Capitalism and Its Current Respectability

Lately the reports from The New York Times and The Washington Post and the rest of the respectable press have a strange new respect for the old-fashioned Republican sort of free markets economics, which we attribute entirely to president-elect Donald Trump.
Although Trump won’t take office for another five weeks or so, he’s already made news by cajoling the Carrier heating and air conditioning company into keeping 800 jobs that were slated for Mexico in Indiana, “tweeted” the cancellation of an order with Boeing for a new Air Force One fleet over alleged cost overruns, and once again threatened any company that’s considering a foreign work force with a 35 percent tariff. All of which is news that poses a dilemma for the respectable press.
The current operational definition of a respectable press is its instinctive opposition to anything that any Republican might do, and especially Trump, but the president-elect’s unorthodox style of Republicanism is not susceptible to the usual criticisms. Trump’s meddling in Carrier’s affairs is precisely the sort of industrial policy that Democrats have long championed, and although they usually prefer the stick of punitive tax hikes to such carrots as the $7 million in tax abatements that the state of Indiana will offer it’s not enough to hang a scathing critique on. Boeing and the rest of the military-industrial complex are usually cast as the villains, and any attempt to shortchange them is usually cheered. All the tough protectionist talk that got Trump elected isn’t much different from what self-described socialist Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders eventually forced Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to embrace.
Compelling arguments against Trump’s policies can only be found on the right, in the free market theories that until recently defined the Republican party’s economic platform, and in its desperation the respectable is suddenly willing to go there. All the stories now feature lengthy explanations of Trump’s inefficient market distortions by economists from such capitalist think-tanks as the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute or the University of Chicago or some similarly red-in-tooth-and-claw economics department, and without the usual characterization’s of “right wing” or mention of any funding they might be receiving from the Koch brothers. They’re the same names that have been in the respectable press’ rolodex the past eight years, quoted briefly in the tenth or eleventh paragraph for the sake of balance, but suddenly they’re showing up right after the lead and getting a chance to rebut the Trumponomics that is now being added for the sake of balance somewhere in the ten or the eleventh paragraph.
We’re glad to see it, being red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalists and no fans of Trump ourselves, but it seems a case of much too little and far too late. The respectable press wasn’t making such a fuss about Trump’s Republican heresies back during the Republican primary, when it might have done some good, and these days the respectable press doesn’t seem to have much influence even with with Democrats. Such disreputable Democrats as the party’s newest congressional leader, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, have long been the beneficiaries of Trump’s political donations, and they’ve always come through for him in the past, it’s hard to see how they’re suddenly going to be swayed the think-tank theories of a suddenly swept away Republican party to oppose the same sort of tax-abatement-dealing and corporate strong-arming and old-fashioned protectionism they’ve always wanted, and the respectable press will also have a hard time with that news.
The old tried-and-true ideas will surely stick around to denouement, with all the variations from those think tanks and economic departments and the help of such respectably anti-Trump conservative presses as National Review and The Weekly Standard and The Central Standard Times, even if it is eventually relegated to the tenth and eleventh paragraphs. Eventually they’ll get another try. In the meantime we’re glad to see the likes of The New York Times and The Washington Post helping out, however begrudgingly.

— Bud Norman

America, Still in the Top 20 For Freedom

It’s a free country, according to an oft-used expression, but we can’t help noticing that America is not nearly so free as used it be. The good folks at the free-market Cato Institute have corroborated this observation in their latest “Human Freedom Index,” which surveys a wide range of indicators of personal and economic liberty, and finds that America is now only the 20th freest nation in the world.
Although we’re surprised to find America ranking behind such countries as Hong Kong and Chile, the rest of the report seems about right. The authors say America has fallen three spots in the rankings since 2012, and that “the decline reflects a long-term drop in every category of economic freedom and in its rule of law indicators,” then note that “the performance is worrisome and shows that the United States can no longer claim to be the leading bastion of liberty in the world.” We’re pleased to know that it’s as worrisome to them as it is to us, but presently an even greater worry is that so much of the public seems not at all concerned. The Democratic candidates seem more concerned with the problem of “income inequality,” which apparently will require ever more rules and regulations and limits on equality, while The Republican Party seems disinclined to put much of a fight against it, and all those independents who will decide the matter tend to vote for free stuff rather than freedom.
We can’t tell if the Cato Institute is taking into account such petty rules as light bulb bans and no smoking in even the seediest honky-tonks and mandatory seat belt use and limits of the size of soda one can purchase, but there are by now so many of these offenses against personal autonomy that even the communist Chinese rules of Hong Kong can’t keep up. More significant freedoms have also been noticeably diminished. The freedom of the press has declined to a point that reporters are being kept in roped enclosures at public events and their investigative reporting is being treated as a criminal conspiracy by the Department of Music. People are still free to attend church on Sunday, but freedom of religion no longer means that you can no longer act according to the beliefs taught there if a same-sex couple wants you to bake a cake for their wedding. Freedom of speech is still largely free of government regulation, unless you make a YouTube video that is critical of Islam and makes a convenient scapegoat for a failed Libyan policy, but the howling mods of the easily offended are doing a good enough job of constricting public debate. As for economic liberty, just ask any businessperson you know about how many permits and inspections and taxes and employment laws and equal opportunity requirements and reams of forms to be filled out they have to deal with.
Once upon a time in America the people would have been boiling tar and plucking feathers to be at least as free as the people of Hong Kong or Chile, and if you re-read the Declaration of Independence you’ll realize that Americans once went to their muskets over far less, but these days few seem to mind. The average citizen of the 20th freest country is now content with that status, so long as some of the income is redistributed his way and the games are playing on cable and there’s an illusion of broader freedom because everyone’s cussing on the comedy shows and everyone’s got a tattoo and those restrictive old notions of sexual morality are being punished by the state.
The economy and illegal immigration and the continuing difficulties with the more belligerent sorts of Muslims and the rest of the issues dominating the presidential debate are all important, but we’d love to see a candidate for the presidency or any other office make it his foremost issue to return to America to its rightful place as the leading bastion of liberty in the world. Such a project would do wonders for the economy, involve the necessary enforcement of America’s immigration laws, and strengthen America’s commitment to the freedom that those more belligerent sorts of Muslims threaten. We suspect would like it, too, just as Americans used to back when this really was a free country.

— Bud Norman