I want to assume that anyone reading opinion pieces these days is more concerned about the worrisome coronavirus pandemic than about political philosophy. If we’re thinking about politics at all, we’re probably focusing on Donald Trump. Did the way he downplayed the risks for so long cost the nation its shot at nipping the epidemic in the bud? Should scientifically based public health care policies have to compete with his narcissism and concerns over winning in November? But closer to home (well, closer to my home, anyway) what’s more pressing is whether to run to the store because we’re out of cream or to play it safe and learn to enjoy coffee black.
That said, in the background of this crisis a contest is going on, a contest of political philosophies, and while the players are largely hidden from view and the underlying issues mentioned only obliquely in the media, the consequences are unmistakably present and near. Should the federal government take charge of the purchasing and distribution of critical medical supplies such as ventilators and testing swabs—or should each state fend for itself, competing with one another for contracts with the large corporations to whom these items have been funneled, enabling the marketplace to set prices?
It goes beyond that, of course. In federal relief legislation, what is the proper balance between the kinds of lifelines thrown to wage earners (the poor, the middle class), to small business owners, and to the large corporations? Is it fair if the formula for assigning “government handouts” results in some laid off individuals receiving monthly checks higher than their old salaries? And is it fair for the government to “dictate to” corporate leaders, specifying how they must spend their bail-out money—on maintaining (at least paying) their work staff as well as developing pro-social policies going forward—or can they use the money for corporate stock buy-backs?
Behind such current conflicts we can see two competing political philosophies—value systems that are rarely articulated in blunt terms but that explain the choices being made or not made on the national stage.
One side is easy to articulate, especially if we remember FDR and the New Deal that brought the nation out of the Depression. The federal government, as the powerful tool of the people, must ensure the welfare and well-being of everyone. Using the pooled resources of the nation (taxes, duties), the government not only fields an army to provide for the country’s defenses, it also protects resources and the environment in its role in regulating commerce—and let’s throw in its watchdog role regulating corporations and Wall Street. The operation of the marketplace is a great engine for an economy, but unregulated markets inevitably wreak havoc—and it’s the government that regulates the market to serve the common interest. What else? Oh yeah—Social security and the fabric of the nation’s social safety net. At its best and its most heroic, in times of trouble it’s the government to the rescue.
Did I say times of trouble? We can imagine how an FDR might want to manage such problems respirator shortages or the need to save the economy when the country has shut down.
Then there’s the other side, the opposing political philosophy. Instead of the well-known FDR, the iconic representative of this way of thinking is the less widely known Charles Koch. Koch is a billionaire libertarian who has used his fortune (in concert with like-minded billionaires) to promote a different vision of government in America. To their way of thinking, “big government” is the problem, not the solution to anything (well, except for the military and for maintaining civil order). We had a taste of this view in Ronald Reagan’s speeches against big government, even if Reagan’s policies sometimes went in the opposite direction. The stated idea is that government is inherently corrupt and inefficient, its leaders self-serving. At a deeper level, though, lies an objection to taxation. In a democracy, to put it simply, the great majority controls what the government spends money on (e.g., public education, Medicare, the National Institute of Health), but it’s to the small wealthy minority that the public turns to pay for it all. To Koch and like-minded libertarian billionaires, this system threatens to fleece them! They risk being virtually mugged by the millions and millions of voters who themselves haven’t amassed great wealth. To their way of thinking, it’s better and fairer and wiser to shrink government and wean people off their reliance upon it. To the Koch way of thinking, democracy comes with a price tag that’s too steep. Far better to leave things in the hands of those who know how to run things (billionaires).
And, to this way of thinking, it’s far better to let the market operate freely! Unregulated markets will sort things out properly and efficiently—including not only the distribution and price of automobiles and fuel oil and soybeans, but also of ventilators and swabs and N95 hospital masks. Corporations operating in the marketplace can resolve difficulties far better than big government.
So, two opposing political philosophies. Once articulated, the FDR approach (government, not billionaires, to the rescue) is, no doubt, the more popular. The people for the most part support the will of the people. If this weren’t so, there’d be no need for right wing voter-suppression tactics. Senator Elizabeth Warren is in this camp. Bernie Sanders? Obviously. Even Biden. But the second approach, the Koch perspective, has something perhaps more powerful than a popular majority—nearly unlimited wealth. Koch money partly bankrolled the take-over of the Republican party by tea-party extremists, and that’s not to get into the funding of PACs and dark-money political contributions. Big-spending billionaires also fund many of the influential extreme right-wing think tanks and institutions (e.g., The Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, American Legislative Exchange Council—ALEC). There’s also Fox news and Sinclair Broadcasting, owned by monied interests deeply allergic to the FDR philosophy of democratic governance. The Federalist Society whose stamp of approval these days guides the appointment of federal judges is yet another tentacle of the libertarian billionaire network. The followers of this philosophy, who know that they won’t win any popularity contests, believe that a landslide of dollars will block and defeat what could otherwise be a landslide at the ballot box.
In this time of pandemic, the two philosophies clash—but obliquely, in the legislative fights over rescue packages between the House and the Senate, in the arguments among Justices on the Supreme Court, in the divergent reports and “facts” beamed into our houses by the various broadcast networks. We ponder the questions: Is Trump’s apparent undermining of the federal health care system merely a sign of egomania and incompetence—or is this part of a well thought out political philosophy? Should the nation extend stay-at-home edicts or, rather, “save the economy” as rapidly as possible by letting the marketplace operate again and getting America back to work? Is it okay, that is, if a fraction of the elderly and infirm die so that the stock market can get off life support? Is it time to add universal single-payer healthcare to the social safety network, something Roosevelt envisioned as a next step—or, instead, shrink big government even more.
Amid such questions, it’s helpful to look beyond the immediate issues to the warring philosophies that illuminate them. I wish we could debate these views directly and publicly and decide what kind of America we’ll have in the post-pandemic world.
For now I’ll take up the struggle of enjoying coffee black.