Political rhetoric thrives on fiction, so it should not surprise us that conservatives’ campaign to discredit progressivism–now in full flame during this mid-term election year–brandishes entirely illusory notions of “free market capitalism,” and its supposed enemy, the federal government. It is a campaign that engages politicians, the media, and citizens who prefer vaporous illusions to grubby truths in a variety of shadow boxing that has distinguished American politics at least since the New Deal.
The coupling of ‘free market capitalism’ with public sector minimalism is one of the great fallacies of today’s debates over what to do to revive the nation’s economy. Neither Adam Smith, architect of the free market economy in his Wealth of Nations (1776), nor his followers Richard Morris and Alexander Hamilton among this country’s ‘founding fathers’, argued that thriving ‘private sector’ commerce and strong government were mutually opposed.
Smith knew that we could not count on individuals scrambling for profits to grace us with the public goods that make profitable commercial enterprises possible. Morris and Hamilton understood that a strong, centralized government was essential to the nation’s economic credibility in a world that–even then–was oiled by international finance. And they understood that only a strong government could create and maintain the “veins of commerce” that give life to a national marketplace.
To appreciate the virtually sacred status of ‘the private sector’ for many Americans one has to recognize that private wealth has become for enterprising and hard working individuals what salvation once was to the pius: the reward for individual striving. The sociologist Max Weber detected the affinity between individual salvation and private wealth in largely Protestant societies over a century ago. A quasi-religious veneration of individual striving acquired its power to shape American politics from the near universal acceptance of social darwinism, seemingly verified by our successful expansion across the continent, and our rise to global hegemony in the 20th century.
Social darwinism (‘survival of the fittest’)–a social philosophy more accurately credited to Herbert Spencer–seeks to justify individual striving as necessary to the evolution of the species toward ever ‘higher’ forms (whatever they might be). A more perfect example of the distortion of a scientific theory to serve a cultural bias can hardly be imagined.
Do individuals survive because they are more fit? What is it to be ‘fit?’ If ‘fitness’ is adaptation to an environment, is ‘fitness’ necessarily strength, or greater intelligence? For biological darwinists certain individuals prevail because of random and heritable genetic variations which enable them–again, randomly–to survive whatever environment happens to surround them. ‘Nature’ does not act on informed judgment, selecting survivors because they are stronger, smarter, or otherwise more ‘fit.’
Moreover, social darwinism leads its believers astray by promoting the notion that individual attributes suffice to account for success or failure. To the contrary, the success or failure of individuals in life (not to be confused with football or beauty competitions) can be due to a host of variables having little to do with their efforts or personal qualities.
Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick (1868) and Ayn Rand’s John Galt of Atlas Shrugged (1957) are wishful fictions. As heroic cartoons they fail to reflect the numerous interacting variables that shape what we become, among them: genetic endowment, our material and cultural environment, resources generated by others, and accidents of time and place.
It may be true that a ‘free market’ driven by the profit motive is most likely to call forth the most efficient use of our talents and energies. But it is not a guarantee of individual or aggregate national wealth of any description, including GDP. Nor does the GDP measure national well-being, which is better measured by the H.D. I. (the human development index) which considers such indicators as education, health and life-expectancy along with GDP.
In the history of this country individual striving has been assisted mightily by three advantages: the cornucopia of natural resources found in the continental United States, waves of immigration and internal migration, and the system of government–with its intellectual foundations set in the values of the 18th century enlightenment and classical republicanism–crafted during a hot summer in Philadelphia in 1787.
This government, which has survived challenges as great as any we observe today, during the 19th century blazed, charted, dredged, surveyed and cleared land and water routes for the national expansion of private commerce; awarded over 130 million acres of public domain to the railroads for rights of way and as security for bond issues; built the Panama Canal; funded over 70% of the airports and expansion of a national air transportation network during the early 20th century; built the interstate highway system; and fulfilled the country’s penchant for exploration with human and robotic journeys from the Moon to the outer reaches or our universe.
The federal government continues to fight wars not only against military adversaries, but against disease and destitution. Had we left it up to the profit-motive driven private sector to provide a critical national infrastructure, we’d still be hitching our oxen up to wagons to haul our goods to market.
In 2005 taxpayers from over half of these United States received back from the federal government more dollars in grants and contracts than they paid in federal taxes. These states include the home states of Sarah Palin, Senators Jim DeMint, Lindsay Graham, Chuck Grassley, James Inhofe, John McCain, and Mitch McConnell, and Representative John Boehner, among numerous other Republicans in congress or eager to get there.
In fact, about 90% of the federal government’s estimated outlays for 2010 will be returned to private sector employers in the form of grants and contracts positioned in every congressional jurisdiction throughout the land. The ‘iron triangle’ binding the interests of members of congress, the executive branch, and private industry is one of the most powerful determinants of who gets what in the U.S. economy.
Our ‘free market’ has no better friend than the federal government, while our inner cities, with all their community organizers, are no match for US businesses in feeding at the public trough. Shadowboxing may, alas, garner conservative candidates some votes, but it will not prepare them for the genuine issues that await them in Washington.
Text sources: Available on request.