Monday, January 19, 2009

Nine Important Words

Recently, I sent an e-mail to the Obama campaign, requesting that in his inaugural address, the new president include the words, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help".

Many of you will remember those famous words, uttered by President Reagan. Of course, he preceded them with the phrase "...the nine most terrifying words in the English language are...". In my mind, that was the seminal moment of the movement that has given us the deep economic morass we currently find ourselves in.

True, there has always been a tension between belief in, and fear of, the government, just as the question of a reasonable size and scope of government has been with us from our founding, actually before it, if you read the many discussions that our founding fathers engaged in. But it was Reagan who gave the anti-government folks a populist platform, with that one silly statement. Virtually every current supply-sider views those words as holy, and given the inevitabilities of corruption and ineptitude, it has become somewhat of a maxim for a disaffected, disenfranchised, and ignorant populace.

What exactly did Reagan mean? Given his war on drugs, his positions on state mandated morality, his cold-warrior status, and his heretofore unheard-of budgetary excesses, it's hard to say that Reagan was any real enemy of big government. In fact, the size of the federal government swelled under Reagan in a manner not seen since the days of FDR.

It would seem that Reagan's anti-government philosophy was in fact limited to economic matters. Reagan, like many before and after, believed in an economic form of Darwinism, where the role of government was to stay out of the way of the market. He was a proponent of lower taxes, primarily in the upper brackets and capital gains sectors, slashing regulations that reduced profitability, and generally staying out of the market wherever possible (with the odd exceptions of corporate welfare and union busting), believing that such behavior would spur the economy as a whole, and that such growth would feed down to all sectors,the famed "trickle-down" economic theory.

There were, however, three large problems with the theory:

1. The belief that the free market economy was a (the) central pillar of our nation, and that government and economic prosperity were natural enemies. Obviously, economics had a lot to do with our revolution, but it was more about taxation without representation than about the market free of government. In fact, many of our founding fathers opined about the tyranny of the monied elite, and our revolution was by no means a referendum on replacing the king's hereditary aristocracy with that of the local wealthy. Many, especially Jefferson, feared the rise of corporations and wealthy elites as a new set of tyrants who would strip our fledgeling democracy of its equity as much as they detested the monarchy. The very system of democratically elected, representative government was designed to protect the common man from such eventualities (or inevitabilities, per Jefferson). Belief in the market without government involvement is belief in football without rules or referees to enforce them.

2. Belief that the market is self sustaining and regulating. If history has taught us anything, it is that devoid of government intervention or regulation, the free market leads inevitably to monopolies, economic collapse, or both. The "rising tide" that lifts all boats theory summarily ignores the ultimately minute number of boat owners, as well as the fact that a healthy middle class of consumers is required to fuel those boats.

3. The belief that Capital is more important than Labor. Quite simply, an imbalance in either wreaks havoc, but the economy of the late 20th century and the early 21st has been an orgy of worship to capital, at the expense of any form of egalitarianism. A system geared toward capital equates to "one dollar, one vote", and will inevitably spell the end of peaceful democracy.

At the end of the day, the legacy of the Reagan revolution was the sale of religious ideology (a subject for another day) and fear of the government (on both real and imagined, paranoiac grounds) to the common man, the better to enlist his service in denying the one form of redress he had.

Personally, I have no interest in supporting people who have no use for the government, especially in running it. When we the people no longer have an interest in the organ that binds us together, we deserve whatever befalls us. In reality, government is part of the problem, but the ideology of abolition cannot and must not replace the idea of reform. Perhaps we can keep the baby and merely change the bath water...

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