11 April 2013

Free Markets and Impatient People: Rand Paul's history of Republican decline

Herbert Hoover was convinced that he had licked the Great Depression before the 1932 election. He believed that he lost that election to Franklin Roosevelt because many ordinary Americans had not seen the benefits of his policies yet. Such were the nature of his policies that ordinary working Americans could not have felt the benefits, he assumed, until after the election. Hoover's focus was on finance, on making conditions better for investments in hiring and so forth. For him, the Depression had to be solved at the level of finance. Until the financial situation was more secure, Hoover had little to offer ordinary Americans but an appeal to patience. That appeal to patience is a consistent element in Republican thought. It explains Republicans' resistance to "demand-side" measures, including spending to employ people on public-works projects. From the Republican perspective, these are short-term solutions that often prove counterproductive for long-term economic health. Hoover was convinced that FDR's deficit spending only extended and exacerbated the Depression -- a view still popular today in Republican circles. The preferred appeal to patience is obviously a tougher sell than a promise to create jobs by commanding the construction of dams, bridges, etc. I'm not really sure how many Republicans even invoke patience as a virtue that people should show in tough times. Rand Paul may count as one of them. Reports of his speech delivered yesterday at Howard University usually quote him asking the rhetorical question: how did the Republicans, the erstwhile "Party of Lincoln," lose the black vote so completely during the 20th century? Fewer reports quote his answer. While most superficial observers might cite the Republican adoption of a "Southern strategy" of pandering to angry white men in the 1960s, the senator believes that the turnaround started well before that.

I think what happened during the Great Depression was that African Americans understood that Republicans championed citizenship and voting rights but they became impatient for economic emancipation.African Americans languished below white Americans in every measure of economic success and the Depression was especially harsh for those at the lowest rung of poverty.The Democrats promised equalizing outcomes through unlimited federal assistance while Republicans offered something that seemed less tangible-the promise of equalizing opportunity through free markets.

My recent reading about Hoover made the word "impatient" virtually glow in the middle of the page. If Sen. Paul's answer proves unsatisfactory to blacks, that may be because it's really a more general statement than an account of their own particular circumstances. The Republican lament from 1932 forward could well be that all (or most) Americans grew too impatient with the free market thanks to generations of Democratic promises of accelerated recovery through government action. Paul recognizes that these promises aren't entirely insubstantial. "The Democrat promise is tangible and puts food on the table," he admitted, "but too often doesn’t lead to jobs or meaningful success." So what does a Republican say if someone argues that patience doesn't put food on the table? If the free market works more efficiently than any other economic system, why must its apologists appeal so often, explicitly or implicitly, to patience during hard times? The answer is probably because the free market is like democracy in Churchill's characterization: the worst system except for all the others. The champions of the free market are idealists but not utopians; they'll never promise that free markets will abolish adversity. Rather, they seem to believe that a certain attitude toward adversity, including that precious patience, is necessary if free markets are to provide those benefits actually within their power. Free markets are not command economies, and "I must live" or "Everyone must live" is a command that takes on an especially impatient tone in tough times. Yet it is as implicit an element in our political discourse as the conservative (or libertarian) appeal to patience. Historical conservatives can point to a time -- this was still true about a century ago -- when many people actually did seem to prefer patient endurance of adversity to the shame of asking for help from the government. They look with perplexity (if not contempt) when a Howard student told Paul yesterday that, yes, he did want the government to help him. If people have grown more impatient with the economy over the last century, it may be because they value their own lives more. Wouldn't it be a paradox if Americans repudiated Republicanism at key points in modern history because they, the people, had become more selfish in some sense of the word? But it was more likely a loss of some faith in markets, or the people who make them, that alone could make the patience Republicans plead for seem like a reasonable option. Rand Paul believes that the evidence proves faith in government misplaced, but that alone doesn't prove faith in markets justified. He may also believe that patience in adversity is a moral imperative regardless of where you place your faith. If so, he might have spent his time at Howard better explaining the morality that requires patience of the poor during hard times. It might not have won over any more students, but it might have given us a better sense of what makes the Kentuckian tick.


Anonymous said...

What is free about the free market? The problem with the free market - the problem ALWAYS ignored by it's defenders is human nature. Without strict regulation, the free market becomes the plaything of greedy men who lack morals and ethics.

I can only accept that repugnicans ignore this problem because it is part and parcel of their very core. Maybe it's about time they start telling the top people to "have patients" when they whine about their profit margin.

Anonymous said...

What makes the Kentuckian tick? The same thing that makes all of his ilk tick. Greed. Selfishness. The ingrained notion that he is better than the bulk of Americans and therefore is entitled to more pie than the rest of us.

We should continually show patience, to tighten our belts, to accept lower and lower standards of living while he and his masters live well off of OUR labor. Maybe someone needs to take 5 pounds of patience and shove it down Rand Paul's throat with a pool cue.

In the 100 years of the 20th century, there are only 3 decades where the market could have said to have worked. The 20s, the 50s and the 90s. Even then, it did NOT work for 100% of the people.

The market will ONLY ever work for a handful at the top because that handful at the top control the market, and as history shows again and again, those at the top to NOT share and do NOT give up their ill-gotten wealth and power easily.

Samuel Wilson said...

It's not really accurate to say that free-market apologists ignore human nature. Many of them (though not the libertarians, necessarily) are also traditional moralists precisely because they believe a certain moral code is necessary for the market to work properly. It is fair to say that many of them are unrealistically idealistic about human nature at the same time.

Comment #2: I wouldn't put it so violently but until people like Paul can explain why the poor should be "patient" (whatever that entails in material terms) they should expect such responses.

Anonymous said...

1) If there is no punishment for acting in an immoral (though not illegal) manner, then of what use are morals? The fact is, far too many capitalists are, by nature, amoral in that their main (or only) focus is on accumulating personal wealth - at all costs. (As long as they are not the individuals paying that cost.)
The only way to ensure "moral" behavior is through government-enforced regulations, which capitalists hate. Why? Because, as stated earlier, they are by nature amoral creatures.

2) Patience does not put food on the table. Patience does not pay the rent or utilities bills. Since the founding of this nation over two hundred years ago, we have been patient. Read the history of the coal miners and other workers groups who were so downtrodden they had no choice but to unionize and because of this, many of them and their families were physically abused, their homes burned down and in some cases, they were murdered. There comes a time when payment must be made for these crimes against humanity. The longer we put it off, the higher the price will be.