I like David Brooks. I even agree with a significant part of what he writes. But his column in yesterday’s New York Times not only missed the boat, it swam in the wrong ocean.
Brooks characterized the Obama ads attacking Romney’s performance at Bain as an attack on capitalism, and essentially framed the current Presidential race as a contest between “big government” and “capitalism.” This is wrong on so many counts, it’s hard to know where to begin.
I am an ardent believer in capitalism and free markets. In my opinion, Mitt Romney is the poster boy for a destructive and distorted vision of market economics that is giving capitalism its current bad name.
The sort of capitalism that works, the capitalism that originally made this country the most productive in the world, is characterized by transparency and a level playing field. Transparency means marketplaces with willing buyers and willing sellers who both possess the information relevant to their transaction. There are obviously areas–like healthcare–where that sort of information symmetry is impossible; in such areas, markets cannot work. Markets work extremely well, however, when buyers and sellers both have access to sufficient information on which to base their economic behavior.
The metaphor of a level playing field goes well beyond parity of information, however. A level playing field requires rules against cheating–and authorities willing and able to enforce those rules. Crony capitalism is the antithesis of a level playing field. Gaming the system by sending your lobbyists to Washington to buy influence, obtain favorable tax treatment, gut regulations and subsidize your endeavors are hallmarks of oligarchy. Such behaviors bear no relationship to a true market economy.
The notion that Mitt Romney represents true capitalism is delusional. So, for that matter, is the charge that Obama represents “big government.” As even the Wall Street Journal has conceded, growth in government spending under the Obama administration has been the lowest since the Eisenhower administration. The charge of “big government” rests on two aspects of Obama’s presidency: the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) and his continuation of George W. Bush’s policies on surveillance and national security.
I agree with critics of Obama’s national security policies. Those policies infringed civil liberties when Bush inaugurated them, and they are no less ill-conceived and dangerous simply because the President pursuing them can pronounce “nuclear.” But the widespread belief that the ACA is anti-capitalist and pro “big government” rests on the same fundamental misapprehension as Brooks’ column: that anything done by the private sector is by definition “capitalism.”
The basic question to be answered when constructing a government is: what is its role? What tasks must we do collectively,through this governing mechanism we have created, and what tasks should be left to individuals, businesses and/or nonprofit organizations?
In areas where markets work, we should let them. But there are areas where markets don’t work, or work only with substantial assistance. Think public safety, national defense, infrastructure provision. Healthcare is an area where markets demonstrably do not work and have not worked. Every other western industrialized nation has come to that conclusion. The cost of ignoring that reality is draining our treasury and increasing the inequities that are splintering our polity.
Recognition of reality is sanity, not preference for “big government.”
If we really need to frame the electoral choice we face, I’d suggest “a contest between ‘I’ve got mine’ and the common good.”