Paul Krugman: Cliven Bundy is proof conservatives are dumber than ever

The New York Times columnist argues the right embraced Bundy out of a crude and short-sighted anti-intellectualism

Published April 28, 2014 1:31PM (EDT)

Paul Krugman                                                                                                                                                                     (Reuters/Brendan Mcdermid)
Paul Krugman (Reuters/Brendan Mcdermid)

In his latest column for the New York Times, best-selling author and award-winning economist claims that the right's recent, unfortunate embrace of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada renegade rancher who has revealed himself to be extremely racist, is the consequence of a larger, troubling shift on the right: the "dumbing down" of American conservatism.

After noting how unconscious or unspoken views on race likely influenced conservatives' embrace of the tax-avoiding Bundy — who is a white cowboy, not a resident of the "inner city" — Krugman writes that, fundamentally, the Bundy story is about conservatism becoming, well, kind of dumb. "[T]he Bundy fiasco," Krugman writes, "was a byproduct of the dumbing down that seems ever more central to the way America’s right operates."

"American conservatism used to have room for fairly sophisticated views about the role of government," Krugman laments. "Its economic patron saint used to be Milton Friedman, who advocated aggressive money-printing, if necessary, to avoid depressions. It used to include environmentalists who took pollution seriously but advocated market-based solutions like cap-and-trade or emissions taxes rather than rigid rules."

But that day, Krugman says, is over: "[T]oday’s conservative leaders were raised on Ayn Rand’s novels and Ronald Reagan’s speeches ... They insist that the rights of private property are absolute, and that government is always the problem, never the solution."

Krugman continues, explaining why he's not particularly optimistic that the right's dalliance with Bundy will motivate it to smarten up any time soon:

The trouble is that such beliefs are fundamentally indefensible in the modern world, which is rife with what economists call externalities — costs that private actions impose on others, but which people have no financial incentive to avoid. You might want, for example, to declare that what a farmer does on his own land is entirely his own business; but what if he uses pesticides that contaminate the water supply, or antibiotics that speed the evolution of drug-resistant microbes? You might want to declare that government intervention never helps; but who else can deal with such problems?

Well, one answer is denial — insistence that such problems aren’t real, that they’re invented by elitists who want to take away our freedom. And along with this anti-intellectualism goes a general dumbing-down, an exaltation of supposedly ordinary folks who don’t hold with this kind of stuff. Think of it as the right’s duck-dynastic moment.

You can see how Mr. Bundy, who came across as a straight-talking Marlboro Man, fit right into that mind-set. Unfortunately, he turned out to be a bit more straight-talking than expected.

I’d like to think that the whole Bundy affair will cause at least some of the people who backed him to engage in self-reflection, and ask how they ended up lending support, even briefly, to someone like that. But I don’t expect it to happen.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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Ayn Rand Cliven Bundy Fox News Milton Friedman Paul Krugman Ronald Reagan Sean Hannity The New York Times