I used to tell my students that the Bill of Rights, read as an organic whole, answers a deceptively simple question: who decides? Not “what decision should be made” but who gets to make it? Who chooses the book you read, the God you do–or do not–worship, the person you marry?
The Bill of Rights draws a line between decisions government can properly make and decisions that, in a free society, must be left to the individual. One of the reasons the Dobbs decision was so shocking was that –suddenly–the government was authorized to enter a zone of intimacy from which it had long been banned; as I have often remarked, the question was never “should abortion be legal or illegal”? The question was (and is) who should decide that question in an individual situation?
America’s raging culture war tends to focus on the extent to which our individual rights are protected from government interference. MAGA Republicans insist that government has the right–the duty!–to determine everything from your reading materials to your reproductive decisions. As many former Republicans have noted, the “war on woke” is really a war on the Bill of Rights, and a sharp departure from what used to be GOP orthodoxy.
This deviation from that past Republican orthodoxy isn’t limited to the usurpation of individual life decisions. The party has also jettisoned its former support for free markets, as Dana Milbank recently documented.
Can you remember when Republicans still believed in the free market?
It was sometime before Donald Trump started routine attacks on the “globalists” of Goldman Sachs and the leaders of large U.S. corporations; before Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis used tax policy to attack the Walt Disney Co. because it dared to disagree with his “don’t say gay” legislation; before congressional Republicans harassed social media companies and book publishers over alleged “censorship” of their views; before they threatened Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and Major League Baseball over their support for voting rights; before they vowed to use federal resources to retaliate against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for backing a few Democrats; before Republican governors enacted laws overriding private employers’ coronavirus vaccination policies; and before GOP-led states moved to disrupt interstate commerce to block abortion access and morning-after pills.
This week brought the latest evidence that the former party of laissez-faire capitalism has reimagined itself in the image of a Soviet State Planning Committee. Republican lawmakers are now telling investors which businesses they can and can’t invest in — and which investment criteria they will be permitted to consider.
Republicans have taken the culture war to business, in efforts to prevent asset managers from considering “environmental, social and governance” criteria, or ESG, when making their investments. Milbank quoted Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes’ assertion that there is a “conspiracy” of ESG-minded investors.
He was particularly worried that “asset managers who collectively own significant percentages of utilities’ stock are improperly influencing the operations of those utilities.”
Imagine that! The shareholders who own a company are trying to influence its operations! Will nobody rid us of this capitalist menace?
Twenty-five Red State attorneys general have sued to block a federal regulation that allows retirement-plan investors to consider ESG standards. The rule doesn’t mandate that investors do so. It merely gives them the option.
As one Democratic critic of this interference with business decisions points out, these rules block asset managers from
considering whether a car company “is aligned with market expectations and preparing for the shift to electric vehicles,” whether a pharmaceutical company “has exposure to massive lawsuits because of its role in the opioid epidemic” or whether “health-care companies understaff their operations and jeopardize the safety of patients.. ..ESG is simply additional information that investment professionals use to assess risk and return prospects.”
In our current “through the looking-glass” world, Democrats are defending the free market against Republican support for a planned economy that mandates what businesses have to invest in. Shades of Soviet central planning!
When I first became politically active, I was drawn to principles espoused by the then-Republican Party, especially its recognition that individual liberty requires limiting the power of the state. There were and are good faith arguments about where the line should be drawn in a variety of situations (and widespread misunderstandings of what “limited” government means. “Limited” is not the equivalent of “small”–a limited government respects limits on its authority, not its size.)
A government that can dictate your prayers, your reading materials, your reproductive decisions and your business’s approach to investment isn’t just unAmerican–it’s heading toward Soviet-style totalitarianism or Taliban-style theocracy.
In a genuinely free society, the decisions citizens and businesses make are far less important than who has the right to make them.