Manipulation of the free market is intrusive, inefficient, unjust and un-American. At least when the government does it. When Microsoft does it, it’s perfectly acceptable, right? An editorial in last week’s Record decried government regulatory policy as an infringement on the liberties of private businesses, which are, presumably, concordant with the liberties and interests of the American people as a whole.
“Big government” is a common complaint voiced by many people, whether out of actual harassment by the authorities, half-delusional ATF-black helicopters conspiracy theories, or an individual’s frustrating inability to make much of a difference with one vote. Clearly, someone’s out to get us. But who? The most obvious answer is the most visible target on the political playing field: the federal government, in all its bloated glory. If anyone’s taking away our individual liberties, the damn “gummint” would be the most capable of doing it. And if the state is our enemy, then all those who are persecuted by the state (Bill Gates, for one) must be our allies.
Never mind that the government also happens to be a pretty reliable defender of our individual liberties. The Constitution and Bill of Rights are, after all, documents drafted by Big Brother himself. And unless the Republicans privatized the courts when we weren’t looking I’m pretty sure the judicial system is a function of the federal government as well. And every once in a while, when proposals to endorse school prayer and ban flag burning come up, it’s usually those pesky statist administrators in the Supreme Court who shoot them down.
The central issue behind government bashing is freedom. Americans cherish freedom. We love it, and get all worked up about it in Goobers-and-diet Pepsi fervor whenever we watch Braveheart. For this reason, the word “freedom” gets distorted and tossed around a lot to advance a number of conflicting political agendas. There’s freedom of speech vs. freedom to keep kids away from porn. Freedom to smoke vs. freedom to breathe clean air. Commercial and special interest groups often use the word freedom in their rhetoric as if to imply that their notions of freedom, whether freedom to employ child labor or freedom to cut down as many trees in the Pacific northwest forests as possible, are in complete accord with those freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights and are in fact just as sacred. For others, such blatant attempts to wrap a flag around one’s selfish interests are questionable if not offensive and disgusting.
The op-ed piece, which defended corporate unaccountability as a basic civil liberty, plays directly into the hands of tobacco industry lobbyists and others of the sort who would try to equate deregulation of industry with freedoms of religion and speech. The word freedom carries with it many implications that are not always appropriate in certain contexts. The term “free market,” for example, used to describe a capitalist system of private ownership, suggests that anyone who would criticize any detrimental effect of capitalism is opposed to the very notion of freedom itself – what could be more un-American than that?
When put in economic terms, however, freedom boils down to one’s ability to influence the market in one’s favor. That ability is proportional to one’s personal wealth, so that poorer citizens are effectively less free than the rest. A monetary measure of freedom is hardly the same thing as freedom of speech and religion, to which all citizens enjoy an equal claim. Similarly, the “right to property” celebrated by right wingers doesn’t work like other supposedly natural rights – right to life, right to a fair trial, et cetera. If we all had an equal claim to property, where would the homeless sign up to get theirs?
As for “market freedom” being a necessary formula for economic prosperity, arguments abound that both affirm that holy dogma and call it to question. Certainly the United States enjoys greater overall wealth than Cuba, for instance. Our textbooks and media like to point to Cuba’s socialist economic system as the culprit and not to the underlying fact that Cuba is a poor country and has been for most of its history. Sweden, on the other hand, is more prosperous than Senegal yet has more market restrictions. Comparisons of this sort are of little significance. Regarding arguments made in that op-ed piece last week, the costs and benefits of New Deal programs for the United States economy are varied and hard to define. Personally, it’s hard for me to believe that the current economic boom (assuming the stock market doesn’t crash – oops, too late) can be largely attributed to the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933.
But giving the free-marketeers the benefit of the doubt, it’s still important to ask two questions that often get ignored: how do we measure economic prosperity and who actually enjoys it? Much of the hype over our unprecedented prosperity is based on increasingly ecstatic reports of the skyrocketing Dow Jones Industrial Average. But if you take into account that 90 percent of stocks and bonds in the U.S. are owned by 10 percent of the population, with 50 percent owned by the top one percent, it’s less obvious that news of the Dow breaking 10,000 is really meaningful to an average single working mother who doesn’t earn most of her income through currency speculation.
This muddled concept of market freedom is devoutly worshipped by Democrats, Republicans and crypto-Republicans alike. Such noted populist agencies as the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute are leading the anti-government crusade and it seems like everyone is hopping on the bandwagon. It’s this kind of mix of political trend spotting, bumper sticker sloganeering, paranoia and naked greed that libertarian groups thrive on. It’s evident in the increasing popularity of “investment consultant-radical” Harry Browne’s Libertarian Party in recent years.
It is no minor detail that the Libertarian Party is the richest third party of its size in America. The LP has the powerful draw to attract disaffected Republicans who don’t go to church, stoner college kids pushing for drug legalization and upper-income property-owners in search of a pseudo-philosophical justification for why they shouldn’t have to pay their taxes. For these oppressed political dissidents, government is a necessary evil and has no place in the market economy.
Saying “government is a necessary evil,” however, simply means people are evil; the government is, after all, made up of people working for various agencies and departments. And saying “government has no place in the market economy” reveals underlying biased presumptions over what one considers to be just and unjust intervention in the market. The government is the largest employer in the country. It is constantly involved in millions of commercial transactions with businesses and individuals.
Whether you like it or not, the government is involved in the economy, and will continue to be involved and have an impact on all sorts of market results. For the most part, the distinction between the private sector and the public sector of the economy is rather irrelevant, except for distinguishing which one is supposed to be “natural.” “Four legs good, two legs bad;” private sector good, public sector bad. Both sectors are not without their flaws, and the government is notorious for its red tape and bureaucratic nosiness. But for all its inefficiencies, at least the government is accountable to the people and somewhat responsive to the public voice. I don’t remember the last time I was asked to vote on Nike’s labor practices.
On a final note, it is true that the government runs welfare programs for the poor. (It also provides, through subsidies, tax breaks and bailouts, welfare for corporations and banks, but welfare critics don’t like to talk about that.) And these programs do allow poorer individuals to enjoy a higher standard of living than they might otherwise from wages alone. And for all their bitching and moaning about welfare statism and dependency, welfare critics can’t help the fact that these programs are pretty popular among a large number of voters. Of course there’s no such thing as a free lunch (people who say this tend to be the ones with expense accounts). But if welfare programs are not justifiable by popular opinion alone, consider the question: what is the final purpose of government? If government doesn’t exist in order to help those who would be worse off without it, why should it exist at all? To enforce property rights, I guess.