Begin At Home: Politics and Charity

Progressive libertarians got a few steps closer to being a real political and social force in U.S. politics last week. Let’s have a look.
Tuesday, Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Democrat in a tough primary against net “roots” candidate Ned Lamont, confirmed what many had suspected: If he loses the Democratic primary, he’ll run as an Independent candidate, hoping that enough Liberal Republicans in Connecticut will vote for him. It’s not an unreasonable hope. “None of the above” is the fastest growing political “party” in California and in other, affluent parts of the nation and Lieberman has long enjoyed support from the financial community based on Wall Street but living in Connecticut and other New York suburbs. He’s also enjoyed a fair amount of support from Silicon Valley, too, in his various presidential attempts.
The interesting thing here is that Lieberman is not a politician known for breaking from the pack. But he is a politician and a successful one at that. So he’s grabbing onto a trend here, an important one: The path of the moderate, competent political leadership that often goes against the party line. Lieberman’s doing what Eliot Spitzer is doing in his race for the governor’s office in New York, what Michael Bloomberg is doing as mayor of New York City, what Arnold Schwarenegger is going back to doing as the governor of California. All of these candidates are telling voters that party affiliation, while often important, isn’t the deciding factor in picking an elected representative.
One of the characteristics of the Progressive libertarian movement is its faith in competency and individual action. For this crowd, party affiliation can be as restricting as, say, a big corporate job or the bureaucracy created by a huge charitable foundation. The Democratic party, to this way of thinking, is too tied down by the unions. Republicans are beholden to conservative religious groups. So neither can really represent the business-oriented moderate who is interested in solutions first, and rhetoric almost never. The Progressive libertarian is usually self-made (from the middle class, however, not up from poverty) and as a result of that accomplishment possessed of a unique and single-minded belief in his own ability and the ability of others like him (who are well-educated white folks). Progressive libertarians are not interested in the party line, in politics or anywhere else. They are interested in what works, what’s effective, what’s effecient. It’s a carry-over from the business world which is why pols like Spitzer (family fortune in real estate), Bloomberg (Bloomberg Media and former Solomon Bros. banker), California State Controller Steve Westly (eBay millionaire) and Schwarzenegger (movie star) are emblematic of this movement. So is Sen. John McCain who, if he runs for president, will grab and keep these voters. Sen. Hillary Clinton, tied as she and her husband are to the aparatus of the Democratic Party – will not.
Progressive libertarians are just starting to have their influence felt in politics. But if you’d like a look at where things are going, study at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as well as the foundations run by Warren Buffett’s children. Buffet’s decision to give the bulk of his fortune to the Gates foundation to manage makes it the largest charity in the world with an endowment of more than $60 billion. And, as many have remarked, places a new sort of giving model in the forefront of the non-profit world, a model with political implications.
Gates has been steadily taking over the role once filled by foundations built by oil (Rockefeller) and autos (Ford); Buffet’s $31 billion grant makes that take-over formal. That’s going to mean a geographic shift as the non-profit world’s focus moves from New York to Seattle. But it also means a new emphasis on practical solutions to difficult problems, a reliance on non-profits, not governments for a lot of aid work, particularly when it comes to social services, all underlined by a belief that small, tight management is preferable to large, sprawling infrastructure. Those are the Progressive libertarian’s political goals, as well.
Like a lot of other new money charities, the Gates foundation places a lot of emphasis on practical solutions to difficult problems. It looks for ways to measure things; for ways to maneuver around state bureaucracies (which are often corrupt) to look for solutions at the local level. It’s not the mega-grant, administered by employees who only visit once a year (Gates is a frequent traveler in India); it’s a much more hands-on effort than that. It’s not a coincidence that the folks who brought you “software armies on the march” – writing software by throwing coders at a problem until the job was done – now bring mosquito netting, polio vaccines and basic nursing care to rural villages in India and across Africa. You may not think this is a revolutionary approach to charitable giving – it seems so obvious – but much of the new thinking – developed in the past 10 years – on international giving stems from this way of approaching problems.
And there’s no shortage of ambition. Deep inside this New York Times story on the foundations run by the Buffett children, lies this gem about how one of the Buffetts is interested in giving grants that help reduce the proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials. “It has found few chances for nongovernment entities to exert influence in that field,” the Times dryly notes.
And there’s the danger, really. It may not be hubris but it certainly is pride. And while ambition – particularly in good works – is almost always commendable, the law of unintended consequences looms large. Anyone following the tech business has seen this, again and again, with the U.S. government’s decision (or, probably more accurately, it’s lack of a decision to decide) on a constructive and reasonable set of polities toward China. It was Gates who had the festive dinner for Chinese Premier Ho Jintao when he visited the U.S. President Bush couldn’t be bothered.
Companies like Yahoo, Google and Microsoft have been pretty much left to their own devices when it comes to China. And not for the better. U.S. companies are in a horrible bind when it comes to dealing with the Chinese because the role the government should play, particularly on human rights, has been abandoned. No one knows what to do because no goal – no idea of what the U.S. as a nation thinks should happen – has been outlined.
Foundations like the ones run by the Buffetts and Gates – which support Planned Parenthood clinics, condom programs for AIDS prevention (which the U.S. government only grudgingly supports; another ridiculous piece of posturing) – are filling in for what the U.S. government should do in Africa and India. That’s obvious. But there’s a real danger that in working abroad in this area, they will come to replace government. And, in the process, they will make policy. That may seem like a good idea: AIDs prevention is a good thing; so is getting rid of malaria. But businessmen, for all their good intentions, make crummy diplomats. It’s not a safe bet that they’ll make particularly good international aid workers.
This is the weakness that’s at the core of the Progressive Libertarian ethos: It’s belief that good intentions on the part of talented, well-meaning people, can and often should, outweigh or overcome the current, more entrenched ways of looking at the world that involve consensus, co-operation and, yes, every once in a while, a willingness to toe the party line for the common, if not the greater, good. This isn’t an insurmountable obstacle for this movement but its fundamental contradiction – that the lone actor is often not the least aware of the consequences of his actions – is one that needs to be addressed.