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Peter Ferrara: Too Busy Being a Hack

The thing that has baffled me about the Bush debacle on Social Security is the sheer incompetence of the thing. They had twenty years in which they seem to have known exactly what they wanted to do. They had time, they had money. Couldn't anyone do the math? Didn't anyone bother to figure out how the transition costs were supposed to work, or come up with a better method to make the accounts work than the "clawback" of guaranteed benefits?

One theory I've had is that conservatives have a problem that's the opposite of the problem liberals have. We (liberals) like to design government programs. We collect our MPAs and our MPPs from the Kennedy school or the Woodrow Wilson School, and we learn all about design constraints and moral hazard and so forth. (I actually never did any of that, but I learned at the feet of some masters.) And as good as we are at designing programs when given the opportunity, we're generally pretty weak at developing big ideas and ideology to get us into power so that we can again have that opportunity.

Conservatives, I assumed, were the opposite. They don't like government and as a result, they aren't interested in learning how to design its programs. They're good at the ideology, big ideas and message, but when their message wins them the opportunity to actually design or redesign a program, they're in over their heads.

Obviously a generalization, but I think that's part of it.

But from Franklin Foer's article on Jack Abramoff and the corruption of Washington think tanks, I learn that there might be another answer. Consider the case of Peter Ferrara, the "notoriously unkempt wonk" who wrote a paper on privatizing Social Security at Harvard Law School and supposedly has spent the twenty years since refining and promoting the idea. Only he wasn't. What he was doing was Abramoff's errands:

As money-for-influence scandals unwind, pundits usually invoke Deep Throat's famous aphorism, "Follow the money." But, to understand Abramoff's success, you must follow the byline. Seemingly every time Abramoff acquired a client, Norquist or ATR's chief counsel, Peter Ferrara, would write a Washington Times column making that client's case. In the mid-'90s, Channel One, a TV network beamed into schools, paid Abramoff several hundred thousand dollars. Meanwhile, Norquist argued, "Channel One has come up with a brilliant free-market innovation that can translate into lower taxes." In 1998, the Puerto Rican statehood movement shelled out $400,000 for Abramoff's services. That year, Ferrara made the conservative case for that client's cause: "Moreover, unlike the United States, Puerto Rico has school vouchers and school prayer. Polls indicate it would be another bastion for the religious right." After Abramoff reportedly began working with the Malaysian government, a Ferrara op-ed argued, "The U.S. should reaffirm its relations with Malaysia and collaborate closely with it in the global war against terror."

The Republican scandals and the Republican policy failures, it turns out, are intimately related in more ways than you might realize.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on May 10, 2005 | Permalink


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"Channel One has come up with a brilliant free-market innovation that can translate into lower taxes." Norquist, our philosopher-king.

Posted by: fnook | May 10, 2005 7:34:04 PM

I tend to lump Bush's Social Security thrust along with his Bernie Kerrick thrust. Neither displayed much aforethought, both were filled with large unexplainable logical black holes, and both sorta sputtered off into the sunset. These appear to be two things that little George himself wanted to do, not big Dick's agenda, not Karl's Rovespeakian transformations. All of the supporting cast has done their best, much like all the kings horses and all the king's men, but it ain't workin'.

Posted by: Mud | May 10, 2005 10:16:38 PM

I think means testing is a bad idea. I've watched employees of mine go through the hoops, hurdles and appalling treatement meeted out by means tested public services. Please don't suggest that everyone but the very rich must endure this treatment for the rest of our lives.

Posted by: Gail Davis | May 11, 2005 11:55:43 AM

Money doesn't talk, it screams.

Posted by: The Heretik | May 11, 2005 1:50:50 PM

This, obviously, is one of the problems when Straussians, neocons, and other big-thinking theorists involve themselves in the day-to-day operations of government -- and I say that, as I have mentioned before in this space, as something of a Straussian myself (who also works for the Govt. of Ontario, Canada). The lesson, as usual, can be drawn best from Plato's Republic (not to mention Aristotle's Politics): there is an insurmountable tension between theory and practice (philosophy and the city), one that can never be fully resolved. Remember that even Plato never intended for philosophers to rule the city, which would have been bad BOTH for philosophy and the city. It's one thing to advise, quite another to rule, and the Republican ascendancy has, among other things, brought about a convergence of advice and rule, not to mention theory and practice. Take Bill Kristol, for example, who straddles the Straussian and neocon camps. It's one thing for him to recommend global American hegemony at the PNAC or in the pages of the Standard. On that level, he can contribute to a healthy debate about America's role in the world and the proper use of American power. But when those high-level ideas are put into practice -- via the many PNACites in the Bush Administration (Wolfowitz, Bolton, etc.), you get the idealism that fueled Iraq.

What's amazing to me, as a Straussian, is that so many political Straussians, who should know their Plato, don't get this.

On another note, this goes back to your piece, Mark, on David Brooks's column on the diversity of the conservative movement. What he recommends for liberals there is dead-on. We do need to re-examine our ideas, not just our ability to run government efficiently. And this doesn't just mean thinking strategy and the acquisition of power. It means thinking about what it is what we stand for as liberals. That is, thinking about what liberalism means in the hyper-modern, post-industrial age. With the old assumptions well behind us, we need that kind of revitalization to recapture American politics from the right.

For those who might be interested, my writings on Strauss -- arguing for LIBERAL Straussianism -- are here:


and here:


I welcome comments, as I'm trying to start up a discussion of what Strauss, Straussians, and Straussianism mean (given all the uneducated press they've been getting of late). I, for one, am trying to rescue Strauss from the clutches of the right -- and to return him to his rightful place as a true Socratic liberal.

Posted by: Michael J.W. Stickings | May 11, 2005 2:42:12 PM


I studied some Strauss in college from some conservative professsors (and I don't remember much other than he was hard to understand), but I agree with you--I don't think it necessarily implies conservative politics. There was an article in the New York Review of Books several months ago by Mark Lilla that talked about the difference between Straussian intellectuals, neoconservatives, and how liberals wrongly conflated the two.

As for the difference between conservatives and liberals, I have a theory that one reason the US was able to mobilize so effectively in WW II is that you had an administration that knew how to use government to accomplish societal ends. I suspect the mobilization would have been more difficult had a Republican been in office. But I agree that liberals need to examine their underlying premises and ideas rather than just taking it for granted that these ideas are superior. They also need to abandon the assumption that meritocratic "credentials" translate into political influence. There was too much obsession about Bush's alleged lack of intelligence and inability to speak, etc. It's irrelevant to most of the voters--people want leadership, not degrees or even erudition.

Posted by: Marc Schneider | May 11, 2005 3:36:47 PM

I take it that this is the same Peter Ferrara who is associated with the Virginia Club for Growth. I.e. the one who received a butt kicking from more fiscally sane Republicans this past session.

And that he is the same Peter Ferrara who is the author of the various versions of the American Legislative Exchange Council and State Policy networks work on privatizing defined benefit pension systems for public employees.


Posted by: benton | May 11, 2005 4:10:39 PM


Very true. Thinking that Bush is an idiot (or, worse, a Nazi) and that conservatives are evil doesn't get us anywhere, although name-calling has become one of the pastimes of some liberals these past few years. And you're right: Americans want leadership from their president, not an intellectual. Which is why this must be a multi-pronged effort: revitalization through philosophical introspection and debate, plus a strategy for translating that dynamic diversity into electoral success. Conservatism is, in fact, a diverse movement, but the Republican Party has emerged as an efficient bottleneck through which the more "electable" ideas must pass. Meanwhile, Democrats bicker and complain and engage in the usual internecine scapegoating (It's Dean's fault, it's Kerry's fault, it's Gore's fault, it's Clinton's fault, it's McAuliffe's fault, etc.).

But there are positive signs out there. The convergence of intellectual dynamism and electoral efficiency may be accidental, and both the Republican Party and the conservative movement are coming undone. And you don't have to take Andrew Sullivan's word. The pieces on Abramoff by Foer and Chait show just what corruption is now eating away at America's "majority" party. DeLay and Rove will continue to do their best (worst) to secure that majoritarian status -- and E.J. Dionne's recent column "A GOP Plan to 'Fix' the Democrats" shows how -- but that likely won't be enough to save the Republican Party from its own worst self.

Or so I hope, anyway.

By the way, Lilla is one of the more unorthodox Straussians out there, and his pieces in the NYRB are excellent. So, too, is his book Intellectuals in Politics. We are certainly not all alike!

Posted by: Michael Stickings | May 12, 2005 12:41:31 AM


Lilla's piece about the Straussians that I read in NYR was startlingly close to my own experience in college (in terms of the almost Star Trek-like atmosphere and the use of jargon). God save philosophers from their followers.

I remember after Watergate people thought the GOP was done for. I was in college and one of my friends was bemoaning what he assumed was the demise of the party. Things turned out ok for them. So, while the Democrats are struggling now, things can and almost certainly will turn around. The American party system has been incredibly resilient and I think the Democrats will rebound.

Posted by: Marc Schneider | May 12, 2005 9:54:26 AM

Man, this is turning out to be one of the more interesting blogs, both body and comments...

Not to get too far afield (well, too late for that!), but I have been studying Strauss (off and on) during the last couple years - I hope critically - and was very interested in Mr Stickings take. His point that all of what are somewhat loosely called 'Straussians' aren't identical is well taken - and that, indeed, the basic ideas of Strauss are not a 'religion' but rather a foundation, a point of departure for some. But I gather that there is a reason 'liberal' Straussians are a distinct minority (BTW, Allan Bloom - registered Democrat or not - was anything but a 'liberal').

From my reading of Strauss and others, I don't see how you can escape the fact that Strauss was indeed a political philosopher - just because he didn't deal with particular issues of the day doesn't mean he wasn't. And I'm also puzzled by this:

there is an irreconcilable tension between philosophy and politics

Does it make sense that this tension is completely 'irreconcilable'? Contrary to what you suggest above, this seems to me to be a VERY 'post-modern' (in a political sense) point of view. If it is indeed completely 'irreconcilable', then is it really a 'tension' at all? (I think Strauss was in fact a political 'post modernist' which is why I'm not so fond of him).

I'm also aware that Strauss explicitly praised liberal democracy, but surely you must read not just other philosophers but Strauss himself for his esoteric meanings as well as exoteric...

Anyway, maybe this is not the place to have this discussion, but I just had to toss in a comment....

Posted by: jonnybutter | May 12, 2005 11:58:06 AM

While I know little to anything about Strauss I'd like to answer Jonnybutters' question on the "irreconcilable tension between philosophy and politics" if I may try.

The tension is real and very old because it is the tension between the Ideal and the Real. As an example let's take taxation, follow the logic.

I believe that humans are endowed with the rights of Life, Liberty and Property.

I am free to work.
I am entitled to keep the fruits of my labor.
That which I create or gather as the result of trading my labor or my creations is my property.
The confiscation of my property is a violation of my right to that property therefor the income tax is wrong.

Pretty basic, right? and ideally that would be the case. Ideally, the rights to Life, Liberty and Property and the responsibilities associated with them should be enough to keep the world running smoothly. But in reality the confiscation of that property is necessary in order to fund the protection of the rest of your life, liberty and property rights because in reality, not everybody respects these rights. See the tension? How much is too much? Is any too much? Ideally yes, in reality no.

I say it's a very old tension because it is one found in religion where you have an ideal that is impossible to live up to. For years you have had the tension between the monks in seclusion espousing that the ideal is the way to live else you shall be damned and the Priests in churches who see that good people exposed to tough choices may sin. While the Priests know that sin is wrong they also realize that it will happen.

I don't think the tension is reconcilable because you will always have the ideal that you measure reality (which can never be ideal) against. You can find balance between the two as long as you realize that there are the two. This tension, in religion, is moderated by casuisitry, in public life, through politics.

Was it Aristotle that said something like "It doesn't matter that a man reaches his destination, what matters is that he's on the path to that destination." In any case my point is, as long as politics is striving for the ideal of philosophy, it doesn't matter that it will never reach it.

Posted by: Lloyd | May 12, 2005 2:49:02 PM

Thanks for the good comment, Lloyd. I think we're in a semantic thicket here. Perhaps I misused the word 'reconciled'. The sense of that word I had in mind is precisely what you describe in your 'taxes' example - you have to pay something to 'protect the rest of your life'. I mean that that compromise is an 'essay' (an attempt), a rationalization, of the two competing things. The tension of the two will never be fully resolved, but that doesn't mean you stop trying to reconcile the two in some practical way, always trying to improve on that reconciliation.

I bring this up in the Strauss context because my understanding of Strauss' thinking is: the two can never be 'reconciled' (in my sense) at all, so it's better to not even try; never the twain shall meet: politics is NOT to 'strive for the philosophical ideal', as you put it. If that's the case, there's no 'tension'. Only the philosopher knows Truth; politics is all illusion, so better to just admit it and make it the most effective illusion you can. There's nothing 'liberal' or rationalist about that POV.

Posted by: jonnybutter | May 12, 2005 9:41:39 PM

If that's the case, I don't think I'd like Strauss too much. :-)

From my perspective you always have to be striving for the ideal and if you fail to reach it, you should acknowledge you haven't reached it and try to figure out what prevented you. Obviously in the end you will never reach it but without the ideal as a guide, what do you have guiding your decisions?

Posted by: Lloyd | May 13, 2005 7:25:41 AM

I wonder what Mark thinks of this. I hope he doesn't mind that The Decembrist includes, here, such a thoughtful conversation about the relationship between politics and philosophy (via Strauss). I hope I didn't open an unpleasant can of worms. But I was prompted to bring Strauss up both because a) I'm a Straussian and being one influences my politics; b) Mark himself is keenly interested in the "right" and has shown that he is undogmatic and willing to listen to opposing view both from without and within liberalism; and c) to defend the possibility of Straussian liberalism.

I had hoped to start to get such a conservation going on my blog (click on my name, below, to get to it, or see my comments above for the links to my Strauss posts), but, obviously, this is a much more widely-read blog.

Here are some responses to the above replies:

It is true that Straussian Democrats are in the minority. I can name, say, William Galston, Clinton's domestic policy advisor, but there are many more Straussian Republicans for every one Galston. The reason for this, I think, is that political Straussianism came of age very much in the late-'60s and early-'70s during some awfully turbulent times both throughout the United States in general and on college campuses in particular. This is Bloom's starting point in The Closing of the American Mind -- a book which he wrote in part as a response to the inability of liberals to defend themselves against the challenges of the radical left (hence its polemical style in places). Although Bloom wasn't "liberal" in the way that, say, Howard Dean is liberal, it is not necessarily the case that liberalism is nothing but egalitarianism with no sense of its founding principles. Liberalism properly understood, after all, is rooted in natural right (see Hobbes/Locke and the American Founders). The upsurge of campus leftism, supported by Franco-Germanic relativism (derived from Heidegger and his followers) was (and is) a serious threat to liberalism. Bloom understood that as so many liberals didn't (and don't). Where conservatism is now in the clutches of evangelicalism, liberalism was then in the clutches of moral relativism.

If political Straussian were coming of age now, as opposed to then, there might be more Straussian liberals and Democrats. As it is, many Straussians aligned (and allied) themselves with, and were funded by, the conservative movement during its rise in the '70s (with all those think-tanks, publications, foundations, etc.), and many of their political students found it much easier to get ahead in the Republican Party. Anecdotally, I've heard that Bill Kristol more or less chose the Republican Party out of political expediency, not true conviction (which is why he's much more partisan than ideological).

Strauss and Straussianism is incredibly appealing to young people, especially to undergraduates just finding their way and figuring themselves out. I say this in part as one who taught about 300 students at the University of Toronto. Where so much of political theory merely serves to reinforce our reigning orthodoxies, Strauss teaches us to look through them, and beyond them, to what is true about human nature and the human condition. This approach isn't for everyone, but it isn't necessarily elitist. It is about the pursuit of truth, not the acquisition and implementation of truth, and, as such, it is truly enlightening and liberating -- and, yes, liberal. Most people, I think, prefer to live under a veil of ignorance, and I don't begrudge them that. Philosophy -- which asks questions to which there are no easy answers -- requires a certain courage, as Socrates understood it, to face the possibility that there simply are no answers.

I cannot deny that Straussianism attracts many conservatives. But I would add that it does so largely because the academic world, where most Straussians reside, is rather leftist (and not always in a good way), and because it does not accept as a permanent given the reigning orthodoxies of the day. It thus appeals more precisely to those who are not satisfied with those orthodoxies than to conservatives. In that sense, it is truly radical. Although Straussian conservatives may use Strauss to justify their own political ends (and the means to those ends), Straussian liberals understand that Strauss was a friendly critic of liberal modernity -- not to debunk it, but to strenthen it. What liberals must come to realize is that they can learn a lot more from their friendly critics than from their sycophantic admirers.

Obviously, this reply has gone on long enough. I had wanted to say something about the relationship between politics and philosophy. All I will say here is that philosophy understood in its Socratic (and Straussian) context poses a threat to all political rule. The story of Socrates is itself indicative of this tension. Let's remember that he was executed by his city essentially for questioning the city's reigning orthodoxies.

I'll continue to address these issues on my blog. I hope you all continue to check it out, but this conversation here is quite fascinating.

Posted by: Michael J.W. Stickings | May 13, 2005 2:23:40 PM

Another good blog to read! Oh my god! Now if only I didn't have to actually WORK for a living!

Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Michael. I will find the time to make it over to your blog.

Posted by: jonnybutter | May 13, 2005 2:38:20 PM

"...although name-calling has become one of the pastimes of some liberals these past few years."

Yes, it's sad. If only we could return to the respectful days of the Clinton administration.

Posted by: Barry | May 13, 2005 2:47:41 PM

Barry's right, Michael.

Posted by: jonnybutter | May 13, 2005 3:41:36 PM

Yes, he is. But I didn't mean to suggest that liberals are the only ones who engage in name-calling. The attacks on Clinton, not to mention the idiocies of people like Hannity, Coulter, Malkin, etc., are in a league of their own. Hannity even refers in the subtitle of one of his books to the war against terrorism AND liberalism.

What I will say is that it doesn't serve much purpose, other than gleeful self-congratulation, to respond to Bush and the Republican Party with insults. In that sense, we SHOULD ABSOLUTELY NOT do what they do. We should rather engage them on the playing field of ideas. But that also means thinking about our ideas and how best to articulate them to the electorate.

Regardless, I'm filled with venom when it comes to characters like Bolton and DeLay -- both of whom I've written about extensively in recent days -- and I can think of a lot of suitably nasty names for them.

Posted by: Michael J.W. Stickings | May 13, 2005 4:15:20 PM