The presumption of selflessness

Liberal author Jane Mayer caused much unintended hilarity with a New Yorker article called “Schmooze or Lose,” whose thesis is that Obama might lose the election because he doesn’t like “cozying up to billionaires.”  The President’s “attitude toward money is complicated,” you see, and the super-genius academic Obama is not sufficiently “awed by wealth” to entertain big-money donors with the kind of deference they expect.

Democrat millionaires, in turn, are supposedly more interested in “social affirmation” than political favors in return for their donations.  “Usually, it’s not about favors,” an anonymous Obama adviser is said to have explained to Mayer.  These noble and selfless liberal millionaires don’t want anything from the government – they just want Obama to flatter their egos.

Which Obama “crony capitalist” were you thinking of while you were doubled over with laughter after reading that?  George Kaiser of Solyndra fame?  Jeff Immelt of G.E.?  Perhaps Frank Clark of Exelon, who Culture of Corruption author Michelle Malkin spotlighted today?  The Hollywood glitterati who rely on all sorts of special treatment from the government, ranging from subsidies to tax breaks, to accumulate their immense fortunes?

Matthew Continetti of the Washington Free Beacon does a superlative job of dismantling Mayer’s column, calling “the idea that liberal donors don’t ask for anything in return” the Biggest Myth of 2012.  His marquee example of Obama cronyism is billionaire investor Marc Lasry, “whose financial support for Obama in 2012 must be totally unrelated to the fact that the White House was kind enough to give a prestigious job to one of his sons (a detail that is of course left out by Mayer); and whose email solicitation to his fellow superrich liberals dangled the possibility that a $35,000 donation would buy a chance to ride in the presidential motorcade..”

After making due allowances for the urges of both Obama campaign officials and donors to flatter themselves while concocting excuses for Obama’s disappointing 2012 fundraising, Continetti writes, “What binds the disparate threads of Mayer’s piece together is its assumption of good faith on the part of progressives and bad faith on the part of Republicans. This kindergarten-level reasoning is presented matter-of-factly, as though American politics at the highest level had all the subtlety of a Disney cartoon.”

This dovetails with something that has always fascinated me: the reflexive presumption of benevolence afforded to Big Government by not only committed liberals, but “moderate” voters who go along with their schemes.  Mayer’s lazy Disney mythology of Democrat billionaires who wouldn’t dream of asking for “favors” in return for their donations is a subset of this faith, in addition to being an expression of liberal moral vanity, and the after-image of their blazing contempt for the “bad faith” motivations of their opponents.  If everyone who opposes Big Government liberalism is motivated by greed, it follows that the acolytes of Big Government must be relatively free of greed.  Liberalism is all about “helping people,” so by definition, liberals cleanse themselves of the stink of self-interest.

This mythology is powerful enough to excuse even the most egregious examples of corruption – including the hunger for power by politicians, rent-seeking by liberal billionaires, and even predatory capitalism.  Class warriors are never instructed to hate millionaire celebrities.  On the contrary, the conspicuous consumption of their lifestyles is celebrated.  There are popular TV shows devoted to following their lavish lifestyles and touring their mansions.  And yet, the film industry brutally exploits both its customers and business connections – ask a theater owner how much of the take from screening blockbuster movies they get to keep.  It uses the most absurdly contorted accounting to claim that even high-grossing films never actually made money.  Huge tax bills are avoided, “little guys” in Hollywood are routinely screwed, and if you’re a filmgoer, you’ve probably well aware of the soaring prices extracted for often inferior, misleadingly-advertised product.

But all of that is forgiven, and the wealth of celebrities is applauded, because they’re generally liberal, and thus presumptively free of self-interest.  This flows naturally into the presumption of selflessness that surrounds Big Government, which receives endless credit for noble intentions, no matter how horribly its plans work out… or even how corrupt some of its high-minded programs turn out to be.  Uncle Sam begins each new adventure as the civic-minded good guy, who just wants to do what’s best for everyone.  Compulsive government action is viewed as morally superior to the benefits of free-market commerce, and even voluntary private charity.

In reality, it’s wise to retain a health suspicion of the “motives” of every large organization, from the vendors of consumer products to government bureaucracies.  Nothing about any human interaction is automatically sanctified by civil-service exams or electoral victories.  Rational self-interest is not inherently evil, and the benefits of its pursuit have enormous social value.  And no one should be presumed free of self-interest merely because they claim to be… or donate money to politicians who make that claim.