Associate Editor Noah Baron critiques neo-liberalism in the first installment in a series on economic rights.

Noah Baron, Associate Editor
Ideology: Religious Progressive | Writing From: New Jersey

Recently, I’ve been reading Thomas Frank’s book, One Market Under God – a left-liberal response to the worldwide neo-”liberal” fad of the 1990s and early 2000s. Originally, I approached its premise that many Americans have bought into the nonsensical argument of the economic right that the market is somehow more democratic than government with quite a bit of skepticism. This is something, I had thought, that I had not noticed in my daily life. Of course, therein lay the problem: the presumption that “government” (all seemingly created equally evil, if one were to believe libertarian radicals) is necessarily bad and inefficient, that regulation inevitably produces an inefficient economy has become so accepted in contemporary American society that to reject that notion is anathema to most. This is problematic on many, many fronts.

The first, and perhaps the one upon which most can agree, is that it is problematic when we have reached such a universal consensus that an idea is no longer challenged at all. Admittedly, we have not reached this point, but we soon will, at the rate we are going. Though for a long time I had not realized it, the rough plot of a science fiction novel I once read works well as a metaphor: in this book, the world had done away with weapons – destroyed them all, for they were no longer necessary – and it had become generally accepted that peace was better than conflict; one day, however, a small group of people came across a small stockpile of weapons that had escaped the destruction of the rest of the weapons. These people then used this small stockpile to command the rest of the world to do their bidding. This is not just an argument for an armed populace: this is an argument for free speech and rigorous debate. Though of course the metaphor does not translate well literally, the general idea is there: when we are no longer confronted with conflict, we become baffled when, after a long period of not having to face it, we are once more confronted with it.

This notion can be re-applied in many, many contexts: for example, ask yourself why racism is bad (why does affirmative action matter – we’ve done just fine this far, haven’t we?); why we prefer a republic to a dictatorship (can’t dictatorships be more efficient?); why we despise slavery (it built the pyramids, didn’t it?). One might have to take a moment to pause in order to piece together an adequate response of any of these questions. Though improbable, imagine for a moment being confronted with an informed and intelligent person arguing in favor of fascism or dictatorship, or even racism. Because we have become so accustomed to simply accepting the premise that “racism is bad” or “democracy is good,” we remain dangerously unfamiliar with the arguments against or in favor of either.

When Germany or France bans any discussion of whether or not the Holocaust actually happened, good intentioned though it might be, they are actually fostering an environment for Holocaust-denial, radical xenophobia, and fascism. Thus it is that when the French or German people are encountered with groups such as the Front National, we find that they garner a rather disturbingly large amount of support at the voting booth. Why? Because their ideology has not been thoroughly debunked in rigorous debate lately. It does not matter that fifty or sixty years ago such agendas were revealed as being fantastically dangerous to everyone; such ideologies must be debunked publicly and often.

Indeed, if the Republican Party (and, today, much of the Democratic Party) is determined to promote an agenda of neo-liberalism, it must ensure that the debate continues. Therein lies the real virtue of a democratic society: when criticism is not only permitted or begrudged, but encouraged, and when it is not shouted down as “anti-Americanism” or looking for what’s wrong with America today, but rather civilly discussed and considered; when victories are won without dragging political opponents through the mud, we all benefit. Criticism holds elected officials accountable not only to what people might or might not want, but to reality as well. When a president can parade an unqualified Supreme Court justice past the Senate, and not a peep is heard because of his race, we wind up with someone like Justice Thomas (who has said that he’s “not comfortable” with the Bill of Rights); when a party is too afraid to speak out against a president’s hare-brained economic policies, we wind up with the massive deficit we inherited from Reagan. Such examples are just that: examples, but of a larger rule. If the economic right is so convinced that their policies are the best policies; that there is no other way to run an economy; that they are simply correct; they should fear no argument from their counterparts on the left. Indeed, they should encourage such arguments as a means by which to hold them accountable – as I said, to the people and to reality.

Read Part II here.

Read Part III here.