Progressive Claptrap

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

By Robert Higgs

You need a strong stomach to endure the messages disseminated by the mainstream news media, especially by its premier outlets, such as the New York Times. Of course, at this late date, nobody expects anything like political non-partisanship or sound economic analysis from the Times, yet one continues to hope that the writers will not flaunt their leftish sensibilities in an utterly buffoonish manner. If you happened upon a September 28 article “Europe’s Socialists Suffering Even in Downturn,” by Steven Erlanger, your hopes in this regard must have been violently shattered.

Much might be said about the article’s main content, but I won’t get into that material here. What struck me comes right at the beginning in an explicit statement of the writer’s assumptions. The article begins well enough — splendidly, in fact — as its first sentence tells us, “A specter is haunting Europe — the specter of Socialism’s slow collapse.” The next sentence, however, begins with the prefatory phrase, “Even in the midst of one of the greatest challenges to capitalism in 75 years, involving a breakdown of the financial system due to ‘irrational exuberance,’ greed and the weakness of regulatory systems,” then tells us that European socialist parties nevertheless are not doing well.

Not that style alone reveals much, of course, but one might wonder why Socialism is written with a capital letter, and capitalism is not. This stylistic distinction tempts one to think of the parallelism in writing God with a capital letter, but the devil in lower case.

There’s something charmingly quaint about the leftists’ continuing attack on capitalism, which is a type of economic order that, if it ever existed at all in this country, has not existed in recognizable form since the 1920s — in a more plausible assessment, not since the years before World War I. Yet the so-called progressives never tire of beating the long-dead horse of capitalism. Are they so ideologically blind that they cannot see how governments at every level have intervened and intervened again until they have displaced or distorted every element of the economic order that might once have contributed to its capitalist character? We live, as F. A. Hayek observed as long ago as 1935, not in a market system, but in a situation of interventionist chaos, where virtually every market is so hog-tied by regulations, laws, and taxes or so artificially pumped up by subsidies, regulatory advantages, and tax loopholes that virtually nothing remains pure and unsullied by the filthy hand of the interventionist state. We inhabit, as we have for nearly a century, a blessed “mixed economy.” What’s this ongoing nonsense about the failure of capitalism? Before anything can fail, it must first exist.

Then comes the obligatory progressive whack at greed, as if those who conduct business among consenting buyers and sellers are intrinsically soiled by an unworthy motivation, whereas, in stark contrast, those whose greed is expressed through state-sanctioned robbery and extortion are, lo and behold, verging on sainthood. How did these people come to believe that getting something done by threatening violence against those who don’t care to join the party — that is, by working through the state – stands higher on the holiness scale than private voluntary cooperation? It takes a special kind of intelligence to achieve this sort of twisted moral outlook, but the New York Times, along with the other upscale news media, has succeeded in finding writers whose ability is equal to the challenge.

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