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Is the Era of Free Market Government Over? Calling for the “Progressive Middle”

In 1981, Ronald Reagan proclaimed “government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem” bringing the modern conservative movement into the mainstream, marking an end to the New Deal concept that public works – i.e., “the people” can be employed to smooth the edges of capitalism’s sharper sides. A generation later and you’ve got to marvel at the way market-driven, laissez-faire strategies dominate public policy. Few among the mainstream even question the approach. For that, you’ve got to give those conservatives some credit. They’ve been fabulously successful.

Until now. More and more you read about the crisis facing the movement, the trouble for conservative think tanks, and the poor Republican chances in 2008, while conservatives search for strategies to recapture the American mindset. What you don’t see – yet – in the commercial media is the reason conservatives are scrambling in the first place: The fanatical attempt to shove every social policy within a free market framework has failed.

Sometimes, the message stops resonating because the philosophy stinks.

Case in point: The NY Times had a good read a few weeks back called “Conservative Thinkers Think Again” analyzing how the intellectual right struggles to articulate “solutions to emerging problems like energy, the environment and immigration” within a conservative ideology. What’s missing is the point that these desperate social problems exist as a direct result of the market-driven, hands-off conservative policies of the last twenty-five years.

I mean, c’mon already. Not mentioned in that Times article are other problems, like the shift in wealth to the top percent, the wild gulf between super-rich and everyone else, the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, out-of-reach college costs, suffocating personal and family debt, the destruction of our downtowns, black box outsourced voting, and on. In fact it’s hard to find a modern problem that you can’t connect back to the corporatization of our society and its priority of profit over people that so defines the last twenty-five years.

Listen, I am not saying that free market solutions are wrong, always, end of discussion. The point is that no single ideology fits every situation. That’s fanaticism, and it’s as dangerous on the right as on the left. A more moderate approach – call it the “Progressive Middle” would choose appropriate strategies to address particular social challenges according to the most reasonable method. Need new technologies to solve a worldwide energy crisis? Free market innovation through competition (albeit backed by government incentives) might be just the thing. Need to provide every sick person with affordable, effective health care? A government-run Single Payer system is the way to go.

My argument is that there’s a balance somewhere between “all free market, all the time” and a Soviet Five Year Plan. Talk to your friends in Europe and you’ll see that life can be financially stable for a majority, provide an effective social safety net for those who need it, and allow people to live satisfying lives. (And you get to take four-week vacations in the summer, imagine that.) Yeah, I know, the taxes, the taxes. Most likely there are lot fewer millionaires in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany, France, Italy, etc. But I know there’s a lot more contentment, less stress and more leisure time than the US, AND there’s excellent social services, reliable public transportation, and a high quality of life overall. Is it utopia? Well, no. But can we learn a thing or two? You bet.

I’m not addressing in this post the hypocritical side of the modern conservative movement which – in practice, if not theory – has been one of the greatest bait and switches in history, a philosophy that says “small government” is fine when it involves working or poor or middle class folks, but a whole different thing when it involves military or corporate pockets. Instead, I’ll just quote Howard Zinn:

“We will have trillions of dollars to pay for these programs if we do two things: if we concentrate our taxes on the richest 1 percent of the population, not only their incomes but their accumulated wealth, and if we downsize our gigantic military machine, declaring ourselves a peaceful nation.”
“We will not pay attention to those who complain that this is ‘big government.’ We have seen big government used for war and to give benefits to the wealthy. We will use big government for the people.”

The good news is that words like Zinn’s are finding an audience among the mainstream, finally. It seems that the insanity of our corporate American dystopia here in 2008 is starting to become recognized, understood, and rejected (that happens a lot during really bad economic times.) But it’s probably what’s behind Obama’s charge (even as he tacks to the right) and it’s what’s been driving the Netroots movement as well.

Fingers crossed, but as we start the new century it’s possible that new ideas will find footing. Worth hoping for, anyway.

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August 6, 2008   |  Filed Under Political   |    Permalink


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