How the left can elevate the level of political discourse (and stop making a fool of itself)
I’m tired of liberals getting duped.
Most conservative politicians don’t unswervingly support the free market, even if they profess as much. They’re pro-business capitalists more than free-market champions. The typical Republican will back bailing out large financial institutions then resist attempts to end “too big to fail,” that anti-competitive monstrosity. (The same is true, of course, of center-left Democrats like Obama.)
As Dean Baker contends in his latest book, The End of Loser Liberalism, rhetorical paeans don’t equal political records:
“[Progressives] accept the notions that the right is devoted to the unfettered workings of the market and, by contrast, that liberals and progressives are the ones who want the government to intervene to protect the interests of the poor and disadvantaged. But this view is utterly wrong as a description of the economy and competing policy approaches… In reality, the vast majority of the right does not give a damn about free markets; it just wants to redistribute income upward. Progressives have been useful to the right in helping it to conceal this agenda. Progressives help to ratify the actions of conservatives by accusing them of allegiance to a free-market ideology instead of attacking them for pushing the agenda of the rich.”
We see a similarly aggravating framing in progressives’ telling of the so-called Gilded Age of the late 1800s. Here’s the standard narrative: Laissez-faire economic policies, buttressed by pervasive Social Darwinism, precipitated a vast economic expansion—but at the expense of workers. Robber barons bought statehouses, and magnates bought garish mansions. Sans state intervention, the average American was out of luck. The Progressive Era changed all of that, with increased regulation on businesses, workplace safety laws, and the implementation of a progressive income tax. (For his part, historian Gabriel Kolko argues much of the intervention was still done at powerful interests’ behest.)
In short, progressives decry the Gilded Age as an ignominious epoch of unfettered markets and the Progressive Era as the humane, regulatory response to unbridled capitalism. But this is overly simplistic. There was considerable state intervention during the Gilded Age. The problem was, it almost always increased the power of capital relative to labor. The government gave away huge expanses of land to railroad companies, for instance, then violently repressed labor uprisings.
Progressives, I think, are at least implicitly aware of the incongruity at hand. When they inveigh against corporate influence in government—both during the Gilded Age and in the present—they usually call out corporations for co-opting regulators or purchasing legislative bodies. And surely corporate interests don’t simply use their influence to evade regulations; they also bend regulations to their liking and extract subsidies from the public coffers.
The problem, then, isn’t free markets. We don’t have free markets. The problem is corporatism. It’s not just intellectually dishonest for the left to suggest otherwise but, as Baker adeptly argues, rhetorically boneheaded.