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.


  • Yale 08

    Free Markets = Free People

  • @ Yale 08

    Don't you mean 'Free markets make free men"? At least when the YPU debated it, they suggeted forward causality. But your aphorism is perhaps more appropriate for demonstrating the absurdity of the argument.

    When free markets are thought to be "equal" to free people, they end up merely being a substitute for them.

    The last 30 years have been at best stagnation and at worst diaster for everyone not lucky enough to prosper from the booms and crunches of an increasingly unregulated financial system. Today's workers are no better educated than before, no more secure in their livelihoods; today's families are less cohesive, as respect for honest labor has eroded, and respect for instant, illusory profits has gained.

    If we actually cares about freedom or markets, wehave to actually address the root causes of both rather than thinking theat there is directionality either way. What does that mean? It means effective government oversight to prevent monopoolies and collusion, creating structures that promote constanst entrpenuerial spirit at both a local and national level by helping jump start small business, enforcing labor standards so that freedom is not contingent on wealth, protecting people's rights not only to vote but also the ability to get to the polls, and otherwise engaging in the messy business of governing — which requires both a faith in government's ability to work and a commitment to ensuring it does, and which is precisely the opposite of the mindet since 1980 that government was the problem and that free markets, here and abroad, were sufficient to make free men and women.

  • Yale 09

    This was silly. The more I learn about Mr. Johnston's political philosophy the more convinced I become that his ideal society would be the Taliban: traditional values, suppression of the individual, not-explicitly socialistic. That is not a mode of living that accords with the American experience. Maybe he should move to Afghanistan.

  • Yale '00

    I liked "Praise Song for the Day."

    I can see that she was trying, as she said in this interview, to make it very clear. The basic meaning was very accessible. This made the poem seem simple. But some of the images nonetheless stuck with me. I liked the part where with a few quick brush strokes she made out the three micro-scenes of people, scattered across the country, at moments that were sort of 'on the cusp':

    A woman and her son wait for the bus.

    A farmer considers the changing sky.

    A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."

    It was a poem that was very much about the Obama campaign (it even had a "hand-lettered sign"), and very much about the moment. And that's the thing. That day was already such a powerful and symbolic day. She didn't have to add much to mark the fact that it was a moment "On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp," in which "any thing can be made, any sentence begun."

    When I watched the broadcast, the line that Michelle Obama most reacted to (or any way, the moment when the camera cut to her) was the end of the part about love, "love with no need to preempt grievance." She seemed to smile and react a lot to that one. I wonder what it meant to her.

    Anyway, for what it was -- and it's not easy to write something like that -- I think she did an interesting & good job.

    I was slightly disappointed, though, that she didn't bring more history in. Part of what is distinctive about Alexander's usual voice is her use of history, especially black history. She chose not to go that way here. I wonder why she made that choice.

  • @ Yale 09

    What an absurd comment! Peter is Christian, not Muslim.

  • Hiero II

    Yes, the Taliban are great believers in a free market and individual liberty.

    wait what

  • @ Hiero II

    Good effort piling on there, but Peter's not really big on individual liberty (c.f. everything he's ever written)