Johnston: Market as important as ever

The vulgar right prophesies socialism ascendant, but its hyperventilated ranting is the scrap of a wholly different national transformation. The triumph of the market is at hand, and the era of limited government is over.

We are told that the Republicans of the last decade have abandoned their principles, on account of their participation in growing the size of government. What about the prior two decades? Government became larger then, too. Did Ronald Reagan abandon his principles? Has there never been a principled Republican?

This allegation is all too easy. It is better to ask the question: If the Republican governance of the last 30 years was not the height of hypocrisy, upon what principle did it proceed?

The answer is right under our nose, long ignored because of its identification with limited government: the market. The increasing size of government was directly related to the allegiance of the Republican Party to the market — first to advance it against the alternative model of communism, then to bring all Americans into its blessings, finally to protect it from its own instability.

The market was not a simple affair of supply and demand, of unplanned productivity and the invisible hand. It was defined by the availability and application of credit, at first in the opening of small businesses and the financing of homes, but increasingly in the purchase of consumer products. The market thus represented not a trade in goods but the procurement of present satisfaction in the promise of a future gift. It was the dynamo of national prosperity and the practical engine of the progress of liberty and equality.

Because of the Cold War, the Republican Party successfully identified the market as the essential American institution, and bludgeoned the market’s critics with allegations of un-Americanism. The Democratic Party could only return to power long after its complete acquiescence to such logic. President Obama takes power not as a critic of the market, but as its conservator. His regulations attempt to preserve the market from its internal vicissitudes, not to launch a revolution.

In his inaugural address, President Obama spelled out the consequence of our common political imperative. “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.”

President Obama is not about to abolish private property, and the only other mechanism with a demonstrable record of achieving these ends is the market. So his administration will pledge allegiance to the market, identically to three decades of Republicans.

A corollary of our common allegiance is the increasing incoherence of the right. The ideal of the rugged individualist — an image central to the appeal of the right — is now firmly under the protection of President Obama. Now that the west has been settled, the final frontier of the rugged individualist is the market. It is the only context in which he can make his own way, find his own fortune and settle his own home. But the market is now in crisis. Thus the growth of government is necessary to any further individualism — it is necessary to the continuation of the American tradition of individual liberty.

What is more, Obama’s call for the resurrection of civic duties seems an appropriate antidote to the moral vacuity that the right has often alleged inhabits the public sphere. Ought the right support Obama? Perhaps. Another possibility would have the right reconsider its commitment to individual liberty. And the right ought not forget that Obama’s rhetoric of civic obligation is situated in the context of Lincoln’s political religion, in which the citizens of the republic are expected to give their lives in the service of the ideals of progressive liberalism.

The market is the health of the state. With 1 trillion spent, and another trillion to go, the logic of the market marches on. The people assume debt collectively in order that they may assume it individually. It is unclear when the madness will end.

Peter Johnston is a senior in Saybrook College.

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