The Issue is Privilege
And we haven’t got a lot of goodies to offer. The State-Capitalist GOP can offer businesses all sorts of subventions. All we can offer them is “a chance to compete on a level playing field.”...
Political success comes from energizing defined constituencies and we ain’t got any.
But the offer of a level playing field can be pretty attractive when you're currently at the wrong end of it. The problem is that the majority, the net exploited, don't realize they're at the wrong end of it.
The two state capitalist parties, representing the net exploiters as their core constituency, have been successful to the extent that they've persuaded a majority of people that they're net winners, or are likely to be among them. E.g., consider the repeated finding of pollsters that a majority of the population believe they're likely to be millionaires someday.
The corporate center does a pretty good job of setting the terms of debate. The Democratic corporate liberals, who gave us the corporatism of the New Deal, sell their version of state capitalism with the symbolism of Art Schlesinger, Jr.: i.e., as "progressive" or "idealistic," and aimed at reining in the power of big business (this despite the role of Gerard Swope, the Business Advisory Council, and an army of corporation lawyers and investment bankers in framing the New Deal). The Republicans, who are busily turning the world into one big banana republic in the name of "democracy" and "free markets," have appropriated the symbolism of "rugged individualism" and "free enterprise" for their own version of state capitalism--surely one of the biggest howlers in history, given their constituency of crony capitalists and their barnacle-like attachment to the taxpayer teat.
If a most people think they're coming out ahead under state capitalism, it's because we advocates of the free market have done such an abysmal job of showing just how much they're being ripped off, and just how parasitic the big corporations and the plutocrats really are.
First let people know just how massively they're actually being ripped off, by the hundreds upon hundreds of billions of dollars, by the subsidized and privileged. Then offer them a playing field. It'll look a lot better to them when they realize they're currently on the low end of a tilted field.
The theme of privilege resonates mightily among voters, when it's done competently. For example, consider the 1976 Democratic primary campaign of Fred Harris (Dan Sullivan, on the DFC Talk list, drew my attention to this). Harris' theme: "The issue is privilege." Here are excerpts from his announcement:
....we have a rare chance in 1976 to help return America to its most traditional principle: the right of all of our people to a fair chance and a fair share by their own efforts.
What stands in the way is privilege. Privilege is the issue. It prevents full employment and fair taxes. It drives up prices and corrupts Democracy.
The basic question in 1976 is whether our government will look after the interests of the average family or continue to protect the super rich and the giant corporations....
....The beliefs are these: people are smart enough to govern themselves; and a widespread diffusion of economic and political power ought to be the express goal of government.
Some speak of unifying the Democratic Party. I call for the unity of America, unity around principle and national purpose. We must lower taxes for most Americans and raise them for the Nelson Rockefellers and the J. Paul Gettys. We must stop the EXXONs and the Safeways from using their monopoly power to squeeze out competitors and then overcharge consumers. The government must stop emptying the pockets of those who have to work for a living in order to subsidize the Lockheeds and the Penn-Centrals.
Of course, a lot of his approach was off-base. If the government wasn't intervening in the marketplace to "tax" the worker and consumer in the economic realm and redistribute the revenue to Rockefeller and Getty, taxing the latter's income in the political realm would be a moot point. I don't get too outraged about redistributist taxation, frankly; but it's still a Rube Goldberg contraption for counterbalancing the redistributist "taxation" that's already taken place--with the state's help--through the process of unequal exchange.
But Harris had an amazing ability to focus his agenda on a unifying theme. "Privilege," or private law to promote the interests of a few, is a meme we need to be spreading. We need to be demonizing the state capitalists, the ones who talk the most about the beauties of "our free market system," in terms of their own professed values. Dean Baker does a pretty good job of this in The Conservative Nanny State (see especially his extended remarks on the utter disingenuousness of neoliberal "free market" rhetoric in the Introduction).
The issue is privilege. Or in the words of William Greene: what is needed is not equal enforcement of the laws, but equal laws.