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From the Center: A plea for a more reasonable debate

TNH Columnist

Published: Friday, December 6, 2013

Updated: Friday, December 6, 2013 03:12

The debate between the right and the left is not, as both TNH political opinion columnists would have you believe, a debate between capitalism and socialism. The vast majority of liberals in the United States are unequivocal supporters of capitalism, including President Obama. To equate the left with socialism is deplorably misguided; the analogue is to equate the right with anarchism. This circular argument has been on parade in the opinion column of TNH for an entire semester — a microcosm of the broader polarization in America. It’s time to temper the hyperbole, rise above the parochialism, and bring this debate back to the center. 

Mr. Daniel Fournier purportedly represents the left, but I have yet to read a column of his that I agree with in the slightest (disclosure: I’m liberal). One of his more recent columns, for example, left me baffled. Mr. Fournier asserted that Jesus Christ should be considered as one of the fathers of socialism and that capitalism is radically evil. In attempting to prove his point, Mr. Fournier cited the apocryphal authority of three anti-capitalist priests, several lines from the Bible, and his own conspiratorial daydreams—all lacquered in aggressive rhetoric.

I appreciate Mr. Fournier’s passion, but he does not realize that in pursuing a Jesus-was-a-socialist-so-capitalism-is-bad argument he has completely removed himself from any reasonable political debate. He has not touched upon a modicum of what it means to be on the left in American politics; rather he has managed to make the left appear radical, bitter and nihilistic. I want readers to know that the left in America does not consist of socialist demagogues, but that it is instead a collection of moderate liberals who would rather see compromise than ideological warmongering. 

As if to undermine the aforementioned point, one of Mr. Phil Boynton’s (From the Right) recent columns was titled “Comparing Capitalism and Socialism.” Thanks to the socialist battle cries coming from his counterpart, it is too easy for Mr. Boynton to frame the debate as a struggle between these two economic systems. The reality is far different. We are not choosing between capitalism and socialism in American politics; we are instead debating the proper role of government within a capitalist system.

Capitalism ostensibly tells us that free markets must be left untouched, but after more than a century of cyclical economic collapse and recovery we have learned that free markets require a strong government presence in order to remain stable. Even Adam Smith, author of “Wealth of Nations” and the apotheosis of modern capitalism, acknowledged that complex free markets necessitate the regulation of paper money, banks, and financial institutions in order to safeguard against economic catastrophe. Moreover, Smith felt that the “subjects of every state ought to contribute toward the support of the government … in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state,” in other words, the wealthy should pay taxes proportionate to their income. 

Many modern conservatives envision a capitalist system that is profoundly unrealistic. In praising the merits of limited government, Mr. Boynton calls for an “unwavering, unabashed, unfettered unleash of the American spirit,” but what does this mean? It is jingoistic newspeak for: weakening labor unions, lowering the minimum wage, cutting welfare, taxing the middle class more than the wealthiest citizens and, most ominously, complete deregulation of business, banking and finance. The same kind of deregulation that directly led to the financial meltdown in 2008. The same kind of deregulation that lets Wall Street make risky bets with the money earned on Main Street. The same kind of deregulation that crippled our economy, closed banks, destroyed jobs, and ruined families — while the financial industry profited. Had the federal government not acted quickly to stem the tide in 2008 (and here I give credit to both Bush and Obama), this lingering recession would have undoubtedly been much worse — economists on both sides of the aisle predicted a depression. 

Mr. Boynton and his colleagues on the right must recognize that government is inexorably connected to the economy and that this relationship does not always spell doom; it can be managed wisely. We will not be successful by adhering to the proclamations of laissez-faire doctrinaires. And we will not find the best solution by appealing to socialism or Jesus. Let’s listen to the American people: surveys found that over 90 percent of voters – Republican and Democrat – listed regulating financial services and products as either “important” or “very important” in the last election.

We can start by passing legislation that separates commercial banking activity from financial and securities firms in a manner similar to the Glass-Steagall Act. This is the sort of solution people can get behind, brought to you by neither the right nor the left, but by a practical, levelheaded center. 

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