On January 20, 1981, in his first inaugural address, Ronald Reagan told
the nation: "Government is not a solution to our problem, government is
Thus began a grand experiment: Release the American economy from the
bonds of government regulation. Individual enterprise and initiative,
the profit motive, the free market and open competition will usher in a
new birth of freedom and a new era of unprecedented prosperity.
“It’s morning in America.”
Twenty-six years later, what do we have? A dismantled and “outsourced”
industrial base, an impoverished work force, a nine trillion dollar debt
burden upon future generations, and a degradation of education and
scientific research, a captive media that deprives the public
of essential news as it issues outright lies. In addition, the
Bush administration, the current keeper of the covenant, has
accomplished the trashing of the Constitution and its
guaranteed Bill of Rights, a seemingly endless war with no prospect (or
even definition) of victory, and the contempt of the peoples and
governments of the civilized world.
The grand experiment has failed, and we are just beginning to realize
the enormous costs of that failure.
How did it happen? It happened because the core dogmas of this so-called
“conservatism” – the possibility and desirability of an ungoverned
society, the superior “wisdom” of an unconstrained free market, the
suitability of simple greed as a driving force of society – were fated
from the start to fail the test of “real world” application.
A Fallacy of False Comparison. “The theory is beautiful, but
reality is a bitch,” is a maxim that should be carved above the entrance
of every college of economics, not to mention The Heritage Foundation
and the American Enterprise Institute. Analyses of competing theories in academic journals and seminar rooms is appropriate, as is
a comparative evaluation of competing policies in action (e.g., murder
rates in states with capital punishment vs. states without). But untried
utopian schemes can not be fairly compared with worst-case anecdotes of
policies-in-action, in this case government regulation of market forces.
For history has taught us, time and again, that idealized abstract
concepts such as “the free market,” “the profit motive” and
privatization of the commons, inevitably come a-cropper when applied
uncompromisingly to actual, ongoing, practical circumstances. Theory is
best applied empirically and pragmatically, as reality “feeds back”
information that prompts alterations and improvements of policy. This is
why the New Deal succeeded, while utopian communities usually fail. (See
also my "Theory vs. Reality: Why Market Absolutism Fails").
Thus we have discovered at length, what wise individuals knew at the
outset of "the Reagan revolution:" that the profit motive and free
market, while necessary ingredients of a thriving economy, are not, all
by themselves, sufficient providers of prosperity, and that government,
while a nuisance and a burden (especially to the wealthy and powerful),
is the essential protector of the ordinary citizen, entitled to "equal
justice under law." In short, "the market," while an invaluable
servant, can be a ruthless master. (For an elaboration and defense
of this claim, see my
"With Liberty for
Some," and in particular,
"Conservatives, aren't." The regulated capitalism that flourished in the United States until
Reagan and his successors dismantled it is the result of countless
experiments and adjustments – an accumulated “political wisdom,”
and validated by experience. Contaminated meat and deadly
patent medicine? Bring in the Food and Drug Administration. Bank
failures and stock market crashes? Establish the FDIC and the SEC.
Cacophony on the airwaves? Bring on “traffic control” with the FCC – at
the request of the broadcast industry, as it happened. Contamination of
the common air, water, and landscapes? Voila! The Environmental
All these functions of the government, and more, exist for reasons
learned through the practical exercise of government as it legislates
in Congress, adjudicates in the courts, and administers
through the executive and the agencies. And yet we are told that all
this practically proven regulatory structure is to be brushed aside by
an untried theory: “government is the problem, not the solution.”
Well, now it has been tried, beginning with Reagan in 1981, with the
woeful results enumerated above. And as for the dogma of “free market
competition,” that old war horse was dead at the starting gate. The
corporate interests that have purchased our government have little
regard for competition. They much prefer the total control that comes
with monopolies. Hence the consolidation of the media and the no-bid
government contracts to the mega-corporations. The remedy? The enactment
and enforcement of anti-trust legislation, which means, of course, government regulation -- the best friend of “competitive
Ranchers in the American West have a long-standing rule: “Never take
down a fence unless you know for sure why it was put up.” Political
theorists and reformers would be well advised to follow this rule.
So it comes to this: the so-called “conservatives,” aren’t! They are
determined to tear down regulatory “fences” heedless of the practical
problems that led to their installation. And it turns out that the
“liberals” are the authentic “conservatives,” as they endeavor to
maintain proven governmental functions, and as they resist the
uncompromising imposition of untested dogmas. (See my
“Conscience of a Conservative”).
“The Profit Motive” is a sometime thing. The classical economic
theory embraced by Reagan/Bushism proclaims that optimal economic
outcome is the result, “as if by an invisible hand” (Adam Smith), of
each individual seeking to maximize his or her “preference
satisfaction.” Or more simply, “the profit motive.” In the words of
Gordon Gekko in the movie “Wall Street,” “greed is good.” Greed, we are
told, is the fuel of the freest and most productive economic engine.
The proponents of “the grand experiment” fail to recognize that “the
profit motive” is not all that important to everyone. Perhaps it is to
the “captains of corporatism” promoting the experiment, but not to all
of us. There are other motives: service to others, the promotion of
justice, the pursuit of scholarly knowledge, the advancement of science,
the joy of teaching.
This is not to say that those of us who, for example, have chosen a
scholarly profession would not like a salary boost, or that we would
turn down a no-strings salary of a million dollars a year. We are not
indifferent to wealth, it is just not all-important to us. Moreover, the
trappings of wealth -- multiple homes, a fleet of automobiles, the
management of an extensive investment portfolio, etc, – would be
unwelcomed burdens, since they would be distractions from our preferred
activities: research, writing, and teaching.
Similarly, many individuals of high accomplishment and opportunities for
great wealth, simply choose not to acquire that wealth – their profit
motive might be weak and practically insignificant. Medical doctors
might choose to join “Doctors Without Borders” and treat the poor, or
they might choose a career in medical research. Lawyers might choose to
work, not on Wall Street, but for Environmental Defense or Public
Citizen, or even as a "community organizer."
Not everyone is driven by the profit motive, and arguably not the most
significant and productive citizens. A society and an economy without
individuals primarily motivated by service, or the pursuit of knowledge,
etc, rather than by a quest for personal wealth, would be at best a
morally impoverished society, and more likely, an unsustainable society.
And significantly, these non-profit-motivated professions are often,
though not always, most effectively pursued "in the public interest" in
governmental institutions: schools, universities, government agencies,
research facilities, courts, etc. "Private enterprises" have little use
for them. Abolish government, and these service-oriented professions
would vanish with it.
Clearly, the “great experiment” – down with government and up with “the
unregulated free market” – has failed. It has proven itself to be bad
for our workers, bad for our families and our children, bad for the
moral tone of our society, bad for the natural environment, bad for
future generations, and eventually it will prove bad for those very few
who are now enjoying lavish prosperity at the expense of the rest of us.
For in the long run, there is no prosperity on a ruined planet, and few
of the privileged wealthy will remain so when the economy they have
We have before us the results of the great experiment. Now it is past
time to end it. The sooner and the more decisively we do so, the better
it will be for all of us.
Copyright 2007 by Ernest Partridge