What Is the Fundamental Problem Politics Must Solve?
A Conversation with Michael Anton
What Is the Fundamental Problem Politics Must Solve?
A Conversation with Mike Anton
“If you’re in the elite and the political class in the United States of America at a time when wages are stagnating, life expectancies are declining, birthrights are crashing, and opioid addiction is rising, you did something wrong or you didn’t do something that you should’ve done. But you’re a bad shepherd. You’re a bad politician. You’re supposed to be a political leader looking out at the health of the body politic, and it got worse under your watch, and you should be blamed for it.” – Mike Anton
Judge: Are you trying to understand the principles that guide American politics? So are we. Welcome to The American Mind podcast. I’m your host, Ben Judge.
Since this is our first episode, we thought we would go back to the basics. What is the fundamental problem politics must solve? What does this mean for governments in general? What does it mean for America?
Helping us work through those questions is Mike Anton. He is a senior fellow at The Claremont Institute and lecturer at Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center in Washington, D.C. He has written for Pete Wilson, Rudy Giuliani, George W. Bush, and most recently, he served in Donald Trump’s National Security Council as Deputy Assistant for Strategic Communications. But many of you know him from an essay he wrote for The Claremont Review of Books titled “The Flight 93 Election.” That essay became the basis for his new book After the Flight 93 Election: The Vote that Saved America and What We Still Have to Lose.
What is his answer to the fundamental problem of politics? And how does that answer lead to his criticism that conservatives are too focused on the accumulation of wealth? Mike Anton on The American Mind.
You set up the fundamental question in politics as: how do you build a regime that secures mere life while facilitating and encouraging the good life?
Anton: There are other ways to put it, but it all comes down to the same kind of problem—
Judge: Safety and happiness.
Anton: —safety and happiness. Or as Strauss put it in one of his essays—I think this is in The City and Man—he says the political problem par excellence—oh, it’s in Persecution and the Art of Writing—is how to reconcile order that is not oppression with freedom that is not license. When you think through the political problem it’s actually very simple to conceptualize and hard to figure out how to actually achieve what you’re trying to do.
Judge: To that point, just as a side note, do you remember when you started to think about politics in that way, at what point in your education?
Anton: Well, it was going to Claremont at first in 1994, and then staying in grad school it was certainly then.
Judge: Do you remember a moment, though, a teacher, or something you read when kind of it clicked?
Anton: Well, before I got to Claremont I studied with one of Harry Jaffa’s sort of forgotten students, because he didn’t publish a whole lot, but a great teacher named Larry Peterman. And we read his two great interests—well, he had three great interests I would say: Aristotle, Dante, and Machiavelli. We did not read Dante together, but we did read all of the Ethics and the Politics together, and all of The Prince and the Discourses together. I learned a ton from him, although not specifically on American subjects; but he’s the reason—or he’s one reason, an important reason why I ended up going to Claremont. Then being exposed to Jaffa in the summer of ’94 is really when this all started.
Judge: If we start with that fundamental question, and then move to—in some ways how the pre-statement moves—you’re saying that governments, and really when you’re talking about governments, just governments have three core tasks: securing equal natural rights, protecting persons and property, and creating and maintaining conditions for the good life. We’ll address those individually, but first let’s talk about these as a group.
You’re laying out the contours for limited government, an emphasis on limited. We talk a lot about size of government, number of agencies, employees, pages in the federal register. How should we think about size in relation to the core tasks of a government?
Anton: I say in there something along the following lines that “limited” and “small” government are not synonymous, but that a limited government will almost in all circumstances—in almost all circumstances be smaller that one not properly so limited.
Anton: Smaller. But the size of government can grow with circumstances. The government gets very big in a war, and one of the things that used to be notable—and I said this to my students last week, emphasis on “used to be”—used to be noticeable about the United States is that after we were done fighting a war and had won a war, the government got really small again. So there’s a whole cadre of Lincoln-haters out there who still blame him for the explosive size and growth of the federal bureaucracy despite the fact that so much Claremont and Hillsdale scholarship has shown that all this came well after the Civil War and well after Lincoln’s Republican Party had started to lose its political saliency. But we can leave that aside for the moment.
If you look at the actual numbers, the figures, the data and so on, the federal government very radically downsized after 1865. The army went and got tiny again. The tax collections and so on, it shrank a lot because the powers that be, who are not yet committed to government as a behemoth for its own sake, recognize they just didn’t need this anymore and it’s, in fact, bad for the people, so we’re going to make it smaller again.
But I do want to back up and say there’s something that precedes or underlays limited government or even small government, and that is a government—and I say this in language that I’m sure will trigger some people—a government has to fit the character of the people it’s governing. So you can try to say limited government is the solution to everything, but if you have a people who doesn’t want it or isn’t fit for it, then it isn’t going to work; and that fitness and not wanting it can come from different perspectives. So, for instance, if you went to a Scandinavian welfare state-type country, where a people has always had a high-taxation, generous state, and they like it, and it’s what they want, and you try to say, “No, no, the only just government is an American constitutional limited government,” it will probably fail on their terms because it will be rejected by the body politic.
But in the same way—I’m a fan of and a reader of Machiavelli and he uses a lot of naughty words and one of the words he uses a lot if “corrupt.” If you try to maintain or impose limited government on a corrupt people or a people either used to or who have through the degeneration of their own habits and virtues become more suited to a despotism, then it’s not going to work. That’s one of the things that worries me about the trend in American politics is that we’re maybe making the people—I think I can delete the “maybe”—maybe we are making the people less fit for limited government.
Judge: That might be a dual corruption: a corruption of the institutions and a corruption of the people.
Anton: Right. There’s no question it’s circular and reinforcing, that the institutions wanted to do this to the people. John Marini’s new book, Unmasking the Administrative State—which I have read and now reviewed for CRB, although the review’s not yet out—he makes this point that the administrative state is like—it sort of gobbles up the things around it. It corrodes the foundations of the civil and mediating institutions that Tocqueville talks about sometimes not even by design, just by usurping so many of their tasks; and sometimes it attacks them directly as peer competitors that it wants to get rid of.
Judge: We talk a lot about the administrative state, especially as the cause of many of the ills we’re talking about, but really we care about that—and correct me if I’m wrong on this—in relation to the fact that it means a government is not securing equal natural rights, protecting persons and property, and creating and maintaining the good life.
Anton: Yes. What it ultimately is it’s a kind of despotism. The administrative state as practiced is Tocqueville’s soft despotism, and it governs more or less without consent.
I can hear the gasping and the “oh”s and “ah”s, and “Oh, but we still have elections.” Well, we still have elections, but elections—just to back up for a second—elections don’t change the fact that there are all kinds of alphabet soup government agencies that can sue you, fine you, charge you, try you, all within the confines of this one ostensibly executive branch administration. So they write the rules, in other words, they usurp the legislative, although entirely with Congress’s acquiescence. They will administer the rules, so they’re taking over the executive functions. And then they take over the judicial function when you have environmental hearings and you go up before an administrative judge because you killed some kind of new subspecies of fly that had been discovered a day before to stop your project.
All of the sudden you have judge, jury, and executioner in front of you all within the same branch of government. That doesn’t stop just because there are elections, and nobody consented to any of that. This just sort was built up. I was going to say it happened. It didn’t happen. It was built up by design, and the American people never consented to it.
But on a more fundamental level, too, when the American people—I mean, we’re seeing this in action right now—there was an election. They came out and won an election with the promise of getting immigration under control, revisiting our trade deals, and changing our foreign policy. The entire administrative state has gone into overdrive to say, “We’re not going to let you do those things.” That’s not government by consent. That’s not constitutional government. That’s not government by the separation of powers. That is unelected experts saying, “We know better, and when the people make mistakes, we’re here to help you get it right by denying you what you say you want.”
Judge: Yes, and that also shows the battleground to be something other than necessarily the institutions themselves, and there are a few quotes that I wanted to read on those lines. The first one’s from the pre-statement, and this is you: “The best way to secure equal natural rights, especially in an expansive country with a multiplicity of interests and localized differences, is through representative republicanism, federalism, the separation of powers, and limited government.” Okay, sounds good, but the assumption is that these are tools of government.
Just to follow on that, this is Harry Jaffa writing on Willmoore Kendall: “Kendall argues that the supreme symbol of the American political tradition is the virtuous people with the representatives of the virtuous people deliberating under God. We have no quarrel with this formulation as far as it goes. We prefer, on the whole, to speak on the principles of the tradition rather than its symbols.” Are you and Jaffa getting at the same thing?
Anton: Remember that section, that sub-section is called “The American Solution.” So if you break the pre-statement down it has nine sections, plus a little introduction if I recall correctly. It begins with a sort of epistemological statement, how we know what we know or what we say we know about morality and the political right, which is important because social science has eroded over time any conception that the moral and political understanding of human beings reasoning together has any rational basis. So if it’s not peer reviewed and stamped somewhere, it must be illegitimate. I say we have to get this older understanding back because it’s truer and deeper.
Then I go into the mere life versus good life distinction, and I say, okay, here’s the political problem for all human beings. The third section is called “The American Solution,” which is this is how the Founders tried to solve that problem. It’s not the only way to solve that problem. It’s their best attempt at doing so with the circumstances that they had, the particular matter that they had, the people, the territory, the interests, the situation and so on. If the Founders were facing, for instance, they wanted to set up a string of classical republics on the polis model with a little urban core and some farmland, they would’ve set up a different model, and we wouldn’t have the Constitution, and we wouldn’t have a lot of the things that I outline there.
So it’s not to say that those are the only ways one can solve the political problem. It’s the way the Founders attempted to solve it based on the circumstances they found in their time, and I hasten to add, based on circumstances that still remain in our time, which is why if we want to get things right again, looking at what they did—I mean, look, the things that I say: Expansive territory? Check. Large population? Check. Multiplicity of interests? Check. Fundamentally a commercial republic but with agrarian and other types of interests? Check. As much as the country has changed, a lot of its fundamental core interests and circumstances haven’t changed that much, and so the solution ought to still apply, but it’s been under an artillery barrage for 125 years. It’s taken on a lot of damage.
Judge: But no matter what the form, you’d agree, though—getting back to those core tasks—no matter what the form, you’re still judging a government based on securing equal natural rights, protecting persons and property, creating and maintaining conditions for the good life.
Anton: I would. The danger in putting it that way is to say basically, “Well, we’re going to rule any government that doesn’t do this illegitimate,” and then you get down kind of bizarre neocon rabbit holes, where, “Well, if you’re not as democratic as I think you ought to be, you’re bad, and the United States will sanction you, or maybe we’ll even invade you.”
Can we recognize a just regime that isn’t based on the protection of equal natural rights as fully as ours? I think as a prudential matter, we can and we should. We can it’s less just than ours. We can say it’s not something we’d want for ourselves. But have there been legitimate monarchies in the history of the world?
Now on the one hand, you can make the sort of Socratic argument that based on the theory of the forms that anything which is not the perfect perfection of the thing itself is a defective example, and so it isn’t truly that thing, which is a fairly radical argument; but the logic kind of makes sense if you’re only thinking about it only in those terms. But then you turn to Aristotle’s Politics. Would Aristotle say there’s such a thing as a legitimate king? Of course he would, and maybe that legitimate king doesn’t secure equal natural rights in the way we would say he should because the Founders, of course, rejected any kind of formal, aristocratic hierarchy as inimical to the principle of equal natural rights. I reject that, too, to this day partly for reasons I learned from political philosophy that I won’t state here because it would take a while.
On the other hand, you don’t want to mistake a universal principle for a universal practice that can be applied everywhere both because it can’t and also because what are you committing yourself to when you say that?
Judge: On that point, we’ve talked about these core tasks of really any just government within reason, but you make the point that each of these core tasks needs to be translated to fit particular regimes.
Judge: So let’s start with—going through each of those, we’ve talked a little bit about it—securing equal natural rights, translated to the American experience, to American principles of government. What should we be thinking about when translating that from a general principle to a particular?
Anton: Well, we should be thinking about, in a way, going back in time to a better understanding before we had—I can remember the emergence of the phrase “protected class.” I think it was in the nineties. Maybe it was in the eighties. If I have this right, if my memory’s correct, it was a term or derision invented by conservatives to say, “Look at what the Left has done. They have protected classes, and there are some citizens that are more equal than others. This is bad, and this is un-American.” Now, “protected class” the Left has totally owned, and they say, “Yes, of course we have protected classes, and it’s a good thing, and they deserve protection and you don’t.”
So I’ve told this joke—it’s not that funny, but I’ll tell it again anyway—I tell lots of people lately. I went to college in 1987, graduated in the early nineties, which is right when PC craze was really going nuts and getting noticed everywhere. It’s when the cover of Newsweek in 1990 said “Thought Police: Watch What You Say” and it was a long examination of what was going on on the campuses. And we all thought, “Okay, it’s getting noticed. This is the peak. It will have to recede from here because they can’t keep this up for much longer. Also, people are noticing, and they won’t stand for it. Parents will stop paying the tuition bills, or they’ll send their kids somewhere else. Something will happen.”
Judge: [Imitates a sad trombone “wah wah” fail sound and laughs]
Anton: Yeah, well, everything that I thought was total insanity in 1990 is federal law in 2019 and so is the whole concept of the protected class.
So the first thing to—getting back to the securing of equal natural rights—is we’ve got to get rid of that concept all together. Right? Everybody’s an individual, and we’ll be treated as individuals, and there will be no protected classes—except to the extent that we’re all a protected class. We should all have our equal natural rights secured by a government that equally looks out to protect our lives, our bodies and properties from physical harm, and our rights. We don’t have that today.
Judge: You started this by saying “going back in time”—and some of this is a rhetorical problem, but it’s more than that. This is where American political thought and American history come together. You have been a speechwriter, so you’re particularly sensitive to this. Using American history to make these points, how far can you take that?
Anton: It used to be easier, but we’ve gotten to a point where American history has been so demonized where America is nothing but the sum of its real and alleged sins. And that was another thing that we all saw—or at least I saw—emerging when I was an undergrad that I’m amazed—maybe I shouldn’t be—at how far it’s gotten, to the point where so-called conservatives—I wouldn’t necessarily give them credit for being actually conservative—they can’t write anything about the United States without musing, “Of course, America’s past is entirely racist and shameful. Blah blah blah blah blah.”
Well, of course, parts of the American past are racist and shameful, as are parts of almost any country’s past, and if you want to put America’s record up against a lot of the rest of the nations of the world, I’ll say it’s far less shameful than many other countries we could talk about, and yet we’re required to constantly self-flagellate, to the point where—there’s an old line, I think this is right—it’s Cromwell talking to his portraitist. You know we’ve heard the phrase “warts and all.” This is where it comes from. He says to his portraitist, “Paint me warts and all,” and the portraitist does it, and of course, the portrait has warts.
Well, the teaching of American history today is, “Paint only my warts. Forget all the rest. And exaggerate the warts. Dial them up as loudly as you can. Even if you don’t exaggerate, just emphasize the heck out of them. And then make up some other warts, while you’re at it.” I mean that’s it. That’s what American history either has become or is becoming.
Judge: Yes, and reclaiming that—we’ll get to some of this later—reclaiming that is more than a function of educational institutions, even the ones that are doing it, let alone obviously the ones that aren’t. But that’s a political function as well.
Anton: It is. I think it’s one of the things—Trump ran more just old-fashioned unashamedly patriotic in 2016 than—and some people will howl when I say this—certainly Mitt Romney did, who just had too much of an economic kind of message. A decent man, I liked him. If I’d voted for him, I would have been happy if he’d won, but let’s be honest. And even than McCain. And everybody would say, “Oh, no. How can you possibly compare Trump’s patriotism to John McCain’s, who’s a war hero and this and that and the other thing.”
But Trump ran like somebody who sort of stepped right out of an older America, who didn’t even understand what the fuss was about, like, “I’m supposed to be ashamed of what?” Not that he denied any of the real problems in American history, but he just seemed so refreshingly unbowed and unapologetic about it, I think that helped his appeal to a lot of people.
Judge: Securing equal natural rights we talked about. Let’s move on to protecting persons and property. When you translate that into an American principle of government, there are a lot of ways that people normally think about that, especially a lot of conservatives, what should we be thinking about here?
Anton: We should be thinking, first and foremost, about the equal enforcement of criminal law, and that should apply equally to everyone. Think about this for a second. We have protected classes, as I said, right? Well, there are groups of people in this country who, according to elite liberal opinion and even probably federal law somewhere, do belong to protected classes, but they live in areas where crime is very high and where the government either can’t or doesn’t make much of an effort to try to secure their equal natural rights to person and property.
Why do we do that? “Well, you know, because the police are”—that’s another thing, is this sort-of anti-policing them that’s sort of taken over the Left in the last five to ten or even longer years, on which I recommend everyone read Heather Mac Donald, who’s the greatest scholar of that living.
It’s not just a matter of we’re not doing a great job for them. I mean there are a lot of different subsets of the American people who are not getting the government that they’re supposed to get, and that they should get, and that they deserve to get. That would be one thing: equal enforcement of the criminal law.
The conservatives made the mistake of elevating property above its station as a means to freedom and as a means to the good life, and into an end. And the liberals obviously have made the same mistake the Left always makes, and this is kind of what the Left exists to do is redistribute wealth. If there is an historic Left going back 2,000 years, all the way back to Aristotle’s Analysis, they’re there to redistribute wealth.
On the one hand, I understand the impulse, especially in an age—this is another way I part from traditional conservatives—I actually worry a lot about massive income inequality and wealth concentration, and so I understand the impulse to want to see it spread around more widely. I get wary of the means that liberals want to propose, and I look forward to but have yet to see much intelligent thinking from the Right. Maybe there is, and I just don’t know who it is. If so, somebody tell me and I’ll read him. Maybe the American Affairs Journal does this someone, and I bet they do. But where’s the sort of center-Right thinking that says, “We need to find a way to share the wealth more broadly without expropriation and brute force redistribution”?
That’s what Trump’s trade policy is all about. Trump’s trade policy is saying, “Look, there are some very rich people who are going to get poorer and some other people who are going to have to pay higher prices for certain stuff. But then there’s some other people who are hopefully going to see their wages rise and their industries thrive in a level that they haven’t in a while.” I’m personally, even though it supposedly violates conservative economic theory, I’d be all for that. Now the conservative will just say, “Well, it’ll never work,” which is just to me another example of someone who goes, “This system we have right now is the only way it could possible ever happen, so shut up and stop complaining.”
Judge: There’s also a conversation—again, I think you’re right, if there’s someone out there who knows about work being done on this, please tell us—that looks at the full dynamics of wealth in America, but it’s not just wages, right? I mean that’s one component of how people earn money in the United States and in a dynamic economy.
Anton: Yes, and I say this as somebody who worked for two very large financial institutions, this is what Tucker Carlson refers to occasionally, actually fairly frequently, on the show is the continued “financialization” of the U.S. economy, which I don’t think is a good thing for the U.S. economy or for average American workers.
Judge: So getting back to the point of elevating property above its station, above, really, labor. Two quotes from Lincoln, and there’s a reason for these. One, this is in 1858: “That more has been given to you, you can not be justified in taking away little while has been given to him.” There’s an implicit “and vice-versa” in that, and to be made super clear that he means “and vice versa,” second quote—this is from a letter to the Workman’s Association in New York: “Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another, but let him labor diligently and build oneself for himself, thus by example, assuring that his own house shall be safe from violence when built.” So we’re on board with both of those—
Anton: We’re on board with both of those, but those are easy to be abused—
Judge: Right, that’s—
Anton: Okay, I’ll let you finish.
Judge: No, no, no, please. That’s the point.
Anton: It’s easy to take those quotes and say, “Well, this justifies the concentration of all wealth into the hands of a few plutocrats and hedge fund-types, who then pay only capital gains tax and the carried interest loophole and all this stuff,” which is one of those things I don’t know why Trump didn’t just attack. I just think it would have been an obvious one for him to go after, but I never told him to do it or suggested it because it was outside of my canon, and I don’t know whether he would have or not.
Frankly it was easier for Lincoln to say that when the frontier was still open, when going out west and getting essentially free land from the federal government and making of it what your own labor could make of it was far more possible than it is to this day and age.
Where nowadays we have this incredible callousness where, when the Obama Administration was going out of its way to shut down as much coal production as possible, you know, you use the famous phrase “learn to code.” I mean that’s a “let them eat cake” for our time, isn’t it? And I just noticed with some relish that when a lot of new media types got laid off the last week or ten days, they started to get taunted by conservatives on Twitter, saying, “Eh, learn to code.” And how did Twitter respond to that? It banned anybody who said “learn to code” at a journalist—that’s laissez majesty—
Aonton: —the elite, even the fired new media journalists and bloggers and stuff, if they’re on the left, are exempt from criticism, and if you criticize them, we will come after you.
The extent to which Twitter is just an outright enemy of all civilization and truth and justice and fairness is still not sufficiently appreciated, and I say this to all readers: if you ever see me on Twitter and it has the blue checkmark and it’s really me, find me and kill me.
Anton: I want that as widely known as possible so I have no avenue of escape if I someday break down and decide to create a Twitter account. I want the whole world to be able to say, “You’re a total hypocrite. You said you would never do this.”
Judge: The world’s most epic troll, if you ever get an account, will be everyone coming after you.
Anton: I can’t do it. I can’t do it. So I guess that’s my response to that. We live in a totally different economic circumstance now than we did then, and it’s not that easy—there are people in rust belt towns with closed factories, laid off in their fifties. They can’t go move to the frontier and carve a farm out and fell the trees and clear the land and start growing something.
Judge: But they can start a business. Not to take that too far, but the economy—the dynamics of the American economy have always incentivized risk, right? That’s what it’s incentivizing.
Anton: They can, they can start a business, but this is, I think, a flaw in this sort of Tom Friedman Airport best-seller thinking that we’ve been hearing about since the nineties. The actual entrepreneurial spirit is probably greater in the American people than it is in most other peoples as a people, but it’s still always a minority of the population that have it.
Judge: And I don’t disagree with that, but my whole point is that the system has been largely structured to incentivize risk, maybe too far, but that’s the question, right?
Anton: Sure, and I know if there were a labor economist here, what they would say is, “Anton, you’re nostalgic for an era, a sort of post-World War II era, big business and labor stability and income stability that, as happy a time as it may have been, was an anomaly both in the US and world economic history, so you want to bring back something that was rare in the first place, and the conditions of it are gone.” And I get that.
But what I would say back to the labor economist is, “You just want to keep the frankly semi-rotten system that we have now, which is trending toward ever more income inequality and wealth concentration,” something libs used to say they were against. To anybody who says, “let’s try to work together to find solutions to this problem,” we basically just get slapped down and say, “You’re out of touch, you’re out of date, you don’t understand economics.” To quote Candide, “this is the best of all possible worlds.”
Judge: So we did the first two core tasks, now the third: creating and maintaining conditions of the good life. Translate that to American principle of government.
Anton: Well, first of all, that’s a jab, to some extent, at the conservatives who are probably too obtuse to get it, is to say, you guys elevated economics and material prosperity to the highest good and the end, and they’re means. Aristotle—I don’t remember if I quoted him on this point or not, but it’s a famous quote of Aristotle, where he says, “material goods are equipment.” You can’t have the good life without them, but once they define the good life, your soul’s already started to go wrong and corrode.
And you do also run up against a moral problem here, especially in a commercial republic or society based on equal, natural rights: is it moral to say that there ought to limiting principles to how much one can acquire? For instance, Aristotle says bluntly in the Politics that in a well-ordered city, the richest citizen will have no more than five times the wealth of the poorest. Well, imagine trying to enact that into law—Constitutional or otherwise—in the United States.
First of all, it’s politically impossible. But second of all, would you or I say it’s even moral on those terms, or would we say that it even fits the circumstances of the United States? I would say we wouldn’t, but would we also say—I know I would say—wouldn’t it be better if our culture and our religion and our faith and the other, broadly speaking, societal forces that mold who we are and that set moral parameters, including encouragements and taboos—wouldn’t it be better if all of those said, wait a minute, it’s one thing to get rich, it’s another thing—money is not necessarily the end, there are other things.
I mean, Barrack Obama, they didn’t say a whole lot of things that I agreed with, but on this narrow case, I’m going to quote him and say I agree with this. Remember at one point he was lambasted by the conservatives when he said, “at a certain point, you’ve got enough money.” I really agree—at a certain point you’ve got enough money, so what do you do with it?
Now, the robber barons of old—and some today, Bill Gates—he quits and he starts this foundation—people have done it. The robber barons of old were better at it and more concrete in their philanthropy. But there should be a limiting principle to acquisition—not necessarily a legal limiting principle, but a philosophic, moral, religious limiting principle to acquisition. I just think that conservative intellectuals have lost all sight of that, and they go crazy.
I’ll give you another example. I’m going to write a long piece about this, not just this monologue, but about a lot of things having to do with Tucker, because his show’s the most interesting thing on TV by far. After New Year’s, January 2nd, he came back, and he always does an opening monologue, and that one he did this epic 20-minute long—I was going to call it a rant, but it was totally structured and well-written. It was like a political essay, just read aloud on the air. And he made 10 or 15 thousand good points.
But what stirred up conservative ire—official conservative ire—more than anything was, he wasn’t just calling for the free market and all will be well. Where was his pan to entrepreneurialism? He was excusing peoples’ failures, whereas he should have told them that they need to go learn to code, or something like that. It was a kind of a shameful performance on behalf of the official Right, if you ask me, against a point that they—the Right is supposed to be religious, it’s supposed to be morally serious, it’s supposed to recognize some spiritual contours and limits to the life of man, and it would say that it does, but when it comes time to actually getting into the trenches and arguing, it’s just counting coins and has been for a long time.
Judge: And so, to that point—
Anton: Can I just take a controversial whack at somebody else, and you can take this out if you want to take it?
Anton: Here’s a great example that at a certain point you have enough money. The Coke brothers, who have got about $70 billion each have decided—they opposed Trump in ’15, and so on, and now they’ve said, “We’re going to oppose him again in 2020, and we’re going to do all we can.” I’m like, “really?” And what’s of course the breaking point for these guys? Open borders, right? It’s cheap labor—we’ve got to keep that going.
Now let’s say Trump has managed to build a wall and we’ve reformed our immigration system. How much do you think the Coke brothers wealth would decline? Would it go from 70 to 60 or 50? I don’t know, but it’s not going to crater to zero. So at what point have they—and I’m sure they believe they have an ideological reason for wanting open borders and opposing all. But fundamentally the Republican side of the political debate, the business community, the chamber of commerce types, want unlimited mass immigration because it pounds down wages and it makes them richer.
I find there’s something absolutely—I’m looking for the nice word—“anti-citizeny” about that, right? You’re not looking out for the good of your fellow—the whole, the common good of your entire fellow citizenry. At that point you’re looking out for your private good, and something’s not right about it.
Judge: So, to go with that point, then, if that’s part of creating and maintaining conditions of the good life, that there is something important there, you can’t do it at the expense, though, of one of the other two principals. Correct? So when you’re talking—
Anton: No, there is a balance there. Look, if you would say, if we’re going to secure equal natural rights, then somebody could very logically consistently say, “Well, I have an equal natural right to make as much money as my talents will let me make, and any limiting principle you put on that is somehow immoral.”
Okay, maybe, but let’s think that through. Does it mean I can’t tax you? I have to be able to tax you if we’re going to have a government, and if we’re going to secure—also if we’re going to protect our border and protect our collectivity as a nation from foreign invasion or raids or whatever. So I have to be able to tax you. Now we’re getting into the weeds of policy, which where I don’t think the first principle ought to go very often. But does it mean I can’t progressively tax you? Does it mean I can’t treat certain kinds of wealth differently than other kinds of wealth because we do that throughout the tax code now?
For whatever reason we vastly favor capital over income right now, and I know the reasons why. I know the originally stated reasons why. It was to—the argument you’d always get is, well, all these little old ladies with pensions and their life savings invested, well, why should they pay massive capital gains when they’re retiring, and encouraging them to keep their money in the market creates jobs elsewhere. But that argument doesn’t seem, to me, to hold a whole lot of water when you’re talking about guys running hedge funds and private equity firms getting paid a hundred or two hundred million dollars a year, totally out of supposed gains, and none of it taxed as income.
Warren Buffet has said often, “It’s crazy that my secretary pays a 35 percent rate and I pay 2 and 20.” Although one could easily say to Warren, as others have, “Warren, the Feds do take charitable contributions, so if you want to pay your effective tax rate on your capital gains at 35 or 40 or whatever the top marginal rate is, if you send the Treasury a check, I swear they won’t send it back.”
Judge: Going from the principles as applied to the American experience down to actual, not necessarily policies, but the priorities—
Anton: Can I just say one more thing before I forget it?
Anton: So the question is, if we have a tension here between the equal natural right to acquire and a tension between what’s best for the good life, then it becomes—so we don’t think we have a right to positively, unequivocally forbid you from acquisition or from acquisition above a certain level. But we also know that it’s bad probably for your soul, and it’s bad for society if acquisition becomes the highest thing and if wealth concentration increases. But there’s [sic] other things that we can do rather than brute force law or expropriation to discourage that, to discourage the overemphasis on acquisition and to encourage emphasis on other things, and private charity, and things like that.
My only point now is that the balance, it seems, in our society has been tipped way in the wrong direction. We’ve got to re-address the balance.
Judge: So that’s what I want to get to, actually, because a lot of people would hear what you said before and say, “Oh, Mike Anton’s saying that we have to enact legislation to do X, we have to make federal policy that does Y,” and that’s not it. This is more of a philosophic case that looks at the totality of what we can do in both civil and civil society and government—
Anton: But just on a purely political level, it’s like the idiot conservatives don’t realize that the entire billionaire class, that they spend all of their time on their knees writing essays in worship of, hates them and is spending all the money that they spend on politics against them. Do they not know that all of Wall Street and Silicon Valley is liberal democrat, to the extent that they’re involved, with the exception of Peter Theil and one or two Wall Street guys that are involved in conservative causes—maybe there’s [sic] five or six, but it ain’t anywhere close to ten percent, okay? Do they not know that to the extent that they spend money on politics, do the conservatives not know that that money is spent entirely against them? It’s kind of mind boggling.
Judge: Getting down, and we’ve talked a little bit about this as it relates to creating and maintaining the good life, but priorities for thinking about policies—the lens through which we should evaluate policies that touch on each of these principles. Start with creating and maintaining the good life. What are the priorities that we should be thinking about when it comes to actual policy?
Anton: Well, actually policy, let’s see here. Especially domestic policy, I’m not—
Judge: Not necessarily policy by policy, just the ways, the method of evaluating—
Anton: Look, I think there’s a sense growing—I hope it’s not growing—but there certainly had been a sense of hopelessness in certain communities where we saw life expectancies decline after decades or even centuries of them increasing. I mean, the opioid addiction—these are crises of the spirit. The good life is not being served for people in those communities or who end up dying at 58 when their father died at 65 or something—I’m just making numbers up—
Anton: —when they end up hooked on opioids, when their father never drank anything harder than a Michelob or a shot of whiskey. There’s something wrong there. I’ve made this point more than once, which you will grasp as being a fellow political philosophy geek, right?
The shepherd analogy comes up all the time in Greek political philosophy, and I can think of at least two cases where a Socratic or Socrates stand-in basically says to somebody, “Look, if you’re the shepherd, and you have a flock, and sheep in your flock are dying, you’re a bad shepherd.” Right? You could say, “Well, it’s the sheep’s fault. They shouldn’t have eaten that grass or they shouldn’t have done this, or blah blah blah.”
But your job is to make the herd—the flock—thrive. If they’re not thriving, you’re doing something wrong, or you’re ineffective, and when—so if you’re in the elite and the political class of the United States of America at a time when wages are stagnating, life expectancies are declining, birthrights are crashing, and opioid addiction is rising, you did something wrong or you didn’t do something that you should’ve done. But you’re a bad shepherd. You’re a bad politician. You’re supposed to be a political leader looking out at the health of the body politic, and it got worse under your watch, and you should be blamed for it.
Judge: So that’s one principle. Moving on to protecting persons and property—
Judge: —and specifically—we talked about this earlier in the interview—equal enforcement of criminal law. Priorities that we should be thinking about for policies in that area—
Anton: I can give two sort of broadly speaking examples, one of which I already gave. There are places where anarchy essentially reigns, either because government has lost its will or because any number of reasons. But there are people in pockets throughout this country that don’t really have the effective protection that they deserve, that they should have from the authorities. And there’s another example—Victor Davis Hanson writes about this a lot—a specific kind of unequal enforcement where the—this is very common now, according to him, and I see it a little bit, but I’m not in California, he’s there all the time, I’m there occasionally—where the California state government sort of decides how much it’s going to enforce the law based on how much it thinks it can get out of you.
His point is if you’re a traffic cop and you see a rambling old wreck run a stop sign, you let it go because you’re like, “I can pull him over. I can cite him. He won’t show up in court. We’ll never find him again. He won’t pay the ticket, blah blah blah.” If a Lexus does it, nail him, right? He’s going to come. He’s got a lot to lose. We know who he is. We can find him. We’ll fine him. We can get the money out of him. So there’s a sort of unequal enforcement on that basis, which is totally unfair.
I can just give a third example. I don’t know what Robert Mueller’s report will finally say. He seems to have had a year and half, from what I’ve read, and spent about 25 million dollars, and I can’t remember how many attorneys and investigators, but it’s fifty. We have no Russian collusion, but he sent 29 armed men to raid Roger Stone’s house over lying to Congress and some other stuff.
Now I always found Roger Stone a comic figure. I don’t know much about him. He seems very sleazy. One of the funniest articles on any subject I ever read in my entire life was a profile of him by Matt Labash in The Weekly Standard from like 2008—I don’t even remember when it was. Labash clearly ends up thinking the guy was great, hilarious, fun, but you don’t come away from that piece, as sympathetic as it is, thinking, “What a good man.” Right? And yet why did the government do that to him? Does that seem like equal enforcement of the laws to you? That’s the kind of thing that in most other circumstances—“Your client’s going to be charged with X and Y and Z, okay, we’ll bring him to his arraignment tomorrow, blah blah blah blah blah.” Twenty-nine armed men?
Judge: And CNN’s usually not outside peoples’ house.
Anton: And CNN, you know, tipped off in advance. As Tucker Carlson pointed out—or others pointed this out before, but that’s where I heard it first—that’s more people than Navy Seals went into Osama Bin Laden’s compound. For a guy who doesn’t have a gun, or even a permit. I mean they could look that up. Does he have a permit? Maybe he’s armed in there. Nope, not even a permit.
Judge: Creating and maintaining conditions of the good life, protecting persons and property, that leaves the last one: securing equal natural rights. Policy priorities—what do we think about that?
Anton: I think we kind of covered this. I mean, the protected class should go. It just should go. It has no Constitutional or moral basis. Now the Left would say it has a moral basis, which, if you want to get into the last third of the book, where it gets a bit little spicier—the Left has a moral basis which says there are these historical crimes that have happened, and the ancestors of those who we say were the criminals owe perpetual reparations—for lack, I mean, that’s the word that some use—to the ancestors of those who were the victims. So the protected classes deserve their protections because they’ve been subject to these predations over the years.
And then you could say, “Well, okay, maybe I accept that.” Certainly we know that there was slavery, and there were slaves, and so therefore there are decedents of slaves, and we can then get into all the things the United States government has tried to do to redress that legacy and whether that’s sufficient or not sufficient. But it raises a whole lot of other questions, which is to say, how long does this go on?
For instance, I’ll just say it: my ancestors got to this country after the Civil War. In one case 20 years after; in another case 40 years after, depending on which side you’re looking at. So there’s no way, as a matter of blood-guilt, you could say that I have any responsibility for slavery. And yet the Left will say it. This is what they mean when they say “privilege,” that you’re just all part of a class and even if you think you didn’t, you do because you benefit from it in the here-and-now. You benefit from this accrued privilege in the here-and-now, and that accrued privilege is impossible to separate these historic crimes even if you personally didn’t commit—or even if you have no direct personal connection to those who did, just by being a citizen of the United States, which did, and you’re taking that benefit—I mean, that understanding, aside from being—so that’s their moral case. I’m not saying they don’t have a moral case. I’m saying I find it repugnant and logically inconsistent and also really corrosive. It just sort of seems to me designed to tear the country into little bits—
Judge: That’s benefits and claims.
Anton: Yes, and they don’t seem to care.
Judge: Well, with that we’ll have to leave it there. Mike Anton, thank you.
Anton: Thank you.
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