Friday, December 16, 2005

Why on Earth would a nationally syndicated columnist give a rat's, you know, about the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Island?

Because he was getting some serious green to write about it. Longtime Copley News columnist and (until Thursday) Cato Institute fellow Doug Bandow admits that he took as much as $2,000 a pop to write columns that shed a favorable light on the clients of D.C. influence peddler Jack Abramoff. (Hat tip: The Corner.) Bandow conceded the obligatory "error in judgment," Cato immediately cut ties with him, and Copley started purging those columns from its archives. Reactions from syndicated columnists Cal Thomas and Connie Schultz are here.

Meantime, another libertarian thinktanker, Peter Ferrara of the heretofore obscure Institute for Policy Innovation, copped to the same charge ... but he won't apologize; indeed, his employer tells Business Week Online that punditry for hire is common, and there's no reason to be ashamed about it.

Wonderful. It's as if the Armstrong Williams fiasco disappeared down the memory hole. To make matters worse, this punditry for hire scheme (one BW commenter called it "infomercials masquerading as opinion pieces") serves to reinforce a canard the left has kept alive for the 20-plus years I've been involved in the realm of ideas: the argument that the philosophy of individual freedom lacks any intellectual credibility or moral underpinnings. The shtick goes like this: "The only people who could really believe that evil/oppressive/offensive/mean-spirited tripe are either a) rich or b) on the payroll of a greedy special interest." (I'll ignore the Marxian false-consciousness line for now.) Sure enough, Huffington Post leapt right on this pony, tarring all free-market thinktanks as "Republican talking points machines" and "Disinformation Institutes." (As if there's any intellectual consistency or substance to anything Arianna's done. But I digress.)

Forget the venerated work of Locke, Burke and Smith. Ignore the intellectual courage exhibited by the Friedmans and Hayeks of our lifetime -- and the millions of people who now have control of their own destinies because those ideas defeated the murderous ideology of socialism. The point is, Bandow and Ferrara have placed every nonprofit public policy organization that supports limited government on the defensive. For a few pieces of silver. And anytime the left wants to discredit the position of a free-market rep of a thinktank on a talk show, it's only necessary to ask: Have you ever accepted any money from Jack Abramoff or his associates? Confirming or denying that is guaranteed to drain the life from any serious discussion -- or at least sure to suck up a good minute or so of the segment. Thanks, guys.

UPDATE: On The Corner, lawprof Jonathan Adler (an acquaintance from my days in D.C.) recounts the enticements he received (and rejected) from PR firms to serve as a hired gun when he was a thinktanker. Jon's right; PR people are shortsighted. Truly independent organizations can make much more credible arguments than those that are perceived to be flacks for their donors.

But what a Christmas present Bandow and Ferrara have given to statists and their acolytes. The goal of the apologists for the regulatory state has never been to engage in an honest philosophical discussion of the proper role of government. No, the plan was to discredit the entire concept that there's a legitimate case for freedom. So if you're a fund-raiser or a PR person for a free-market thinktank, you'd better be scrubbing your donor list to make sure Abramoff and his minions aren't there -- and getting ready to return any money, pronto. Otherwise, forget booking that scholar on Meet the Press or landing an op-ed in The New York Times.

Too gloomy a prediction? Here's Marty Kaplan on HuffPost again:

Lobbyists and ideologues use every trick in the book in order to spread propaganda. But why do editors, bookers and producers have to fall for it? Maybe it's because asking an "expert" columnist or guest whether a lobbyist or special interest group paid them isn't enough of a test. After all, the payrolls of these Disinformation Institutes are no more pure than Jack Abramoff's bribes.

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