From today’s Wall Street Journal:
A factotum, if you don’t know (I didn’t), is “an employee who does all kinds of work.”
Consider the poor Washington libertarian. Everywhere else in America his type is an exotic species, a coffee-shop heretic who quotes from “Atlas Shrugged” and steers every conversation toward Ron Paul or gold. Take him or leave him, he doesn’t care. He is his own master.
Not so the Beltway variety. Here, in the very home of the taxing, regulating leviathan, the libertarian is such a commonplace and unremarkable bird that no one gives him a second glance. Here he is a factotum of the establishment, a tiny voice in a vast choir assembled by business and its tax-exempt front groups to sing the virtues of the entrepreneur.
And therein lies his dilemma. Almost by definition, our young libertarian’s job is to celebrate the profit motive from the offices of a not-for-profit organization. He is subsidized, in other words, to hymn the unsubsidized way of life. Rugged individualism may be his creed, but a rugged individual he ain’t.
This is more than just an abstract problem, as I discovered last week at a panel discussion hosted by America’s Future Foundation, one of the lesser libertarian nonprofits in the city. The questions that night were whether nonprofit work constituted a “real job” and if moving to the private sector was “selling out” â€“ ideas well known to any liberal do-gooder.
The audience of young professionals learned about the need to find a job that you loved. It heard the inevitable complaint that “there are plenty of people who are choosing for-profit over nonprofit” when their heart tells them to do the opposite. A panelist asked the audience to imagine a foundation worker saying to his boss, “I love what I do, but in the end I’ve got a wife and three kids, and we live in McLean, and the mortgage is through the roof, and my commute sucks, or whatever, I need a little bit more cash,” only to have his employer turn him down.
These plaints sounded so familiar that I felt like suggesting that everyone there hop out and grab a copy of Daniel Brook’s fine but distinctly unlibertarian 2007 book “The Trap.” By skewing society’s rewards so lopsidedly to the top in the country’s richest cities, Mr. Brook writes, the tax-reducing, market-minded economic policies of the last few decades have priced all sorts of high-minded occupations to the bottom of the middle class: teaching, the arts, and, of course, nonprofit work.
Many of the people Mr. Brook talks to in such cities haven’t given up on these pursuits because they’re “sellouts”; they’ve given up because they want proper health care or decent housing or good schools for their kids.
In traditional sellout theory there is always some grand cause or principle that is being exchanged for immediate gain â€“ artistic independence, for example, or the fate of the panda, trembling piteously before the onrushing bulldozers of modernity.
But what is it that libertarians are selling when they accept the fat paychecks of corporate America? The noble principle of self interest? The utopia of the market itself? Will the workings of supply and demand really seize up if some young Ayn Randette chooses to forsake, say, the Cato Institute and instead help ExxonMobil pile up the pelf?
Fortunately, there were a few plainspoken men of the market present at the gathering to set things straight. Capitalists were the world’s real heroes, they reminded us, delivering value to the public and seeing that value quantified precisely by the numbers on the balance sheet. That was reality. the idea that “there’s something special about nonprofits,” scoffed one forthright fellow â€“ “well, that’s crap. Nonprofits are an artifice of the law, and what’s special about them is not that they do different things or that they are organized in a special way, it’s that they don’t pay taxes.”
Personally, I would take this hard line one step further: Selling out is not a threat to the market order; selling out is how the market gets its way. Just look at the city in which all these remarks were made. Private-sector Washington is one of the wealthiest places in America. Public-service Washington lags considerably behind. The chance of ditching the one for the other is what accounts for everything from the power of K Street to the infamous “revolving door,” by which a public servant takes a cushy corporate job after engineering some extravagant government favor for the corporation in question â€“ or its clients.
The libertarian nonprofits that line the city’s streets often serve merely to rationalize this operation after the fact, giving a pious shine to the policies that are made in this unholy manner.
To their credit, the nonprofit libertarians I watched the other night did not ask for sympathy. Their own doctrine won’t permit it. Having spent years urging lawmakers to wreck the social order that once made occupations like theirs tenable, they will cling stubbornly to their free-market idol all the way down.