Yuval Levin on Combating Cronyism

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

The most recent issue of National Review contains an excellent essay by Yuval Levin on why conservatives should get serious about tackling cronyism. Noting that 2016 has exposed the failure of conservatives to “take seriously some key public concerns” and to “articulate some key conservative priorities,” Levin urges conservatives to do more to address voters’ concerns that “the economy is somehow rigged against them… to the benefit of some wealthy and powerful interests.” (This is sage advice not only for conservatives, but also for education reformers of various political stripes.) As it happens, the Left has proven much more adept that tapping into this concern, although as Levin points out, they exploit it to “empower greater government intervention — ironically creating new opportunities for the wealthy and powerful to lobby and to curry favor.”

To a great extent, the failure to address cronyism stems from the fact that too many conservatives–particularly Republican elected officials–have long confused being pro-market with being pro-business. As Levin explains:

Everybody knows that conservatives in America are champions of the market economy as an engine of prosperity. But too many Americans, including too many conservatives, seem to believe that defending the market economy means serving the interests of business. That is certainly how our government has too often approached its role as steward of the economy — advancing the priorities of established, well-connected interests, sometimes at the expense of the needs of individuals, families, communities, and the nation as a whole, and claiming to do so in the name of economic growth and freedom.

But a commitment to the goals and principles of the market economy is by no means the same thing as a commitment to the interests of the businesses that compete in that economy. On the contrary, markets require a government dedicated to open competition for the benefit of consumers and citizens — which very often means subjecting powerful incumbents to competitive pressures they would rather avoid.

Such fair and open competition is precisely what makes markets engines of prosperity and innovation, and what makes the free-enterprise system well suited to helping a free society address some of its biggest problems. Providing business interests (or labor interests, or any other established, well-connected group) with special benefits or shielding established market actors from competition is therefore anathema to the ethic of capitalism and of democracy. That our government now frequently engages in precisely such preferential treatment for the well connected is a grave danger to democratic capitalism in America. And that the public identifies such cronyism with capitalism itself is a failure of the friends of the market system. It is as such a failure of conservatism, and it threatens all that conservatives hope to achieve.

Levin goes on to enumerate many examples of cronyism, highlighting its existence in areas that conservatives should be doing more to expose and correct, including the realm of education:

Self-dealing is, for instance, at the heart of our primary- and secondary-education crisis, as schools and districts are run in the interests of administrators and tenured teachers rather than students. It is a driving force behind our higher-education dilemmas, as the already accredited run the accreditation system and keep out new competitors and new models of schooling and financing. It undermines upward mobility, as established players in one industry after another use licensing and certification requirements to keep out competitors.

The essay is worth reading in its entirety, particularly for Levin’s insightful diagnosis of the origins of the problem and suggested solutions, but JayBlog readers will be particularly interested in Levin’s treatment of education policy.

Noting that “parental choice is restricted by systems that protect incumbent teachers and their unions at the expense of students,” Levin argues that the state must “become a neutral arbiter of competitive marketplaces rather than a manager of inefficient monopolies.

In many large school districts, teachers’ unions use their financial and political muscle to control the election of school-board members and so effectively choose their own negotiating partners, leaving parents and the rest of their communities powerless to change things. Breaking up such monopolies, by allowing some of the public funds that now flow to school systems to be put instead in the hands of parents and by giving those parents a real choice among educational options, can help these public dollars serve the public rather than a particularly powerful pressure group.

As Jay has counseled, education reformers can’t afford to ignore politics. Reformers can’t expect to be effective unless they are speaking to the concerns that voters have. They shouldn’t expect those voters to get excited about policies that are intended to answer questions that voters aren’t asking. Education reformers must seek to understand what voters are concerned about and clearly articulate how our policy proposals would address those concerns. Sizable portions of the electorate, both right and left, are troubled by a system that appears to be rigged against them. Reformers must show them how the government-run education system is rife with cronyism and explain how choice policies will empower them to provide their children with a better education.  As Levin concludes:

The failure to advance this argument is an instance of a larger pattern in which conservatives have become disconnected from public concerns because we have forgotten the foundations of our own view of the world. A complacent repetition of vague slogans about freedom too often turns the Right into a caricature of itself. A concerted reengagement with the actual conservative case for freedom would instead let the Right offer serious answers to today’s most pressing public concerns.

Likewise, education reformers must resist the siren call of technocracy and seriously reengage with the foundational ideas of the ed reform movement in a manner that connects with today’s concerns.

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