Monday, September 29, 2008

Their prosperity, and ours

Chrystia "[Sarah] Palin is a true feminist role model" Freeland turns her powers of observation to the economy today when she writes: "[T]here is no denying that the financial crisis, and the Treasury and Federal Reserve's response to it, mark the end of a long, prosperous era of American laisser-faire capitalism in its purest form..." And, in fact, she is correct: there is no denying that there is a financial crisis to which the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve have responded. Unfortunately, there are plenty of grounds for denying everything else.

First of all, there has been no lasting example of "laisser-faire capitalism in its purest form" anywhere ever. For the last three hundred years there have been various moves on the part of private collectives to run national economies for their own short-term gain, with varying levels of government intervention to cope with the social problems (inequality, poverty, social unrest, "externalities," etc.) and macroeconomic challenges (monopolies, market failures) that inevitably arise.

What is packaged and sold to the ordinary citizen as a kind of self-sustaining, rationally-based system of supply and demand under the banner of "laissez-faire" or "the free-market," is really just a malignant tumor that will -- indeed -- grow tremendously until it kills its host, as history bears repeated witness. Profound government intervention in the economy is in fact the only mechanism by which "market forces" haven't completely destroyed themselves in practice, which is why all modern "capitalisms" incorporate some greater or less degree of it, by definition. As such, it is pointless to ask whether government should be involved in the economy; the appropriate question is on whose behalf should the government intervene. And this is because the government is intervening all the time.

With regard to the long era of American prosperity brought about by business groups being "free" to pursue narrow concerns with government help: it's true that this has brought about an unprecedented prosperity for the tiny minority who have wrapped the "national interest" around their needs. Yet, presumably, the "laisser-faire capitalism in its purest form" to which Freeland refers is the same period to include: the gradual break-up of the middle class; skyrocketing inequality; the illegal attack on unions; wage stagnation; the spread of unmanageable work/schedule demands; the adoption of new part-time/temp work standards; increased diagnosis of anxiety, depression and attention deficit problems as related to job insecurity; the general deterioration of public services and community welfare; and a recognition among younger generations that they will never exceed the standards of living achieved by their parents -- in other words, everything that has happened in the last 35 years or so, orchestrated to the delight of the American business classes, who took their tax cuts and made enlightened use of them by speculating so wildly they upended their own meal-ticket and now insist the rest of the population pay the bill -- thus "requiring" more social cut-backs because they kicked the country one more pass down the path of bankruptcy. Well, that's prosperity for you.

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