David R. Henderson  

Rick Berman: Mercenary/Hero for Freedom

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"If this country is worth saving, it's worth saving at a profit."
--H.L. Hunt

This is a quote from one of the best books of the 1970s, The Machinery of Freedom, by David Friedman. It comes at the end of a chapter titled "How to Get There from Here." By the way, if you have never read this book, but you like most of my blog posts, you will very probably like his book. David has an amazing way with words, way better than that of his father, the late Milton Friedman. He's terse yet precise--and that's hard to achieve.

Back to the issue. In the chapter, David grapples with how you get from a society like ours, with large amounts of freedom but also large amounts of government oppression, to the ideal free society. He considers various options and says good things about all of them. He then ends with the option he has chosen and the one I have chosen. His choice is to write and speak in favor of freedom and get paid for it. (A personal note: reading this section of his book, when it first came out in 1973, helped me with that choice.)

He ends his chapter as follows:

When I used to give speeches in favor of abolishing the draft, there was a dirty word that kept cropping up --'mercenary'. A mercenary, as far as I could figure it out, was someone who did something because he wanted to. A soldier who fought for money. Or glory. Or patriotism. Or fun. The opposite of a mercenary was a draftee. Someone who fought because if he did not, he would be put in jail.

According to that definition, there are only two kinds of people. Mercenaries and slaves. I'm a mercenary.

In the previous chapter, David had laid out that the huge problem with working to end various government programs is the public good problem. When you lobby to end, say, the restrictions on sugar imports, you, if you're successful, create benefits for all sugar consumers but get only your pro rata share of the benefits. That's not a strong incentive. Yes, you can feel good and heroic and that will urge you on (see here, here, and here), but you also have to pay the bills. That leads to the chapter I quoted from above: figure out how to lobby for things you believe in and are passionate about and get paid to do so.

Which brings me to Rick Berman. While casually surfing last week, I came across a short video on him that was clearly a hit job. At the 1:00 point, Rachel Maddow asks him a hardball question but the video doesn't show his answer. I wondered: what is his answer? So I went to the whole Maddow interview--and came away very impressed. Berman is a for-profit policy entrepreneur who shares a lot of my views. (I don't know if I would agree with all his views. The way I first heard about him, though, years ago, was about his strong opposition to raising the minimum wage.) He has figured out how to make money by pushing his views.

The whole interview is here and here.

In the first segment, Maddow lays out her story in the first 4 minutes. You need to watch that to know the context. At about 4:30, she brings on--Rick Berman. Starting at about 5:00, she gives him his opening by assuring him that she wants not to get the facts wrong and so he starts into the facts. The conversation about transfats, which goes to about 6:30, is fascinating. Then, at about 6:30, rather than challenging him on facts about transfats, Maddow goes immediately to the question of who is funding him. She says she needs to know the source of his funds in order to assess the credibility of what he says. Really, Rachel? You're a Rhodes scholar and you need to know who pays someone in order to assess his evidence? Wow!

The second segment starts at 4:35 here. At the 5:30 point, he talks about his interest in preventing the minimum wage from rising. Watch, at the 5:52 point, Maddow proudly parade her ignorance of the literature on the minimum wage. At 6:55, watch his explanation of his strategy: start something because you believe in it and then find people who share your belief and are willing to fund it.

Best line, 7:37: I don't say things that I don't believe.

8:00: Something I didn't know about MADD.

8:36: Berman says that MADD is lobbying the government to require breathalyzers in cars. Thank goodness that he has figured out a way of getting paid to fight that.

9:00: Maddow tries to nail him for inconsistency. It doesn't work.

9:25: She does a passive-aggressive low blow. I think he had felt fairly treated until that point and didn't have time to fully process her nasty remark and so said that he was fairly treated.


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COMMENTS (20 to date)
Ken B writes:

Maddow clearly has found a way to be paid to argue against freedom. Her whole approach seems to be dedicated to ad hominem and cui bono arguments in favor of statist intervention.

Funniest bit: when she remarks snootily that politics has become like sports, on the network built by the rantings of a sportscaster!

Tom writes:

At some point, Maddow was so passionate that I think she did not pay attention to what Berman was saying at all :-)Berman is right saying that most activists are hypocrites. They may have good intentions but never consider the consequences of their proposals carefully.

A possible definition of "mercenary" that might explain why it's considered an insult: A mercenary is a soldier who is not looking forward to the end of the war but instead to payday. (From It all started with stones and clubs by Richard Armour)

Tom West writes:

She says she needs to know the source of his funds in order to assess the credibility of what he says.

I'm not sure why this is a problem. The weight I attach to an advertiser's claims about a product is rather less than the one from a trusted friend despite the fact that the friend only has 1 data point.

The fundamental point is that research paid by someone who has a stake in finding a certain conclusion means that the researcher is not free to find a different conclusion (at best, at worst, they will manufacture the data to find the appropriate conclusion). Obviously this does not always happen (often the pressure is more along the lines "if I want to get hired next time"), but it's certainly enough to question credibility for facts that you aren't prepared to research yourself.

Best line, 7:37: I don't say things that I don't believe.

That's a freedom enjoyed by very few people (those rare people who are truly irreplaceable and those whose opinion simply happens to fall perfectly in line with their patrons).

For those paid to push an agenda they believe (including professional bloggers), things can be even trickier. For many people, attitudes change over the years, yet the opinions that patrons are willing to pay for don't.

I think it's cleaner for pure salesmen who don't feel they are morally obligated to believe the line they are pushing than for someone who started out believing every word, and then over time came to realize that that unless they were willing to sacrifice their family's welfare, they no longer had that option.

All in all, I think I'm happier that my family's financial welfare doesn't depend upon my privately held beliefs matching those of sponsors willing to pay me.

[However, for those whose private beliefs and sponsors' beliefs co-align closely, it must be a wonderful job!]

Seth writes:

"Really, Rachel? You're a Rhodes scholar and you need to know who pays someone in order to assess his evidence?"

That speaks volumes. We have low expectations of critical thinking and debate, even of Rhodes scholars.

Ken B writes:

@Tom West: I need to know who is paying you before I can assess the credibility of what you are saying. You could be an advocate for some radical research funding group.

If he said, trust me then it might matter. But all his stuff can be checked. More pertinently her approach is a universal method for dismissing arguments not based on their merits. Or advocates who are not rich. Who was paying Martin Luther King? He WAS being paid after all. I can have sincere beliefs and those who like or benefit from my advocacy can rationally decide to support me and my advocacy. I might be unable to advocate for X without being paid for it.

Tom West writes:

More pertinently her approach is a universal method for dismissing arguments not based on their merits.

You are quite correct that it can and has been used to dismiss legitimate research. I was mostly responding to the implication that funding never influences research outcomes and that a Rhodes scholar should know that.

Agreed that being paid for research (or advocacy) should not be used to dismiss an argument - but it is a useful factor among a host of factors in weighing credibility.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Tom West,
I was mostly responding to the implication that funding never influences research outcomes and that a Rhodes scholar should know that.
You will search in vain for that implication of what I said. As Berman made clear in the interview, he doesn’t even do research.
And notice that I said, "she needs to know the source of his funds in order to assess the credibility of what he says.” I agree with you that my priors are affected by the funding source for the research. That’s simple common sense. Rachel Maddow went way beyond that.

Dan Weber writes:

Has he apologized for ruining Star Trek?

Glen writes:

I wonder if Maddow asks about the funding source for all of her guests on the show, including those with whom she agrees?

Justin writes:

My favorite part is that Maddow thinks we should ignore people who are funded by interest groups. This is coming from a woman who is paid millions of dollars by a left wing news network. Does she not realize that the implication of this is that nobody should listen to Rachel Maddow?

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

That's the first Maddow segment I've ever seen. I don't get cable/satellite partly because I don't want a nickel of mine to go to MSNBC, CNN etc.

But that segment was relatively fair, in the same league as the way Hannity treats his guests. I think Boortz is the fairest, and usually Limbaugh gives his callers a chance, Hannity is often a bit of a shouter and interrupter, so is Levin. Obviously all these hosts are pandering to their audience, it is not as though an ideologue is tuned into any of these shows and gets "turned".

I think Berman came across as a savvy marketer with all that that implies - car-salesy, but educated and very well prepared, with practiced talking points and counter-arguments for all the causes he promotes.

Zeke writes:

This piece of rot is an insult to every soldier, every police officer, and every fireman who ever wore a uniform.

A mercenary is one "who works only for hire," from the Latin mercenarius "one who does anything for pay."

A hero is someone who possesses the will for self sacrifice, usually for some greater good of all humanity.

There is nothing courageous about a D.C. lobbyist making millions to advocate for the interests of mammoth corporations. (Especially when those millions are routed through multiple taxpayer-subsidized non-profit front groups and straight into the coffers of your K Street PR firm).

Defending your country and your community is heroic.

Defending junk food and cigarettes is lucrative. Good for him.
But don't call it heroism.


Speaking of people who only say what they're paid to say, if Rachel Maddow had a road to Damascus moment and decided that the free market economists were right (e.g. the minimum wage is bad for poor people), MSNBC would pull her off the air in a New York minute.

Joe Cushing writes:

If you go with the older idea that a solder is a person who fights for some goal such as freedom and that a mercenary is somebody who fights for a paycheck, then nearly all solders in our armed forces today are mercenaries. I can't imagine what the goal of all this fighting they are doing now is. I joined the military for money then and for college money later and hoped I wouldn't have to fight a war. I took a job that just about guaranteed that too. I can say that I supported brief combat but saw none myself. I suppose I was a mercenary too.

...................................................

I'm not familiar with David Friedman's work but sense you say it is good, I looked him up on YouTube. There are 7 pages of videos with him in them. I look forward to checking them out.

Tom West writes:

Sorry David, I'm obviously misreading, but:

Really, Rachel? You're a Rhodes scholar and you need to know who pays someone in order to assess his evidence? Wow!

reads to me as sarcasm about the desire to know funding in order to determine credibility. Hence I pulled the implication that you thought this stupid.

Obviously that's not what you meant, but would you clarify what you were getting at here? Many thanks.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Tom West,
Obviously that's not what you meant, but would you clarify what you were getting at here? Many thanks.
Sure thing. As I mentioned in my comment above, my emphasis is on “need.” She shouldn’t need to know anything about someone’s funding source in order to assess his evidence. And notice that it was to assess his evidence, not to assess his credibility.

zeke writes:

Legitimate news organizations reveal when a quoted source has an axe to grind. Because framing matters, as does context, particularly when quoting astroturf shops.

Berman & Co. efforts to mislead by using shell groups is so egregious that they start off Sourcewatch's entry on what is a Front Group. Even without full research one can sense when a front group is trying to mislead citizens. If an organization does not clearly represent to their audience who they are and what their purpose is, then there is most likely a reason why they are hiding their true identity.

zeke writes:

No Joe. You do not meet any know definition of "mercenary" besides Friedman's.

Xe employees make roughly 10,000 a month. Unlike soldiers they are immune from prosecution for any crimes they commit while they are overseas. Is that the deal you got?

Friedman's false dilemma is absurd. I've heard a lot of idiotic assertions that begin with the words "there are only two kind of people in the world..." but I've seen nothing as jaw-droppingly dumb as Friedman's "There are only two kinds of people in the world, mercenaries and slaves"

Why don't we go with the Geneva Convention's definition of mercenary, shall we?:
"Mercenaries are not motivated by altruism; the ideological pretexts they tend to invoke conceal their real motivation, namely money. Mercenary activity is paid activity; mercenaries attack and kill for profit in countries other than their own or in conflicts in which their own country has no part. It is clear from the background studied by the Special Rapporteur that the mercenary is recruited because he is an expert, a cold-blooded, dehumanized individual who has turned war into a profession that enables him to earn good money and live well."

Berman: "I don't say things that I don't believe."

("The ideological pretexts they tend to invoke conceal their real motivation, namely money.")

Tom West writes:

Thanks David, that makes it much clearer.

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