Economy, democracy and freedom: it’s a single argument

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He was an evil force in many ways. But I admit he found a great way to open a book. Friedman is not a cautious welterweight who feels the opponent knocked out in the first round. It’s a heavyweight that comes out swinging from the opening bell. It’s not about saving, he writes. It is a question of freedom. Your freedom, citizen. And by the way, how contemporary it still seems, with that reference to democratic socialism, made when Bernie Sanders was still in college, probably starting to dig into his Marcuse. And Friedman had a skill that most economists, in my experience, don’t have: he could write and speak plain English. No wonder he won so many converts, plus his message was exactly what wealthy people wanted to hear!

The market economy therefore took over. And the Liberals never really got an answer. Joe Biden, of all the unlikely people, tried to provide one. Never a crusading liberal, Biden always found the middle path to where his party as a whole stood. If Ted Kennedy was here on his left and Sam Nunn was over there on his right, Biden would usually land somewhere equidistant between them. But now the party had shifted to the left overall, after the Great Recession and the torrent of activism that had unleashed in its wake (Occupy Wall Street, the fight for a $15 minimum wage) , Biden did too. In fact, he did something very unusual as a presidential candidate. Conventional wisdom is that candidates veer left or right during the primaries but move to the center in the general. But Biden, once he got the nomination, went left. And he won. And that’s why so many of us thought Build Back Better would pass — stripped down, sure, but more or less intact, changing the economic paradigm and people’s assumptions about the free market.

And yet the obstacles faced by the administration, including within its own party, show how difficult it will be to change these assumptions. Remember Senator Joe Manchin words, from the end of September 2021, as budget negotiations worked their way through the sausage machine: “I cannot accept that our economy, or basically our society, is moving towards an entitlement mentality. That you are entitled. I am more rewarding because I can help those who really need help. The sentiments expressed here tell us a lot about Manchin’s assumptions about the appropriate role of the public sector in an economy. From a neoliberal perspective, these are perfectly reasonable sentiments. If the role of government is to be limited to remedying market failure, then what Manchin is saying is correct; one could hardly expect him to say anything else. But if we see a different and bigger role for the public sector in providing supports to workers – supports that are not job-related at a time when far fewer people are working in the same factory for 45 years old than when Manchin was growing up — then we wouldn’t talk like he did there. The fall 2021 intra-Democratic debate, as excruciating as it may be to watch, showed that most congressional Democrats have embraced the new economic thinking to one degree or another. But not all did. And the audience didn’t; yes, the particular elements of the bill, universal pre-kindergarten and so on, sound very good, but there is little evidence so far that the general public has been persuaded that what they have been taught in the course of the past 40 years on the merits of the free market and limited government and the evil of deficits are wrong.

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