My transformation into a political radical happened in what would probably seem, to many, a highly unlikely venue: working in the public relations department of that grandmamma of corporate welfare queens – the Lockheed Martin Corp.
I’ve been thinking a lot about those heady days recently. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the sorts of frustrations I felt at the time with the mainstream political establishment. Today’s electorate clearly feels many of the same things, which leaves me to ponder whether, in a different time and place, I too might have been swept up in the likes of Bernie Sanders’ brand of populist socialism or Donald Trump’s neo-fascist race-baiting demagoguery.
And yet, today, I most decidedly am not. There is no presidential candidate who excites me, as there hasn’t been in any election in my adult life. But there are certainly candidates who scare me, and they tend to be those who are most vocal about wanting to smash the prevailing system and remake it in their own images.
Which raises the crucial questions – when did I stop being a radical, and why?
When my journey began, it was the mid-1990s. While those in Washington busied themselves with finding new ways to spend the “peace dividend,” Lockheed was stumbling around in search of its purpose in the post-Cold War, pre-9/11 era. For example, the company had one division devoted to adapting its military simulation technology for civilian use, making arcade graphics boards for Sega. My division, IMS, was focused on state and local government contracts, doing everything from running local welfare programs to parking enforcement to child support collection to transportation services (we were the people who brought you EZ-Pass).
My joining Lockheed was an unsuccessful attempt at selling out. After a couple of years as a local newspaper reporter earning pitiable wages, I signed on to become a flak at only slightly less pitiable wages. I was at the time your classic libertarian-ish Northeast Republican. I’d long been a big P.J. O’Rourke fan – he was one of my inspirations for becoming a journalist in the first place. I supported the Contract with America. I badly wanted Bill Weld to run for president.
And I believed in the work we were doing at Lockheed. Or, at least, I wanted to believe in it. I’d read Revolution at the Roots, Bill Eggers and John O’Leary’s compelling account of how, through smart outsourcing and competitive contracting, a host of innovative mayors like Indianapolis’ Steven Goldsmith and Philadelphia’s Ed Rendell had saved millions in taxpayer dollars and turned sclerotic bureaucracies into models of efficiency.
The problem was, what I was seeing from the inside didn’t much resemble the idealized world I was reading about. I couldn’t help but notice that all of our executives were former politicians and bureaucrats before they’d joined us, and many would return to being politicians and bureaucrats after they left. (Case in point – the EZ-Pass program was run by former U.S. Rep. Norm Mineta, D-Calif., who would go on to head the Commerce Department in the Clinton Cabinet and the Transportation Department in the Bush Cabinet.) Political connections, not providing a better service, pretty clearly ruled the bidding processes. Rather than bringing to public programs the efficiency of private enterprise, these projects mostly seemed to combine all the dysfunction of government with all the greed of the market.
I only held the job a little over a year, but by the time I’d left, I’d gone full radical. It so happened that, during my time as a corporate cubicle jockey, I discovered the writings of Murray Rothbard. I was entranced with what was, to me, an exciting new philosophy: anarcho-capitalism. Through Rothbard, I was introduced to a whole new world of radicals like Karl Hess and economists like David Friedman, as well as to older individualist anarchists like Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner. Where I’d previously sought ways to make government work better, here were men who declared the answer was to tear the state down from its foundation. Even cops and courts and national defense, their screeds informed me, could be provided privately on the open market. As Rothbard put it, if there were a button that would end all government in an instant, the true libertarian is one who “would blister my thumb pushing that button!”
I had questions, of course. For instance, why should we be so confident that a market in justice (that is, a market in which consumers pay private security firms and lawyers and judges to resolve the disputes that arise between them, and collect any restitution owed) would place a premium on, say, the rule of law and respect for individual rights – things which have proven rather delicate and elusive qualities across time and cultures – rather simply favoring those firms that demonstrate the might to impose their will? For that matter, wouldn’t a system of pure property rights, coupled with inheritance, simply devolve into feudalism? I wasn’t exactly comforted that some prominent anarcho-capitalists seemed not to regard that possibility as a suboptimal outcome.
But, no matter. In the short term, such concerns were just pointless speculation. The goal was to move the country and the world in the direction of a stateless society. The details were things that could be debated once we’d arrived.
I would return to the world of journalism — specifically, business journalism — and eventually found my niche as a trade reporter focused on insurance and financial services. I’m sure my politics informed my story selection and my journalistic voice, as they do every journalist. But I kept those views largely to myself – or, at least, kept them out of the work published professionally under my own name. This would prove particularly important when my job brought me straight into the belly of the beast — Washington, D.C. — where I’d go on to serve nearly a decade covering the very government I wished to see obliterated.
This is the point in the story where the younger version of me easily could predict the inevitable conclusion. “And then he was co-opted by the system…,” 23-year-old Ray would say of his future self.
And yet, that’s not what happened. Not quite. (Settle down, younger Ray!) The actual D.C. was, in many ways, actually far worse than even I could have imagined. Up close, the politicians were even more vacuous and facile. Virtually no piece of legislation ever was brought before Congress that didn’t include at least eight different varieties of rent-seeking by this industry or that. The capture of regulators was absolute. The sheer quantity of pointless grandstanding and faux outrage produced on a daily basis was breathtaking. And it turned out, the whole place was, in fact, run by eager-beaver 24-year-old preppies who had not the first clue how the world actually worked.
Writing in 1869 in the Daily Cleveland Herald, the poet John Godfrey Saxe first coined what has come down to us, in various mangled and misattributed versions, as the defining truism of modern politics: “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”
There’s great truth in that observation, which one imagines is how it became a truism. But I think I understand now, as I didn’t before I came to Washington, that there also is a great deal of misunderstanding about its message. Let’s not forget – people like sausage! Sausage is delicious. That witnessing the process of making sausage firsthand may be stomach-churning is not, ultimately, an argument against sausage.
I cannot deny, as Saxe would predict, that coming to know more about the process of lawmaking diminished whatever “respect” I had for the final product. But it also diminished my outrage. Reading report after report from the Government Accountability Office or the Congressional Research Service, or from the dozens of think tanks arrayed about town, or even from the dreaded lobbyists we’re all supposed to despise, you can’t avoid but have it impressed upon you just how few issues of public policy actually have a single clear-cut solution. I’ve narrowed it down to just two: the tax code must be greatly simplified and the Jones Act is an idiotic law that must be abolished. I’m equally confident that neither of these things will happen in my lifetime.
For virtually everything else, I slowly came to accept, we still need the process, ugly and stupid and craven as it is. Not because it’s the “politically realistic” thing or because “smash the state” polls poorly in the flyover states. We need the process because, when you strip away all the partisan posturing and self-serving rationalizations, determining how to govern – what to tax and what to subsidize, what to ban and what to encourage, when to make war and when to make peace – requires answering a set of legitimately hard questions. Those answers affect real people’s real lives. Some will get hurt, no matter what we do. We owe it to them to try to get it as close to right as we can.
There was no single moment when I stopped calling myself a libertarian anarchist. In my heart, that’s what I still feel I am. I did name my dog Murray Rothbark, after all. But then I listen to the soundbites from this class of presidential candidates, and even though their goals look like none I’ve ever shared, I hear in their overly simplistic slogans echoes of my own earlier myopia. The truth, it turns out, has an establishment bias.
Earlier this year, my wife and I packed up and left Washington. After a decade of swimming in the beast’s viscera, I needed some physical distance between myself and the sausage-making machine. But catch me in a quiet moment after a mai tai or two, and I’ll confess to you that I’m glad it’s there. Perhaps, even, that it basically works.