David R. Henderson  

Phil Maymin on Glenn Beck

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But Beck does not make a single case against immoral government behavior. In fact, he agrees with the principle. And this is the third, and biggest, problem that I have with him.

He started and ended his show with the same scenario, saying that America is facing a choice, a choice between socialism and freedom. And that while there are some that support socialism, there are more of us who support freedom, and books like Nudge are implicitly supporting socialism without actually saying so, and therefore depriving the American people of the debate. Let's just have it out in the open, he says, and let the people decide.

And that's where he is most wrong. Some things are absolutely not up to the people to decide. If a majority voted to execute an innocent person without due process, that is wrong. If they voted for genocide, that is wrong. Morality and majority vote are not the same thing.

But Beck thinks they are. And that's where he reveals his statism and his socialism. Majority vote is the very basis of socialism. But true libertarians know that even 95 percent of a county can be wrong. And the important fight is to win the war in the hearts and minds of people with truth and actual engagement of the details, not sweeping things under the rug, arguing about slippery slopes, or playing clips of a handful of people.

This is from "Glenn Beck the Socialist." The whole thing is worth reading. I hadn't come across Phil Maymin's work before, but I followed some links and found it impressive. Here's Maymin on the efficient market hypothesis. Here's a fun ad he ran when he ran for Congress.

Update: Here's an excerpt from an e-mail I received from Phil Maymin this morning. Congratulations, commenters.

Most of the comments on your blog post are excellent. In retrospect I probably should have used populist/majoritarian, even though I do think they, and socialism, communism, fascism, etc., are all just different varieties of the same species. At the very least I should have made that clearer in the article.

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COMMENTS (20 to date)
Old Whig writes:

If you call Glenn Beck a socialist what do you call Barack Obama and Van Jones?

John Jenkins writes:

Majoritarian ≠ socialist.

darjen writes:
If you call Glenn Beck a socialist what do you call Barack Obama and Van Jones?

Methinks that Phil Maymin is not a frequent Beck watcher.

If he were, he would know that Glenn Beck has OFTEN spoken out about the importance of government policies based on principles (the Constitution, religion, the Golden Rule). Glenn Beck has OFTEN spoken out about the potential evils of majority or mob rule when it stands against basic principles (slavery, Indian Removal, internment of Japanese and German citizens, forced sterilization, etc.).

I am with Mr. Beck in believing that government policies (i.e., "nudges") should be transparent and open for debate rather than left to unelected bureaucrats or hidden in thousand page bills.


David R. Henderson writes:

@Old Whig,
Good question.
@John Jenkins,
Good point.
Good answer.

Me: I would call Beck a contingent socialist. Given John Jenkins's point, if the majority chose socialism, that would be fine with Beck.

Scott Scheule writes:

No, that's not fair. You can believe in a certain form of society, and yet still believe on the meta-level in democratic rule. It's like playing tennis: you want to win, but you still want certain rules followed. You want libertarianism, but you feel you should have to convince people it's correct, not impose it from above.

We can debate majoritarianism, and we can debate socialism, but conflating the two is just confusing, and not a little underhanded.

And Beck would not be find with the majority choosing socialism--I presume he would continue to argue that they've made the wrong choice. He just thinks there are certain methods for deciding things on a society-wide level. I imagine all of us follow similar rules--few of us would be willing to impose libertarianism (or whatever else) by threat of nuclear annihilation.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Scott Scheule,
Good point and you made it well. I think you substantially overstated the point, though. You're right that Beck would probably still argue against socialism. But it's not like tennis. When I enter a tennis match, if the rules are followed, there's nothing unfair or evil if I lose. But if majoritarian rules are followed and the majority chooses socialism, that is unfair and evil. It's not unfair by majority rules. But it is unfair by other rules.

rpl writes:

It seems weird to talk about "imposing" libertarianism. Who, exactly, is being imposed upon, and what is the nature of that imposition? Are we calling it an imposition now to say that you can't boss your neighbors around? You never had that right to start with, so declining to grant it to you can't rightly be described as imposing anything.

Scott Scheule writes:

1. I agree it's unfair. Hence I said, "we can debate majoritarianism." We can also debate the rules of tennis.

2. Unfair or not, it's not socialism.

Dan K. writes:

Of all the potential "biggest problems" one might have with Beck, this one seems quite hollow.

Beck, like any decent advocate, is using the arguments available to him based on the facts as he sees them. He thinks a majority are against a move toward statism, so he posits a majoritarian appeal. That doesn't make him a majoritarian at the expense of everything else (for example, a "true libertarian"). Even less does it make him a socialist. If he felt a majority were in favor of "socialism", one can imagine he would be making more Madisonian arguments. In our political system, both majorities and constitutional limits on government are important. There is nothing dishonest or inconsistent about appealing to both simultaneously if both happen to support your postition.

Scott Scheule writes:


It seems weird to me, too, but that's because I'm a libertarian and I look at my preferred social arrangement as being the one without coercion. But if you, or I, were a socialist, I imagine we'd look at things differently, arguing something like: "It seems a bit odd to talk of imposing socialism, because of course you never had any right to ownership of property in the first place. Are you calling it an imposition now that you can't steal objects that are really owned by society as a whole?"

That's off the top of my head, but I bet most folks could come up with similar defenses of their philosophies.

Sean Boots writes:

I'm thinking this author is using the term "socialist" when he really meant to say "populist". If you exchange out those two terms the article makes a whole lot more sense...

Doc Merlin writes:

"You want libertarianism, but you feel you should have to convince people it's correct, not impose it from above."

This reminds me of a discussion I had with one of my professors, Michael Ward over at http://managerialecon.blogspot.com/ . He pointed out to me that some of the most successful and free market leaning societies all had it imposed on them from the outside, often by being British colonies. He made the point to me that while we often like to think that the free market arises spontaneously its actually very rare for it to do so. If anything, our system is a positive aberration from the norm. It was a small part of a really interesting discussion.

Anyway, it got me thinking about what it means to "impose" libertarianism. When the North invaded the South during the civil war and freed the slaves, were they "imposing freedom" on them? When the Allies defeated the Japanese and then the US military rewrote their constitution into one that was more libertarian, were we imposing freedom on the Japanese people?

I don't have good answers yet, and haven't completely thought through them, but I wanted to share as it was relevant to this discussion.

Chris Koresko writes:

The thing that strikes me about Maymin's commentary is that while he sounds like a genuine expert on Nudge, and he probably has correctly identified a series of mistakes in Beck's understanding of that book, his one hour of exposure to Beck doesn't remotely qualify him to offer general commentary on Beck or his views. It's kind of like writing a long discourse on a soap opera after seeing a half-hour episode. There's just way too much missing contextual information to make sense of it in isolation.

Beck presents himself as a man in search of answers to big questions. His major thesis, if I understand it right, is that the U.S. has gone off the course laid for it by the Founders, and that the root of this diversion is the Progressive movement. He says we've forgotten critical elements of our history and accepted myths in their place, and that these myths are leading us to accept an ever-expanding role of government in our lives. He calls for a return to our founding principles, including interpretation of the Constitution as an enumerated list of powers.

Beck is not remotely Socialist. It takes a deep ignorance, or a weird mental back-flip, to cast him as one.

Chris Koresko writes:

On re-reading my post above, I wish I had not included that last sentence. My sincere apologies to anyone who finds it as offensive as I now believe it to be.

David R. Henderson writes:

Thanks, Chris.

Kurbla writes:

Maymin's article is typical fascist propaganda.

Brian Clendinen writes:

No Beck is in some ways a hypocrite. I have seen this fairly regularly with the more populist side of the right, especially talk radio host. Ideas which are not important to them popular rule is fine. On issues that are important and it appears a majority are on their side, they argue the government is morally wrong not to listen to the people and is out of touch should listen to the people. If they are on the minority side of an important issue, they argue it is bad and politicians due not know what they are doing. The argument most of the time is only implied that the majority is wrong. every once in a while they will come out and say it. So populism only becomes a tool to sell their idea if it supports the issue. Which makes since because talk radio is a commercial enterprise so they are trying have discussion in a way a majority of their listeners will agree and cause an emotional response thus listen again.

Beyonder writes:

If, as Maybin argues, believing in democratic rule disqualifies an individual from being a libertarian (and makes one a socialist), what forms of political organization are left for libertarians to subscribe to? Since as a libertarian Maybin is presumably against autocratic forms of political organization, his position implies necessarily that you cannot be a libertarian unless you are also an anarchist.

Brendan writes:

When I read Robin Hanson, or Arnold, their style comes across as 100% truth seeking, no matter what. They obviously want to say something interesting, which is also true, but they won't sacrifice truth for the sake of saying something interesting, or fantastic.

This Maymin guy strikes me as the complete opposite. Just a bunch of jumbled thinking leading to a predetermined attention getting conclusion, that "Beck is a deep-seated socialist". Beck's rhetorical style is populist- that's about the extent of his socialism.

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