In his book, “Conspiracies of the Ruling Class,” Lawrence B. Lindsey ’76 distorts history to make an elite argument for privatizing government look like economic populism. Lindsey, a supply-side economist who served as an economic advisor to President George H.W. Bush, argues that over the last century a “ruling class” of ill-defined “elites,” convinced of its own superiority and contemptuous of the Constitution, has taken control of government, converting it into a “nanny state” that gives things away to stay in power. To this we can attribute wealth inequality, the government’s inability to control its own spending and the failure to deliver public goods like infrastructure and health care.
Properly addressing all of Lindsey’s claims is impossible in this space, but his use of history calls for special attention. If his argument fails here, after all, any claims built on it must be shaky as well.
The first thing to note is that all of Lindsey’s opponents are straw men he has made himself. His amorphous Ruling Class appears whenever he needs it to and is comprised of whomever he needs it to be comprised of at the moment. The only thing that allegedly unites his “progressives” across time—“a belief that, with enough power, they could make the United States a better place”—is a simplistic formulation that excludes obvious non-progressive statists, from Reconstruction-era Klansmen to Cold War militarists to Christian theocrats.
Lindsey’s central historical argument asserts that the Progressive movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries transformed the American government “from one with self-government that was limited in its scope to one where an expert government required ever-increasing amounts of power.” Progressivism did mark the rise of a new era of government, as state capacity expanded to match the needs of regulating a large, modern, industrial, capitalist economy. “Conspiracies,” which cites no scholarship on the period, completely ignores this context, claiming instead that a cabal of academic elites and self-appointed “experts” effectively staged a coup d’état, the consequences of which we have been living under ever since.
This is silly. The claim that centralization did not happen until Woodrow Wilson’s presidency is quickly falsified by even cursory consideration of the long century preceding him, which Lindsey ignores. The Constitution has always been a living document, and the expansion of national power has been its legacy—from Thomas Jefferson’s questionable acquisition of the Louisiana Territory in 1803, through Andrew Jackson’s showdowns with the national bank and state nullifiers in 1833, to the Civil War’s demand for conscription, national currency, an income tax and slave emancipation.
Nor can Lindsey claim that centralization has always been the reserve of historical reformers. It was slaveholders, after all, who championed the Fugitive Slave Law, the most sweeping assertion of federal authority over the lives of individual Americans in antebellum history. Long championed by conservatives, the modern global security order rests squarely on large and powerful states. So, too, do all the mechanisms required to enforce property rights, regulate trade and provide the critical infrastructure upon which any healthy free market economy depends. Even conservative Christians remain hopeful this nation will become a theocracy. Lindsey’s claim that only “progressives” like the state cannot bear even cursory scrutiny.
Lindsey cannot even return to the Constitution in search of an idealized past of weak central power. It is of course true that the Framers thought that, having thrown off a king, “power should be decentralized” in the new American state. They limited the authority of the national government in innumerable ways, from granting small states disproportionate power in the House of Representatives and Electoral College, to the Tenth Amendment which explicitly reserves to the states the powers not held by the national government.
But the Framers were more immediately motivated by problems of national weakness. They met in 1787 precisely to expand state power in the wake of the failed Articles of Confederation. Key principles of our government, such as bicameral legislatures and separate and enumerated powers, emerged from that experience, creating a constitution with much more authority than the one preceding it. The new government had the power to raise revenues to maintain its own existence and the strength to regulate affairs between the states, as well as between the states and foreign powers. Whereas the patriots of 1776 railed against gov0ernment centralization, those of 1787 sought to constrain democratic impulses lest the public fall prey to demagogues. Consider the words of Elbridge Gerry in the midst of the debates:
“The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots… They are daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions by the false reports circulated by designing men, and which no one on the spot can refute.”
By Lindsey’s logic, modern liberals alone are the big-state heirs of the Progressives (even though both parties embraced Progressivism back in the day). Employing words like “liberal” and “conservative” as trans-historical constants as Lindsey does is inaccurate and misleading. For example, the antislavery reformers of the antebellum era look like modern progressives for their racial tolerance, but they look like modern conservatives in embracing evangelical Christianity. As for the Progressives, they brought us necessary exercises of state authority, like trust-busting, food regulation and the referendum and recall; but they also brought us segregation of the civil service, racial disenfranchisement, eugenics and imperialism. Historical legacies are always mixed like this. Connections between contemporary and past political traditions cannot be simply asserted; they must be demonstrated. Lindsey never even makes the attempt.
For him, history seems to offer little more than propaganda fodder. He claims to have undergone a conversion from Washington Insider to Man of the People, but readers may decide for themselves whether he saw Jesus on the road to Damascus or Milton Friedman. In 1995, he lauded a federal revenue windfall, asking, “Wouldn’t you think that the rich would be at least entitled to a small thank-you from the guys in Washington?” Two decades and an alleged conversion later, he claims that “the main driving force behind why we’re spending so much” is that politicians say “vote for me in return for free goods.” (Remember the racist dog whistle around “Obamaphones?”) Both pre- and post-conversion Lindsey follow the standard playbook of modern corporate conservatism in calling for a weak state. After all, weak states are notoriously bad at reining in the excesses of large corporations and their champions.
As a literal member of a true ruling class, Lindsey makes for a very non-credible populist. Instead, he demonstrates how libertarian rhetoric can be hijacked to serve the interests of the corporate order. Ultimately, he and his supply-side colleagues are no different from any of the other interests he has identified in American history, seeking to subvert government to their own purposes when they can and weakening it when they cannot. “Conspiracies” reveals Lindsey not as an elite convert to populism, but as one of Elbridge Gerry’s demagogues, frantically manipulating the levers of popular opinion in the hope of fleecing the misguided.
Ultimately, “Conspiracies of the Ruling Class” is not a serious book. Lindsey produces no evidence of a conspiracy of left-leaning “elites” who have taken control of government and reduced it to an unconstitutional tyranny. He’s wrong about the origins of Progressivism, he’s wrong to posit the modern left as the uncritical heirs of their tradition and he’s wrong to lay the modern problems he identifies at their feet alone. The very crimes he attributes to Progressivism—wealth inequality, uncontrolled government spending and crumbling infrastructure—are problems more easily laid at the feet of Republican administrations since the 1980s than of an amorphous group of progressive conspirators who lived a century ago. His simplistic and erroneous past fails, then, to offer anything other than simplistic and erroneous policy proscriptions. Readers should approach his conclusions with great skepticism.
Patrick Rael is a professor of history.