Conservative conflict is with reality: some things have to be “public”

The Hamiltonians won. They did. The view that we would need manufacturing, cities, corporations and government policies that promoted them, won. It’s who we are as a nation, as a civilization!  The idea that we could thrive, no less be a world power, in Jefferson’s vision of an individualistic society of agrarian gentleman farmers, has been laughable for around 200 years.

But conservatives in 2013 still can’t grasp that and ask that we go back to economic policies that haven’t been successful, couldn’t be successful, couldn’t be at all in the 21st century. The country they claim we should be did not evolve because it couldn’t. We were going to have internal improvements, an income tax, central banking, paper money, etc. You might as well be advocating a unicorn in every pot to think we weren’t.

Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute lays out how Conservatives don’t get that some problems are public, and its hurting them. “Hurting their ability to handle the challenges of the 21st century.” Lets stipulate that the conservatives that did get it (and there were many) did just fine in the 20th century, but the guys running the conservative movement today would have struggled in the 19th. Republican President Herbert Hoover said “In our individualism we have long since abandoned the laissez faire of the 18th Century – the notion that it is ‘every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.'” He got it. Everybody in public service got it. We can’t go very far every man for himself, we have to recognize we’re in it together. The ones who didn’t were the crazy fringes of conservatism, the loopy uncle you avoided at Thanksgiving – he now runs the movement and the GOP.

Konczal notes that William F. Buckley, one of the intellectuals of the conservative movement (if that’s not an oxymoron), fought a jihad against Keynesian economic textbooks on college campuses, especially the very popular textbooks by economist Paul Samuelson (my college economics textbook author).

So what upset Buckley about the book? Buckley didn’t like the various policy suggestions, like the support of inheritance taxes or an emphasis on checking monopoly power… But what really upset him was the idea that the economy was now a public issue. As Buckley emphasizes in his own paraphrase of Samuelson, “economics has become a matter of public policy, not individual action…Let us bear in mind that unemployment is a public problem” (italics in original) because “the individual firm, the individual himself, is powerless to cope with the complexities in times of stress.”

But the truth was that even conservative economic heroes like Milton Friedman and the Chicago School didn’t argue that the economy didn’t need a steering wheel to help steer it for the public good. They only argued about how to steer it, what policies were best to steer it.

This stabilization could be monetary or fiscal, discretionary or rules-based, but the fact that the government was undertaking it meant that the overall state of the economy was a public problem.

One can spend an entire lifetime debating the distinction between “public” and “private,” but for this post let’s use an approach from John Dewey. In “The Public and Its Problems” (1927), Dewey argued that the public is involved wherever an action between two people has consequences “that extend beyond the two directly concerned.” Given “that they affect the welfare of many others, the act acquires a public capacity.” And as such needs a public response. And conservatives reject this.

Buckley, an elite intellectual, and today’s Tea Party (anti-elitist, anti intellectual) agree that government shouldn’t be steering anything. Maybe local governments can do some steering but the federal government should be really limited. Defense is the only item you can get pretty much 100% agreement on from conservatives. After that it’s hard to get consensus that the federal government should do much else. Maybe the FBI. Maybe the safety net. And what would such a radical retrenchment of the government achieve? Um, a depression. But it would be worth it.

When it comes to the safety net, libertarian populist Tim Carney argues that the federal government is way too big, and should only focus on defense and “maybe the safety net.” Maybe? The current safety net provided through the federal government, in his mind, is better provided by private, civic “voluntary organizations.” Even though this change would involve “huge disruptions” it’s worth it to remove the public role in the safety net.

A strain of conservatives today are more likely to conflate a fully activist responsible government with the moral breakdown of society – the failure of individuals to live right, as it were. Again, like it’s our moral weakness as a people that lets us lean on the government and not insist on merely relying on our own gumption. Single parents, food stamps, drugs, violence etc. are all contributing to poverty, not symptoms of it. Because we know that when there was no intercourse outside of marriage and everyone was a pious Church-going soul, there was no poverty. And government was always small until Obama. If people took care of their own private business, we wouldn’t need any public action. In fact, there just shouldn’t be any public action and then things would just straighten out, magically

Charles Murray, in his recent book “Coming Apart” (2012), argues that a private solution of elites shaming the poor is better than any government response to the trials faced by working-class whites. Conservatives define equality of opportunity as simply equality before the law, meaning that equality of opportunity is presumed unless the government messes it up.

Rick Santorum argues that even referencing the “middle-class” is “Marxism talk,” and goes on to argue that the weak economy is because of people who “have all sorts of issues that they have to overcome to be successful.”

The failure of individuals are killing the economy. Which may be true if you mean the CEOs of Goldman Sachs, AIG, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, Lehman Brothers, etc. But I don’t think that’s what Santorum and his followers mean.

Back in the 2012 election, Mitt Romney attacked the President for discussing inequality in his campaign rally, because those conversations belong in “quiet rooms.” These are examples of Presidential candidates taking important economic issues and placing them squarely in the private sphere.

This quote from the 2012 GOP presidential nominee was telling. Romney was saying that If there are problems in society, they should be dealt with privately by elites who have the moral authority and intelligence to discuss them rationally. This is an idea that goes back to the pre-democratic days of the Republic when it was assumed that the only people who should vote and hold office were landholding white males – they had the education and wisdom to discuss and make policy. These are ideas that we abandoned in the first quarter of the 19th century when the Madisonian Democratic-Republicans vanquished the Federalists by advocating the spread of democracy and the franchise – ironically, trusting the individual! Trusting the individual even if they were of meager holdings or education. This is where the Jeffersonians won.

Then and now, conservatives show that it isn’t really about the “individual” – the romanticized American idyll – that they blather on about, it’s actually about the “worthy individual.” And all those unworthies ruin it for everybody. The unworthies borrowed too much money for houses they couldn’t afford. Of course, they borrowed it from the worthies who then bundled their sub-prime loan into derivative investment packages which were overrated by the ratings agencies and sold like corn dogs at a county fair to everyone with an account, while the worthies were hedging, shorting and leveraging that unworthy mortgage to a point where when the housing bubble broke we all felt the blowback.

But then the worthies got bailed out while the unworthies were on their own. Profits remain individual, but losses are conveniently public, illustrating the hypocrisy of  a lot of the anti-public conservatives.

Which brings us to the true believers.  Romney and the usual conservative suspects had their chance to convince the public, both worthy and unworthy alike (the so-called “47%”) to let them call the shots.  They failed massively. So conservatives went looking for new voices and found Rand Paul and the “libertarian populists.” Paul, like his father and Ted Cruz are not hypocrites on this, they are against helping worthy and unworthy alike.

In so much as the economy and inequality is a public problem, the recent move to libertarianism among GOP insiders won’t advance them much here. To build on Matt Steinglass’ point, a lot of recent arguments for “libertarian populism” present corporate welfare and efforts to boost the situation of working people or combat inequality through public means as two sides of the same coin. If there’s no public, then the only thing the government can do is cause problems for individuals.

Republican Conservative Herbert Hoover again: “Our mass of regulation of public utilities and trade is the monument to our intent to preserve an equality of opportunity. This regulation is itself proof that we have gone a long way toward the abandonment of the ‘capitalism’ of Adam Smith.”

Mike Konczal:

The argument coming out of the Great Depression, and it is a radical argument, that the economy as a whole needs public steering rather than an “invisible hand” still manages to confound many conservatives, who’d prefer to eliminate any notion of the public from their ideology.

Exactly right Mike. Even Republicans used to understand that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of the market was no answer for a government responsible for and to their citizens. To preserve equality of opportunity itself, a bedrock American value, we need an activist government and an activist regulatory scheme – working to level the playing field. An umpire calling balls and strikes and tossing the pitcher scuffing the ball with sandpaper.

Today’s GOP says the batter and the pitcher live and die by their own mettle. Whatever you can get away with to be successful is a-ok. The umpire is a fascist, or a socialist, or something. Unless he’s keeping the pitcher and batter from getting same-sex married – then he’s doing God’s work.

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