If It Ain’t Private, It Ain’t Republican
A few years back, when Dubya was ridin’ his wooden horse hard, I was in a bar talking to a gal who at some point proclaimed, or admitted, that she was a republican. I asked what made her a republican, and she testified to her belief that the government should do nothing with regard to the environment, poverty, crime, discrimination, pollution, disease, illiteracy, stupidity and every other social ill since the age of Cain. Her point wasn’t a stumper: government solutions to social problems don’t work. I asked if public service and governance weren’t essentially social—if these weren’t designed to address the conditions of civilization. To that I got more of the same: social programs are unnecessary because the problems they failingly address would otherwise fix themselves and everything works best on its own in accordance with the natural, self-regulating way of things. So it’s all up to the individual? I asked. To which she answered with an unequivocal yes. In a flash I saw the genius of republicanism: an abdication of the necessity of improving society, thus narrowing the job of governance down to eliminating the public sector and putting public money in private hands.
To most politically informed people it’s almost a platitude to say that republicans have little or no interest in collective, hence social, betterment. As to why this is the case, the first item of the republican pledge makes it clear enough: “I believe that the strength of our nation lies with the individual and that each person’s dignity, freedom, ability and responsibility must be honored.” Which boils down to a belief that individuals form society, not the reverse. From this stem other individualistic credos, like this one regarding the economy: “Free enterprise and encouraging individual initiative have brought this nation opportunity, economic growth and prosperity.” This boils down to a belief that individuals, not society, create prosperity. The republican ideological emphasis on the individual naturally stands in opposition to programs addressing large-scale, hence social, problems. And it follows that this belief manifests in a push toward smaller government and more private-sector activity. For both industry magnates and republican politicians know that rich individuals, not rich societies, make rich individuals.
Since that barroom revelation, my view of republicanism has grown more nuanced. I see that republicans genuinely believe that where individuals are given the greatest liberty the very best outcomes will prevail. This belief is not only optimistic, it accounts for an almost total inability to address the problems of civilization. Sure, republicans are good at rallying their base by histrionic appeals for smaller government and freer markets; but they are so myopically focused on the individual that general trends and forces have little to no influence on their statecraft. Take the financial and housing markets, for instance, where tax cuts and deregulation stimulated hyperinflation to virtual collapse; take health care, where the goal is not to provide it but to deliver it to insurance monopolies; take foreign policy, where they initiated two wars with the objective of turning tribal theocracies into free-market democracies; take education, where the goal has been either to reform it with unfunded mandates, to privatize it, or to turn it into a lottery; take the economy, where, by tax cuts, military spending and private-sector contracts, they have run up the biggest deficit in world history. It’s as if by doing nothing for society republican politicians have fulfilled their own prophesy that the government can’t govern.
The Republican Party ascended to second party in power in 1856 with the slogan, “Free labor, free land, free men.” The intent at the time was to mobilize the middle class to entrepreneurship, stimulate land use and end slavery. Things have changed since. Slavery is done with, most of the land is used, and the U.S. has gone from an industrial to an information economy, which means that its labor force requires an education to remain globally competitive. Given the short supply of freedoms left to grant, the GOP’s agenda has narrowed significantly: the freedom to capitally infuse the so-called “job creators” (campaign contributors) with public money, the freedom to allow these so-called “job creators” to profit with impunity at the expense of general economic stability, and the freedom to defer to God & Son on matters of social, hence moral, iniquity. The current slogan should be, “Put us on TV and you’ll go free, here and hereafter.”
I speculate that republicanism’s cheery denial of general social problems has its origins in Adam Smith, who persuasively argued that individual self-interest, not social interest, is the force that drives the so-called “wealth of nations.” Smith nicely articulated that what benefits society involuntarily emerges out of self-interest and not the intention to improve society. He even reasoned that the crimes of self-interest, being bad for business, are generally avoided out of, what else but, self-interest. Thus, in Smith’s view, the individual is the cause, not the effect, of society. But Smith, like many great thinkers of the Enlightenment, was a scholar advocating for greater liberty under big churches, big monarchies and mercantilist nation states. And, while his theory of self-interest—that it eventuates in general well-being and suppresses aberrant individual behavior—plays out nicely on the individual level, it does not run as smoothly when it comes to consolidated or collective errantry in a post-industrial federal republic.
The nature of entities like corporations and industry cartels is different from that of individuals. For instance, an individual would probably not charge another individual $60 dollars for falling a few cents short of a $2-dollar cup of Joe. However, what would be considered unjust on the individual level is not regarded as such when committed by the financial-industry giants that finance GOP campaigns. To grant corporations and industry cartels the freedoms of individuals is to grant them the freedom to do things individuals would never do. Thus the optimistic republican faith that general well-being involuntarily issues from individual self-interest has done little in practice but accelerate the Pareto principle and the inflation-deflation rollercoaster.
The belief in individual initiative alone as a wealth-generator is naturally supply-side and naturally disparages taxation as a “redistribution of wealth.” Through the lens of individualism, public health care becomes “socialized medicine,” civil rights legislation “social programming,” and education something you can pay for if you think you need it. Progressive income taxes, public services and civil rights legislation are solutions to social problems that are really the individual’s problems in socialist drag. To republicans, just about everything the government does (but war) is a “government takeover” because it is the government taking over the work that a few self-starters would otherwise do. And it makes no difference, as history shows, that governments can address large-scale problems better than individuals can (if individuals can address them at all), because we’re talking about a belief here, and beliefs trump evidence.
This begs the question as to why, if republicans are, as a matter of faith, opposed to public solutions to public problems, they bother to run for public office at all. Do they have an instinct that their own prosperity might depend on public prosperity? That their own well-being cannot be provided for solely by individuals? That even prosperous individuals owe their prosperity to society? That supply is a waste without demand? I say “instinct” because, if they do have it, they have no consciousness of it. Rather, they insist in the face of the most glaring evidence that public problems like exploitative health care, negligent education, bubble markets and systemic environmental breakdown can be solved by local governments and a few rich individuals. They still deny that the government can solve big problems and that some problems, like global warming, even exist.
Fortunately, their denial has not been consistent. There have been a few exceptions of an admission to error in the doctrine of self-interest. Allan Greenspan, for instance, conceded before the Congressional Committee for Oversight and Government Reform on October 23, 2008, “I found a flaw in the model that I perceived as the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works.” The flaw, of course, was in “the model” and not Greenspan. But he did identify it as the assumption that markets act in their own interest. Too bad it took a crisis to figure out that markets, perhaps because they are not individuals, don’t act like individuals.
And this flaw in the model was no Johnny-come-lately. It caused the Panic of 1893, where it was no individual’s fault but that of unregulated lending practices surrounding the railroad boom. The Panic of 1907, set in motion by banks lending money to the United Copper Company’s scheme to corner the market, was not solely Otto Heinze’s fault but that of a lot of gamblers on Heinze’s bad bet. Leading up to the Great Depression, whole market sectors floundered (agriculture, coal, railroads and textiles), while others enjoyed two-fold prosperity (stock market speculation and industrials), which allowed Hoover’s ill-conceived reliance on state and local governments and the free-market to correct large-scale economic skewness. That should have been the GOP’s last lesson in what not to do. Instead, the amnesiac drift of a few decades of stability and prosperity saw Regan unpacking Hoover’s portrait, dusting it off and hanging it on his office wall.
© Copyright 2009, Jan DiVincenzo. All rights reserved.