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A Defense of Crony Capitalism

The New Republic has come out swinging in favor of one of the least popular things in America — Crony Capitalism.

You kind of have to admire the chutzpah of running a piece titled “Why ‘Crony Capitalism’ is as American as Apple Pie.” The very notion is enough to invite the scorn of Tea Partiers and Occupiers alike.

Historian Michael Kazin explains that America does have a very long history of big government working together with big business. Many of the great fortunes made in America would never have been made if not for the support of the government.

Businessmen have often welcomed government intervention in the markets. More: businessmen are often the advocates and provocateurs of government action.

The odd part of Kazin’s article is that it’s framed around a charge that conservatives are somehow betraying their political philosophy by opposing the crony capitalist state.

“Conservatives are supposed to cherish tradition, to draw on customs and policies which worked well in the past to guide what office-holders ought to do in the future. So it is ironic, if not hypocritical, that they constantly peddle a notion about the separation of business and government that has no basis in American history,” Kazin writes.

Before addressing the substance of this, I want to just mention that this is one of the worst forms of argument. It’s an attempt to prove that conservatives would really be more conservative if they were more liberal. It’s an attempt to rule dissent out of existence.

What Kazin seems to have missed is that the conservative political tradition in America is largely one of dissent from what he calls the “long and bipartisan tradition of government support for big business in America.”

It’s a thread you can trace back through both the libertarian and traditionalist branches of the right. Friedrich Hayek to Albert Jay Nock to Henry Adams to the New York Jacksonians: it’s all a tradition of dissent from the kind of policies that, for instance, let big meatpackers crush smaller competitors under the weight of FDA regulation.

Just because the conservative political tradition has so often been on the losing side of history doesn’t mean it “has no basis in American history.” It certainly doesn’t mean that it is somehow betraying itself by staying on that side. Indeed, conservatives have always been attracted to the great lost causes. They are, as someone once said, beautiful losers.

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