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Feed the Face, Then Talk to Me About Freedom

Forget Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman — the time has come for Brechtian economics.

by
Benjamin Kerstein

Bio

November 10, 2012 - 11:46 pm

If Tuesday’s election proved anything, it is that the conservative movement and the Republican Party are badly out of sync with the American people on the issue of economics. In the face of an economic crisis largely caused by the free market policies inspired by Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman, the conservative movement, led by the Tea Party, chose not to seek a viable alternative, but instead doubled down on an ideology from which the majority of Americans are entirely alienated.

Indeed, the most telling statistic of Tuesday night was the poll which revealed that 60% of the American people want taxes raised on the wealthy. For conservatives, this is simply another sign that the “moochers” and the “bums” have taken over, and an immoral parasite class is now poised to despoil the entrepreneurial creators of wealth and innovation that have made this country great.

This point of view is both willfully blind and grossly unfair. First, there is the simple fact that a great many Americans, through little fault of their own, are in a perilous economic state. As Bertolt Brecht once wrote: “Feed the face, then talk to me about freedom.” Even if the neoliberal point of view were correct—and I believe it is not—there is simply no viable argument against the fact of human suffering. People who are desperate will vote for anyone who is willing to ameliorate their condition to some degree. To believe otherwise is to disregard human nature; always a perilous path to take in a democracy, wherein the voice of the people is the voice of God.

Second, the argument that those in need of amelioration are parasitic moochers is simply not true. A great many of America’s wealthy are not creative or productive. Those who have become rich off the financial sector, for example, produce next to nothing, and make their money off of money, creating a closed circle in which money, rather than reflecting the true value of goods and services, simply reflects itself, leading to a greater and greater disconnect between the fantasy of its value and the reality. Eventually, of course, as it always does, reality reasserts itself, as the collapse of the financial sector in 2008 proved in the most catastrophic manner possible. At the same time, a great many others have become rich by exploiting natural resources and technology they do not own or have been developed by the public sector, such as oil and the Internet. Who is the moocher in such a situation?

There is nothing at all immoral about asserting that those who have made enormous and—in my view—unreasonable fortunes off of these industries owe a debt to the public. To a great extent, they are as parasitic a class as any legion of welfare dependants. Barack Obama was wrong to say “you didn’t build that,” but many have built their fortunes on a foundation they themselves did not construct, and it is immoral for them not to provide recompense for it, in the same way that it is immoral to deny them recompense for their efforts in building on that foundation.

At the same time, the conservative movement still has a great deal to offer on the issue of economics: The welfare state, improperly employed does indeed stifle growth and create dependency; a bloated public sector is a burden on the economy; and fiscal prudence is an indispensable factor in any prosperous society.

The American Right, however, is unready or unwilling at the moment to countenance anything like this. In conservative circles, even to imply that the welfare state is not entirely an unholy evil is as verboten as any heresy in history; and this does not bode well for its future. Conservatives in countries like Canada and the United Kingdom have made peace with the welfare state, while containing those aspects of it that are harmful to both the private and public sector. If American conservatives cannot do the same, I fear they are doomed to a long sojourn in the political wilderness.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage based on a modified Shutterstock.com image.)

Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor who lives in Tel Aviv.
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