The prevailing wisdom holds that the 2012 election will be fought over jobs and financial recovery, not social issues. But the closer we examine the current debate over economic policy, the clearer it becomes that this too is a social issue, indeed as much a social issue as any “culture war” controversy.
Consider the fact that all the Republican candidates now advocate some phase-out of individual and corporate tax deductions in return for an equivalent reduction in rates. They essentially agree with the Simpson-Bowles plan that enhanced incentives to earn, expand, and invest will simultaneously create jobs and generate enough tax revenue to begin paying down federal, state, and local debt.
On the other side, we have the President of the United States leading an alliance of environmentalists, public unions, liberal academics, and various activist groups all of whom believe in boosting the economy with some kind of spending stimulus, preferably funded by steeper taxes on high earners.
Based on the outcome of the first stimulus, the Republicans’ case is hard to refute. Even the President’s tally of supposedly “saved” jobs has begun to shrink, as public employment in the states exhausts its camouflaged 2009 federal subsidy.
Yet remarkably, the nine percent unemployment rate, a near record low in the Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index, and the demoralized state of small business have only hardened the resolve of the President’s coalition.
Many on the right understandably attribute this policy rigidity to thinly veiled self-interest. Certainly it is no coincidence that those arguing for more spending include public employees, indebted young adults hoping for some waiver of student loans, government funded non-profits, and businesses which benefit disproportionately from tax preferences.
But financial self-interest does not explain support for the President’s policies from long-serving state workers, who are in no danger of being laid off under any circumstance and whose pension funds would be far more secure in a booming economy. Or from tenured professors whose research is always better funded when foundation endowments are increasing in value. Or from limousine liberals who would end up paying disproportionately for the implementation of Obama’s policies.
Beyond self-interest, left wing economics has always been driven by a fundamental aversion to what the late University of California sociologist Robert Bellah identified as the underlying spiritual basis of American capitalism: a faith in the intuitive wisdom operating through every human heart, a wisdom whose collective expression is superior to any regulatory regime.
This philosophy is not a particular religion or denomination, but an expression of the Founding Fathers’ Enlightenment belief in a practical truth common to all creeds. It is, in fact, little different from the conviction expressed by Apple co-founder (and self-described Buddhist) Steve Jobs in his famous 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University:
“Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
In two short centuries, American capitalism has produced the most tolerant, compassionate, and technologically advanced country in the world; but while its overall trajectory is steep, it has not advanced in a straight line. And with every temporary economic setback, a doubting minority has always campaigned to replace the genius of individual inspiration with some utopian plan for a consciously engineered future.
In response to the economic turmoil of the nineteenth century, journalist Edward Bellamy laid out a popular design for a socialist America in his science fiction novel Looking Backward. With sales second only to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur, it led to the establishment of several utopian communes across the country.
By the time of the Great Depression in the 1930s, sociological and economic theorizing had reached the point where many academics actually believed intelligent government intervention could eliminate business downturns, creating permanent prosperity. This became the philosophical basis of Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”
Today’s central planners, convinced that their ability to successfully regulate extends even to the climate – nature itself – are more determined than ever to wrest control of the future from something as unpredictable as the spontaneous wisdom of a free market.
So determined that no evidence of government failure – from high unemployment to Solyndra to an inferior public education system – is too embarrassing to either rationalize away or doggedly ignore.
The headlines between now and the next election may appear to be squabbling over economic statistics, but the pivotal issue will be a much deeper one: whether a governing elite can best chart the nation’s destiny or should tomorrow continue to be left to the mysterious intelligence of the human heart.