"America’s economy is the strongest in the world, and it is getting stronger thanks to lower taxes, fewer burdensome regulations, and a focus on encouraging investment… May God bless Ronald Reagan and the country he loved." -- quotes from the 2004 Republican Party PlatformThe mantra has been repeated so often you'll remember it even if you weren't alive when he said it, "Government isn't the answer to our problem; government IS the problem."
It was trademark Ronald Reagan: a wag of the head, a dismissive grin. But, despite his reputation, Reagan was only a spear-carrier for the influential economist, Milton Friedman and his neo-conservative theory of economics, whereby the morality of unfettered capitalism should rule. And, it has ruled the roost for thirty years.
Friedman taught for 30 years at the University of Chicago, preaching against any and all government regulation and government-sponsored social programs like the minimum wage, Social Security, Medicare, and even public schools. The much-revered conservative magazine The Economist called him "the most influential economist of the second half of the 20th century…possibly of all of it."
Most recently, Friedman led the quest for no-holds-barred capitalism at one of scores of well-funded neo-conservative think tanks, the Hoover Institute.
Friedman died in 2006, having sold his philosophy to a coterie of disciples who have dominated U.S economic policy from the late 1960's until today -- the predictable dawning of what even George W. Bush is smart enough to call a mess.
With the current fiscal mess, we the people have a lesson to learn… again. The previous time was in 1929 when a complicit government turned a blind eye to private profiteering -- and sold it as freedom and democracy.
In the Friedman new-old worldview, government is touted as getting in the way of freedom and democracy. But, mostly it gets in the way of profits. The sales pitch is that private profit lifts all boats because (we are asked to believe) rich folks are too big-hearted to take unfair advantage of power and privilege.
In short, it is the trickle-down theory: Government should just get out of the business of business. But what is government? A definition of terms is a critical part of any discussion or debate.
The verb "to govern" has its roots in the Latin "gubernare" which means to steer or guide. My old American College Dictionary says that to govern is "to rule by right of authority." So, that's what government is… but the larger and more important question is "who is government?"
Our national mythology preaches that we are. Our school kids are taught it. Our rhetoric proclaims it. The Constitution of these United States shouts it with the opening words: "We the People." If that is true, if the government which rules by right of authority is…well… us, then how is it that a government of, for, and by the people is the problem? Why are we not to regulate private business for the broader public good?
It is more than my suspicion is that we are no longer the government. That is, if "we" is to be understood as the collective citizenry. I believe what our mythology proclaims has become slick window-dressing for a government by the rich and well-connected. In that ironic sense, Reagan had a point. Government is the problem in that it is no longer what the Constitution proclaims it to be.
In our current fiscal mess, it should be obvious that not merely government regulation in print but in deed was and is in the people's interest. Instead we are pressured to obediently reward the guilty.
Newly populist politicians say they don't want to reward CEO's and their subordinates who got us into this mess, but aren't our supposed representatives doing exactly that? Why are the skunks not being held accountable? Why is it politicians limit talk to not rewarding those who scammed us -- and not about fines, or even jail terms?
Paradoxically, Reagan was, in a sense, right. The problem we the people have is in not being the government our founders asked us to be.
Something else is the government today -- and that IS the problem.
How do we fix it? Not by watching more ball games, more soap operas, more celebrity news, nor being satisfied with sound-bytes and photo-ops, nor fussing about everybody else's sex machinery.
It's by accepting the responsibility of participatory citizenship.
That's not capitalism; it's called democracy, and there's a critical difference.