Reagan Was Wrong: The Nine Most Terrifying Words Are, "I'm a Libertarian and the Market Will Save You"

I don't agree with Reagan. I'm not scared of the government trying to help. But I am terrified of an unfettered free market.
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I was tailgating with my wife and two friends in the parking lot of Miller Park before a Brewers game yesterday, when a guy with a pasted-on, plastic, local-news-anchor smile approached our group. He wanted us to sign a petition to get his "buddy" on the ballot for state treasurer. Of course, the first question I asked him was which party his "buddy" belonged to, and the guy told us he was a Libertarian.

Poor guy, he didn't realize he was approaching a liberal blogger and his progressive friends. Not an audience that was going to easily buy what he had to sell. I politely told him that I wouldn't support a Libertarian candidate, and like a telemarketer dutifully and mechanically following a script provided to him to handle rejection, he asked why I didn't support Libertarians. I explained that I did not harbor a dislike or distrust of government, and that I thought there were certain jobs that only government could do. Without removing the wooden smile from his face, he moved to the next page of his telemarketer script and asked me if he could have one minute to "rebate" what I had said, and he proceeded to tell us that the free market is perfectly efficient and the best way to solve problems. I started to laugh and told him that, yes, the financial collapse two years ago was a great example of the market solving problems. And also, another great example was the oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico. My wife and friends joined in the laughter, and our Libertarian guest could no longer maintain his fake smile. His voice and facial expression turned angry, and he stormed off to the next group of tailgaters, spitting out something barely intelligible at us as he left.

I thought this interaction perfectly encapsulated the anti-government, pro-market-solution obsession currently running through the right, especially among tea baggers and self-proclaimed libertarians. They love to cite Ronald Reagan's line that the "nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'" But I'm far more afraid of someone telling me, "I'm a Libertarian (or Tea Party member) and the market will save you."

You would think from listening to the rhetoric that we have two choices in this country: Either you adopt the right's notion of deregulation and an unfettered free market, or you are a socialist. There is no in-between. Which is, of course, patently false, but also maddeningly ignorant of recent American history. Taking the financial industry as an example, after the election of Franklin Roosevelt, Congress quickly enacted legislation, like the Securities Act of 1933, the Banking Act of 1933 (Glass-Steagall), and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, meant to curb the excesses of an unfettered financial system, which had led to the stock market crash of 1929 and the depression that ensued. And for the next 45 years, the country was able to avoid any mass financial collapses.

Then, beginning with Reagan, and continuing through George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and reaching its peak with the ultimate deregulation messiah, George W. Bush, the government took down the post-Depression financial regulation structure brick by brick, following a mantra that deregulation helped the market to function freely, and a free market will produce the best results.

What did we get? The savings and loan scandal, the Enron-induced power outages in California, corporate fraud (Enron, etc.) and, ultimately, a financial industry run amok (arcane financial instruments, insanely risky investments that banks profited from regardless of their success, and credit rating agencies handing out AAA ratings like candy to keep customers, just to name some examples), all leading to a near financial collapse that plunged the country (and the rest of the world) into a job-sapping, deep recession.

All evidence would seem to point to the need for some regulation to keep the banks from running amok, but the right still clings to its mantra of deregulation and unfettered free markets.

I also thought it was not a coincidence that not once, not twice, but three times during his two-minute pitch to us, our Libertarian petitioner talked of having the opportunity to "rebate" what I had said about his cause. (Not "rebut" or "debate" or whatever else he actually meant, but "rebate," which had me secretly hoping he had a way to refund to us some of our time he had wasted.) It was fitting because so much of the right wing/Tea Party/libertarian anger is based on false notions (much of it, no doubt, a product of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and the right wing media misinformation machine), and the urgency of his words was not supported by a basic ability to use the English language to make an argument, leaving the content of his claims even more suspect.

I can already hear the complaints now: I'm an elitist snob for chiding someone for making a mistake. If I was pointing out that, say, the guy who scanned our tickets at the Miller Park gate had been less than smooth with his words, I would deserve the criticism (that didn't happen, it's just an example). But here was a guy who was so sure of his beliefs, he not only gave up a Sunday to walk around a baseball stadium parking lot to collect signatures (admirable commitment), but he felt empowered to tell everyone there that he was right and they were wrong. And if you are going to take such a position and hold yourself out as an authority, it is fair to question the knowledge and intelligence underlying the strong assertions.

Our Libertarian petitioner's certainty isn't just simplistic, it is a real impediment to solving our country's problems. The alternative to unfettered free markets is not socialism, but rather, it is free markets with basic regulations in place to prevent abuse, just like the financial regulation architecture that protected the country after the Great Depression. (Somehow, I don't think we were living in a socialist state when Eisenhower and Nixon held the presidency.) I know subtlety is a lost art in modern politics, but if we are to survive, we will have to recognize that there are more than two extreme choices. These same right wingers don't seem to mind when the government subsidizes the oil industry, and I doubt that they want to shut down the libraries, public schools, fire departments, and highway maintenance departments, all of which are run by the government (and would not exist if left to a private, free-market model). Conservatives, tea baggers and libertarians want you to think it's a simple dichotomous choice: free markets or socialism, or no government or all government. But such a reductionist view fails to account for how complicated and integrated the relationship between public and private actually is. (Yes, I know, asking for nuance rather than black-and-white distinctions is tragically 20th century.) Let's remember the angry town hall attendees last summer telling members of Congress to keep their government hands off of their Medicare. Even they liked a government program, but they didn't even know it.

There was one aspect of our Libertarian petitioner's approach that especially rang true to me: The false smile covering his real anger. Tea Party leaders are quick to say there is no place in their movement for racism, but at those same rallies you see racist signs about President Obama. Let's not forget the March Harris poll that revealed that 57 percent of Republicans think Obama is a Muslim, and 45 percent think he wasn't born in the United States. Somehow, I doubt these people would be concerned about the religion or place of birth of John Kerry, Hillary Clinton or John Edwards, let alone John McCain, Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani. When right wingers talk about taking "their" country back, it's hard to see "their" as meaning anything but a system in which power rested in white, male, Christian hands. When tea baggers put a happy, smiley face on the movement, I can't help but be wary of the angry snarl underneath. So I wasn't the least bit surprised when our Libertarian petitioner's plastic grin quickly devolved into an angry scowl when he realized that he didn't have the ammunition to win over someone who was even marginally informed.

These are not merely philosophical questions. Late last week, financial reform legislation was watered down at the last minute to ensure its passage. After what happened in 2008, opposing real reform in areas like derivatives and the so-called "Volcker Rules" defies logic. With unemployment hovering around 10 percent thanks to a recession precipitated by a near financial industry collapse, I don't agree with Ronald Reagan. I'm not scared of the government trying to help. But I am terrified of an unfettered free market allowing industry leaders, whether they be in the financial industry or the oil business, ruled by greed, putting the country at risk to unfairly further line their already bulging pockets.

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