, opportunistic, insufferably self-righteous, and often hypocritical and morally cutthroat “religious right” element always hovered around the Republican Party (I also draw a line of differentiation here between these “Professional Christians” and genuinely well-meaning religious people who gravitate to elections in support of views with varying degrees of what I would find politically agreeable or disagreeable). This contingent was a fever swamp of bigotry and backstabbing, and of morally self-righteous and judgmental people who lived personal lives straight out of a supermarket tabloid as they condemned others for the same. I remember encountering a religious right activist who condemned me in religiously-driven moral disgust upon discovering that, like any college kid, I consumed a casual beer from time to time, and yet her own life was an assemblage of prescription pill addictions and offspring who were in and out of rehab centers. It became impossible at times to even interact with some of them without feeling a sense of moral disgust, and some of the political scene denizens were far worse than a moralizing teetotaler. One example involved a local religious right radio host who railed against immorality on the air and used his perch to back favored candidates with moralistic assaults on their opponents, only to be convicted for indecency with a child a few years later. The local Republican Party in Houston, in another example, patronized a political consultant named Allen Blakemore who had a habit of mailing out overtly racist Willie Horton-esque brochures featuring menacing-looking portraits of minorities in order to defeat candidates who raised questions about the scandal-plagued police and prosecutor political establishment in Harris County (one of his star candidates – the Houston area’s District Attorney – was later forced from office over an email scandal involving dissemination of sexually explicit content and racial slurs on county computers, though Blakemore is still going strong as the current campaign director for this year’s new Republican nominee for Lieutenant Governor). It was that latter class of people – and many more of them than the few instances I mention here - that drove me away in disgust from the political campaign sphere.
With an increasing intellectual interest fostered by the classes I was taking and the professors I met, I turned for some time to policy work as well. It paid the bills and my skill sets – particularly writing and quantitative work – landed me a few local policy jobs in the early 2000s. In my senior year I wrote a research paper for a “financial economics” class on the fiscal insolvency and poor design of Houston’s newly proposed light rail system. I offered it to a transportation policy group, which put it out as a white paper and drew upon it in the sadly unsuccessful campaign to stave off the project. I also tried my hand at journalism for a bit/ Its most notable product involved exposing a small journalistic scandal at our neighboring competitor the Houston Chronicle, which inadvertently posted an internal memorandum on the web detailing an orchestrated plan to slant its news coverage in favor of the light rail project for a couple minutes when I happened to be browsing their site. It was an exciting experience, but it also yielded few fruits as light rail passed and now Houston is saddled with an ever-growing transit boondoggle. Same goes for another consulting project I pursued in grad school when I employed some newly honed quantitative skills to dissect the faults in an ARIMA forecast model being used by the state of Texas to run its biennial budgeting projections. The error I helped to uncover was glaring, and it even made an appearance in the 2006 gubernatorial debates. I even did a brief stint on Capitol Hill in DC shortly after finishing my undergrad degree. I worked on trade policy for the Ways and Means committee at the height of the Singapore-Chile FTA negotiations. I quickly learned there that my own interests and skill sets – free trade economics – was considered to be of subordinate value to the interminable lawyering that specialized in carving out exceptions and special clauses in favor of vested special interest groups. Though I am probably partial to my own work, I do feel reasonably confident in stating that I produced quality research. But time and time again it didn’t matter how good the research was because the outcomes were always the same – at best a peripheral modification to a generally bad policy (as happened in the Texas budget example and in various aspects of my aborted trade policy career), and at worst nothing at all (as happened with Houston’s light rail) with the interest groups on the other side always prevailing.
My junior year in college was something of a watershed moment for understanding why this was the case – why in my earlier political activism I always saw the few “good” guys lose, saw the Bushes and Perrys shoot to the top, saw entrenched hypocritical religious factions take charge of the local political apparatus, and saw racist bigots in the political consultancy world getting hefty contracts from prominent state officials to run their campaigns. It took a little longer to diffuse out on the policy side, but it also explained why good solid policy research often lost out to bad, sloppy political hackery or at most only lessened its ills. I don’t recall the exact procession of events, but during my junior year one of my professors introduced me to Mancur Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action and Anthony Downs’ work on economic theories of voting and democracy. These were my first two formal introductions to Public Choice theory, and they contained the seeds of a coherent explanation for what I had been witnessing first hand for years: the comparative successes and failures of interest groups, the tendency of certain interests to gain advantageous access to government, the tendency of certain types of candidates to win and certain types of consultants to get their business, and the general ineffectiveness of most mass-mobilizing activist initiatives. It didn’t matter how good the research was or who was empirically “right” about something. It didn’t matter if the message was well-crafted. And in terms of candidates for public office, showing a modicum of personal decency could actually be a detriment. What mattered and what determined the outcome was almost entirely of an institutional nature – it was a world of incentive structures, many of them quite awful, and policy decisions that took form not over what was well-conceived or publicly interested but what serviced short-term political advantage within those institutional arrangements.
I harbor few regrets about the path that brought me to the academic turn that my career subsequently took. Empirical experience is an educator onto itself, and while my own experience with the “activist” world may take on a more cynical spin than what some others will encounter, I don’t believe the pattern in which civic-minded idealism succumbs to realistic disappointment is at all atypical. So take it from a reformed activist: you may have fun being an activist, you may find a hobby in it, and you’ll probably learn something about other people. But if you’re expecting to change the world by way of activism, you are in for a long succession of disappointments. And if you cling to activism as your only outlet despite those disappointments, if you persist in the line of thinking that holds to a static and shallow intellectual worldview and assumes that the only challenge to bringing it to fruition is proper marketing, effective framing, and appeal to the popular and trendy, you will not only suffer a succession of disappointments but also drift into the realm of anti-empirical delusion.
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