A few months back, I noticed that every time I went on Facebook, I was being pestered with an ad for a series of libertarian children’s books called “The Tuttle Twins.” Finally unable to contain my curiosity about what they contained, I ordered a stack of them and had them sent to the Current Affairs in-house economist, Rob Larson, with instructions to vigorously review them. The resulting review is hilarious, and Rob witheringly deconstructs the underlying assumptions of the books.
Now, Rob’s review was fun (and included a comic!) but his arguments were very serious. He showed that free-market libertarians use crafty analogies to obscure serious problems with capitalism (e.g. by comparing the taxation of billionaires to stealing from someone’s vegetable garden). His review shows persuasively that children raised on Tuttle Twins books will develop a warped understanding of how economic reality actually works.
Tuttle Twins creator Connor Boyack was delighted at Rob’s review, however. He instantly decided that it could be used to sell more Tuttle Twins books. Boyack used Rob’s conclusion that the books are a “hideous fraud and an ugly, twisted farce” as a blurb, and bought more promoted posts on social media encouraging people to use a special Current Affairs discount code to buy the books. This they did, and the libertarian Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) claimed that thousands of Tuttle Twins books had been sold thanks to our review. The Current Affairs instagram was deluged with fans of the books saying things like “Thanks for the piece on these books, I just bought them all!!” and “just bought 20 copies to distribute to schools and local libraries.” FEE said that “critiques from the left only work to accelerate market demand” and Boyack himself commented:
“When a socialist calls your free market literature a ‘cliché-ridden [heap] of steaming garbage,’ it’s not a criticism—it’s a badge of honor you wear proudly. It means we’re doing something right to provoke this kind of ire from someone who sees liberty as ‘one of the most disgraceful political tendencies in the world.’”
Now, I would first note that I am amused by the whole “buying stacks of the book to own Current Affairs” response. Please, by all means, keep buying the books. I don’t think much of them personally, and would show them to my own children only as part of a “spot the fallacy” critical thinking exercise, but I can’t stop you spending your money how you please. When your stack of dreadful Ayn Rand-inspired children’s literature arrives in the mail, you can congratulate yourself on how well you showed the left.
But I would also observe how well it proves our point that the right’s response to our critique is not “here are why your arguments fail” but “you will only help us sell books.” We have never doubted that the Tuttle Twins’ aggressive marketing campaign can move a lot of units of its product. What we have doubted is that the series has anything of value to teach the American schoolchild.
Libertarianism is a brainless philosophy that is incapable of grasping or responding to critiques. It starts from a few simple principles (“the government should stay out of my business,” “free market transactions are freely made and mutually beneficial,” etc.) and believes it has learned everything it needs to know about the world. When it is pointed out that, in fact, concentrated private economic power can be coercive and can prevent innovators from reaping rewards from their innovations, libertarianism simply repeats its simple-minded dogmas. (See this debate I had with a Cato Institute libertarian.) Boyack freely admits that he did not bother to listen to anything Rob said. The fact that a socialist criticized him is a “badge of honor.” His fixed ideology means that he does not have to listen to the left’s case. He knows it is wrong because it is being made by the left, who are against “liberty.”
In fact, the argument that Rob makes is not “liberty is bad,” but that what libertarians call “liberty” actually results in serious restrictions of people’s freedom in practice. If, for example, restaurant-owners or landlords are “free to discriminate”—this is what libertarians call liberty—restaurant customers and tenants may find themselves constantly discriminated against because of their race. If large corporations hold de facto control of the marketplace for products and the marketplace of ideas, it is like being ruled by an undemocratic private government that has the power to dictate terms to everyone. Rob’s book Capitalism vs. Freedom is an excellent in-depth analysis of how the simplistic libertarian framework does not in fact deliver what most people would consider “freedom.” I have written myself about how providing goods through market exchange can actually limit freedom, and this magazine has shown how socialized services are actually an essential part of a free society.
I do not expect libertarians like Boyack to understand these arguments or pay any attention to them, because as FEE says, they are interested in left critiques only insofar as they “accelerate market demand.” These guys know what they believe and they’re not going to change their minds because of “facts” or “carefully-reasoned arguments.”
It is worth emphasizing, though, that this is characteristic of the right in general. Their arguments are frequently impervious to criticism, because they are not interested in a serious debate and will make the same point on every issue regardless of the facts. I have spent years critiquing right-wing books at considerable length, picking apart their cases carefully and fairly. The authors do not write meaningful responses, because they are ideologues and sophists, not thinkers. They are convinced that laissez-faire capitalism is the greatest economic system imaginable, and nothing you can say will ever dent their conviction that if you disagree with them, you must hate freedom and believe in a collectivist Stalinist-Chavista dystopia.
The right does not have good arguments, as this magazine has shown over and over again. But their arguments are heard all over the place, because what the right does have is money. PragerU brings in tens of millions of dollars a year that it uses to push manipulative propaganda videos on the public. (I have a forthcoming article deconstructing several PragerU videos and showing how their arguments fail.) Jane Mayer, in Dark Money, documents just how insidiously they’ve managed to corrupt institutions of higher learning by simply buying professorships:
George Mason was the Kochs’ largest libertarian academic project but far from the only one. By 2015, according to an internal list, the Charles Koch Foundation was subsidizing pro-business, anti-regulatory, and antitax programs in 307 different institutions of higher education in America and had plans to expand into 18 more. The schools ranged from cash-hungry West Virginia University to Brown University, where the Kochs, in the tradition of the Olin Foundation, established an Ivy League “beachhead.” At Brown, which is often thought of as the most liberal of the Ivy schools, Charles Koch’s foundation gave $147,154 in 2009 to the Political Theory Project, a freshman seminar in free-market classics taught by a libertarian, Professor John Tomasi. “After a whole semester of Hayek, it’s hard to shake them off that perspective over the next four years,” Tomasi confided slyly. According to a conservative publication, Charles Koch’s foundation gave additional funds to Brown to support faculty research and postdoctoral candidates in such topics why bank deregulation is good for the poor. At West Virginia University, the Charles Koch Foundation’s donation of $965,000 to create the Center for Free Enterprise came with some strings attached. The foundation required the school to give it a say over the professors it funded, in violation of traditional standards of academic independence.
The Walton family gives hundreds of millions of dollars to the University of Arkansas, helping to fund pro-charter school propaganda (the university even has a professorship called the “Twenty-First Century Chair in School Choice”—wonder if the person who holds it has a dispassionate view on “school choice!”) The Ayn Rand Institute sends out free books to college professors and high school teachers to encourage them to introduce students to the “philosopher” whose magnum opus contains a sequence fantasizing about the violent deaths of all the types of leftists she dislikes. (It was so horrifying that even William F. Buckley’s National Review said it sounded like she was telling people they deserved to go to a gas chamber.) Mayer notes that when Barack Obama’s stimulus plan was under consideration, “think tanks funded by the Kochs and their allied network of donors, such as the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University” began “cranking out research papers, press releases, and op-ed columns” that were factually dubious but provided ways for Fox News and Rush Limbaugh to insist that “scholars” were criticizing the stimulus.
In fact, the radical laissez-faire economic ideas of the American right would not win in a “marketplace of ideas.” They are marginal among professional economists, very few of whom believe in the radical “all tax increases are bad for the economy” perspective pushed by right-wing pundits. These ideas only succeed in the “marketplace of ideas” when it operates like a literal marketplace, where the person with the most money (rather than the best ideas) wins. We’ve seen how damaging it can be when the intellectual world is directly corrupted by money—tobacco companies and fossil fuel companies sowed doubt about the science on their products’ harmfulness, leading to many unnecessary deaths. Their ideas wouldn’t have won in a “fair competition,” because they were rejected by honest scientists. But they were able to compete because they were subsidized by those who had a personal interest in seeing them succeed.
Of course, people like the Kochs are not the villains in their own story. They think they are “correcting” a “bias” in American education. The FEE says that Boyack’s books are not indoctrinating children with propaganda, but are rather helping them overcome the leftist propaganda they are already subject to. But in order to settle which side is actually doing the propaganda, we have to examine the underlying arguments and see which ones hold up and which ones do not. I have yet to see convincing responses to the substance of what Rob and I have said.
I wish that schools taught kids something about leftism (fairly, not dogmatically), but they don’t. I went to one of my state’s best public schools and it was through independent reading and research that I came to my own political orientation, since goodness knows it never showed up in the curriculum. We on the left are at a huge disadvantage simply because we don’t have anything like the kinds of money that right-wing think tanks have. I wish we could pay Brown University to run a regular course on Peter Kropotkin, but we simply can’t. Instead, they get Friedrich von Hayek, a guy who believed that the European welfare state was the “road to serfdom.” Hayek’s work is an example of an economic prediction being utterly falsified by history—in fact, Britain’s national healthcare system is the pride of the nation and creates freedom, not serfdom. But if you have enough money you can keep pushing discredited ideas.
From one perspective, the fact that the Tuttle Twins books have sold a lot of copies proves they must be good and right. As Mariana Mazzucato notes in The Value of Everything, there has been a strange convergence over time of the notion of “value” and “market price.” Call it the “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong” theory—if people buy it, there must be something to it. But it’s a stupid theory, because it ignores how those who have a lot of wealth to start with can ensure that they succeed in the market and crush their competitors, with preexisting power determining the result rather than a rational choice made by perfectly-informed and deliberative consumers.
Vastly more Tuttle Twins books will be sold than copies of Current Affairs this year, I am certain of it. (Of course, you can help to rectify that regrettable imbalance.) But this does not trouble me, because I know that we have the better argument, and I maintain my faith that eventually reason will manage to outwit money. Money talks, it’s true, but what leftists have to say is far more worth listening to.