This latest outrage is just another symptom of an extreme anti-government ideology with roots dating back to the 1970s.
The shutdown of the U.S. government is an outrageous act of ignorance, foolishness, and vindictiveness. History suggests that choosing destruction is usually tragic, but it’s hard to believe the Republican hardliners have any sense of history.
The anti-government agenda in the U.S. has had many contributors. The end of the progressive uses of government more or less began in the 1970s, and was given impetus by Ronald Reagan’s scapegoating of government. It was also given impetus by Chicago-style economics, led by Milton Friedman. His book Capitalism and Freedom is basically a political pamphlet calling for governance to be reduced to a function of the Invisible Hand. Many Democratic economists came under his sway.
Shutting down the government now is just a variation on Reagan and Friedman's "starve the beast" strategy of undermining government by denying it funding.
Friedman and Reagan have now reached the height of their influence, but many joined this march of foolishness. President Obama has consistently paid deference to the party line that reducing the federal deficit is the main economic priority. The Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission captured the self-destructive America temperament of the time by insisting federal revenues not rise above 21 percent of GDP. When Reinhart-Rogoff’s 90 percent bright line of debt-to-GDP was shown to be an artifact of poor research and arithmetic, Erskine Bowles said it was still just common sense.
Lots of moderate Republicans have made budget-cutting their main domestic priority, as have many Democrats. Sequestration is undermining what could have been a strong recovery by now.
The media, in their embrace of the safe middle-way, have done their share to promote general antagonism against government as well. It’s an American journalistic tragedy.
And so here we are. Just enough people feel government is meaningless to allow this crazy betrayal of a democratic nation to occur. How else can you so despise Obamacare that you would go to such destructive lengths? It is a useful program designed to help some 32 million Americans who suffer—yes, suffer—without health insurance.
If the old pre-Obamacare system was better, it would have worked. It didn’t. Health care delivery in America is appalling by any modern standard, and without reform, our society will become not just less prosperous but far less decent. Have these people no shame?
Democrats had also better rethink government. It’s not just a matter of plugging holes due to market failures, a misleading over-simplification of mainstream economic theory.
Government’s duty is to be a vibrant protector of rights and contributor to full lives. The myths about government are endless. Ask the proverbial man or woman on the street who does the most technological, economically vital R&D in the U.S. and they, under the influence of the misled media and economic orthodoxy, will almost always say the private sector and the venture capitalists. But it just ain’t so. Yes, venture capital is important, but government R&D is even more so. Government is the main contributor, even to Silicon Valley, but under sequestration, non-defense R&D is being cut back sharply. This is but one example of the effects of anti-government thinking.
The hope is that this is the last gasp of the Reaganite-Friedmanite brigade. The hope is that the U.S. will awaken to the uses of government and the beauty of a functioning democracy. We started the Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative for this reason. We are going to keep at it, telling everyone we can what government can do well, what its purposes are, and how it can be reformed. Ideology, someone said, is a short cut for thinking. When it comes to Reaganite-Friedmanite extremism, that’s an understatement.
Jeff Madrick is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, Director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative, and author of Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present.
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