Column on The Big Lie

The Big Lie Again
Tibor R. Machan
Just to make it clear that association with prestigious institutions does
not guarantee veracity, Professor Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of
History at Columbia University, has chimed in with yet another distortion
of reality, one that several prominent folks have been perpetrating over
the last few years. I am thinking, for example, of Paul Krugman, Princeton
University economist and columnist for The New York Times.
Both of these folks have been repeating the claim that ideas favoring the
free market are widely championed in America. Foner wrote this in The New
York Times Sunday Book Review recently: “Arthur Schlesinger Jr., ‘The
Politics of Upheaval: 1935-1936’ [is a book the presidential candidates
ought to read] because it demonstrates how the marriage of engaged social
movements and an activist government can promote the common good even in
the most dire economic circumstances, and offers and alternative vision of
the market fundamentalism that now dominates American politics.”
I have dealt extensively with the myth of government’s capacity to promote
the “public” good and how that idea tends to mean the agenda of people who
differ from what most others like to promote. In the American political
tradition the public good comes to nothing less or more than securing
everyone’s fundamental, unalienable individual rights!
What jumps out at a reader in the quote from Foner is the out and out myth
he is peddling, namely, that “market fundamentalism dominates American
politics.” If you doubt me, just listen to Senators Obama, Clinton, and
McCain and notice how little confidence each of these major contemporary
political figures shows for the free market. The current Congress has no
interest in free markets either. Instead it keeps supporting farm
subsidies and numerous protectionist measures. Liberal Democrats, in turn,
are openly hostile to free trade–notice how both Senators Obama and
Clinton keep hammering away at NAFTA (which, by the way, Bill Clinton
supported), a measure that gives at least lip service in favor of the free
market. (Not that even NAFTA fully endorses economic freedom!)
Why on earth is it so necessary for Professor Foner and his ilk to peddle
this big lie, namely, that the free market is favored in America these
days? No one but Congressman Ron Paul treated it as a good thing and his
vote totals did not come close to suggesting that the idea dominates
American politics. So why the lie?
I believe that enemies of the free market are worried that any problems in
the American or indeed world economy might be laid at the feet of the real
culprit, the mixed economy or welfare state. Because it is welfare states
that in fact dominate politics nearly everywhere, including in America.
The mixed economy is an uneasy combination of extensive government
economic intervention and pockets of free market activity.
American political opinion, pace Professor Foner, has been swinging back
and forth between more or less extensive government interventionism. That
is what has dominated American politics, what with all the regulatory
agencies, minimum wage measures, eminent domain policies, subsidies,
protection from foreign competition, etc., etc.
But if one can convince people that economic problems stem not from this
mess of the mixed economy but from market fundamentalism, they may decide
to try even more interventionism, more government regulation, more central
planning exactly as advocated by Senators Obama and Clinton and not at all
vigorously opposed by Senator McCain.
The Big Lie! It was once associated with Plato’s Republic, where the
philosopher king was required, in the imaginary perfect state, to mislead
the public for its very own good! Maybe Professor Foner shares this idea:
Lie to the American public about what kind of economic philosophy is
dominant so they will then accept the opposite idea, namely, socialism.
In fact, however, this lie is of no help to anyone, not even Professor
Foner (since his reputation is seriously sullied from perpetrating it).

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