April 11, 2012
In William Golding’s allegorical novel, Lord of the Flies, children, bereft of culturally imposed authority, revert to a social hierarchy in which the strong rule over the weak. The essential message of the book–-that without controls, some in society will become rapacious–-is echoed in the writings of Adam Smith, the acknowledged Moses of free-market capitalism. Generally overlooked among Smith’s prescriptions for a free-market economy are these cautionary words: “The interest of the dealers… in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public… [They] have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public…” and: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”And yet, even with these words of warning from the most revered voice in their movement, conservative **Republicans continue to call for a loosening of the reins of government on big business.
Conservative Republicans talk about freedom when they advocate for abolishing government regulation. Their interpretation of freedom, however, reveals a kind of schizophrenia in their thinking.Contrast their ideal universe with Golding’s fictional model. In the novel, restraints exist only in so far as the powerful can impose them upon the weak. This social dynamic cuts across all boundaries: the distribution of goods, imposition of punishment, granting of favors. Everybody is absolutely free to fight for what they want. The outcome is determined by a raw calculus of power and nothing more.With conservative Republicans, however, principles of freedom are not so consistently applied.
While Republicans would grant freedom to captains of industry, a freedom to pursue profit at will, these same conservatives would deny to the general populace the freedom to resist the captains and their pursuits. In Golding’s universe, with sufficient will and an able leader the weak could conceivably unite. No external third party exists on Golding’s fictional island to restrain the weak from organizing, from consolidating their individual voices and overwhelming their oppressors. In an ideal conservative Republican universe, however, freedom to unite and exercise popular will would be denied.
Government, in this universe, would exist to maintain order–-that is, the order in which the captains of industry hold all the economic chips. The only countervailing power the populace has against the captains of industry is numerical superiority. Conservative Republicans understand the mathematics of this; they know that an enlightened populace with the ability to unite in common purpose could eventually tip the economic scales. Thus the Republicans relentlessly work at eviscerating unions and denying people access to the ballot box. With a long-term vision for suppressing popular will, they even advocate limiting access to higher education.
Conservative Republicans like to talk about freedom. It is the banner under which they have argued the Supreme Court case against the Healthcare Reform Act. It is the banner under which they argue for states rights. It is the banner under which they argue against a woman’s access to contraceptive care. What a curious banner for the Republicans to carry, they who premise their very existence on the suppression of popular will. The conservative Republican banner calls to mind the principle, “the bigger the lie, the more it is believed.”
As these Republicans wave their flag of liberty and speechify about the burden of government regulation, it is best to keep in mind what they mean: that the free exercise of popular will be denied to the many so that the rewards of a free market can be richly enjoyed by the few.
**The following comments are added to address the objections of a much respected critic
By highlighting conservative Republicans’ hypocrisy I do not suggest that Democrats can claim to be standard bearers of freedom or that they offer a level economic playing field for every citizen. Indefinite detention, warrantless wiretapping, imperial war, targeted assassination, Wall Street toadying– all have the fingerprints of the current administration and Democratic legislators on them. However, I will not be guilty of “Naderizing” U.S. politics. Although both parties are “corporate”, there are differences between them. Don’t take my word for it. Look at the supporters of each. There’s a reason the Koches and Adelsons pour money into Republican coffers. There’s a reason Scalia, Thomas, et al, voted in favor of Citizens United .It is both naïve and destructive to insist there is no difference between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans (although there actually is no difference between “Blue Dog” Democrats and moderate Republicans). It’s the little things that make the difference, things like healthcare, Social Security, collective bargaining, the Voting Rights Act, contraceptive care, student loans, food stamps—the list is inexhaustible. These “little” things change lives. It is true that neither party can honestly carry the banner of freedom. It is true that both parties have sold out to Wall Street. But it is equally true that on many issues there is daylight between the two major political parties. And it is in that light that a crucial and illuminating difference can be found between liberal Democrats and Conservative Republicans.