Yesterday’s news that Rick Wagoner would be stepping down as chairman and CEO of General Motors was more than a news-cycle datum: it was an introduction to life in the brave new centrally-planned world with which the United States of Bailed-Out America is flirting.
When news of Mr. Wagoner’s departure first came over the the wire, it was couched in the beguiling “mistakes-were-made” rhetoric of nescience: “people familiar with situation did not say why Wagoner is leaving.” As I noted at the time, it wasn’t difficult to come up with reasons the GM board might wish to bid farewell to Rick Wagoner: what, except more red ink, did the company have to show for the $17 billion in government loans it had burned through in the last few months?
But within hours it transpired that the GM board was not really a player in this drama of corporate defenestration. No, Mr. Wagoner is getting the Order of the Boot not at the behest of the GM Board but at the insistence of Barack Obama.
Why, you might ask, is the President of the United States mucking about in personnel matters of a public corporation?
Good question. Politico touches on the essential issue in its report:
“The surprise announcement about the classically iconic American corporation is perhaps the most vivid sign yet of the tectonic change in the relationship between business and government in this era of subsidies and bailouts.”
The critical phrase is “the tectonic change in the relationship between business and government.” Remember it. When GM accepted those billions in government subsidies, it rendered itself beholden to the source of those subsidies–not the ultimate source, mind you: i.e., you and me: the taxpayers. No, in accepting that largess from the government, GM handed itself over to the bureaucrats writing the checks, ultimately to the bureaucrat-in-chief, Barack Obama.
A “tectonic change in the relationship between business and government.” Time was, the role of government in a capitalist society was primarily to secure an environment in which private enterprise could thrive. Today, the role of government is increasingly to nationalize private enterprise, i.e., destroy it in the name of a “higher” good, a “new era of responsibility” in which government bureaucrats tell you how to run your business and whom to employ.
A “tectonic change in the relationship between business and government”: remember that phrase. And note that a “tectonic,” i.e., a fundamental, change between business and government is also a tectonic change between the individual and government. “What our generation has forgotten,” Friedrich Hayek wrote in The Road to Serfdom, “is that the system of private property is the most important guaranty of freedom, not only for those who own property, but scarcely less for those those who do not.”
The tectonic change in the relationship between business and government, between the individual and government, signals not only the expansion of government control, it also signals the contraction of individual freedom.
From the very beginning of his campaign, Obama made it clear that economic “fairness” was his political lodestar.
He made it clear, but did we really understand him? “Fairness”: that’s a good thing, isn’t it? Who can be against “fairness”?
But what if by “fairness” he meant not “impartial justice” but “equalized outcomes”? What if by “fairness” he meant “spreading the wealth around”? What then? “Who can doubt,” Hayek asked, “. . . that the power which a multiple millionaire, who may be my neighbor and perhaps my employer, has over me is very much less than that which the smallest functionnaire possess who wields the coercive power of the state on whose discretion it depends whether and how I am to be allowed to live or to work?”
The chapter of The Road to Serfdom in which these words appear is called Who, Whom?–the question that, said Lenin, was the fundamental fulcrum of politics.
The genius of the American system has been to short-circuit that question by distributing the power of the subject: Lenin’s “Who” is longer a central and centralizing authority but a multiplicity of actors each with his native interests and prerogatives. Burke spoke of the importance to liberty of those “little platoons” that claim our daily allegiance. James Madison, in Federalist LI, made a similar point when he observed that “the policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives” helped encourage the distribution of power and hence the growth of liberty.
The tectonic change contemplated by the Obama administration would have us disband those little platoons and assimilate ourselves to the swarming army of the state. Madison’s “opposite and rival interests,” for these collectivists, impede the progress of fairness and interrupt the process of equalizing wealth.
Earlier in The Federalist, Madison observed that there were “two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.” Madison thought it self-evident that both courses, being inimical to liberty, spelt disaster. Madison thought that the protection of that “diversity of faculties” which underwrote the diversity of property was the “first object of government.” Our current masters in Washington disagree. They seem willing to experiment with both of the expedients Madison warned against in order to achieve their egalitarian goals. Today it is Rick Wagoner who has to go. Tomorrow? Who can say? When a tectonic change takes place, things can happen awfully fast.