What Jesse Really Wants
The Rev. Jackson's dangerous agenda
Jesse Jackson has made beautiful speeches about freedom. But if he ran the country, would freedom grow? A hard look at his ideas suggests the opposite.
Jackson wants to stop "economic violence"—a vague term that seems to cover any business decision he dislikes, such as closing a factory. "Let's take on the giants who have the power," he says, "and make them responsible to the American people." In other words, big government would make businesses follow its master plan.
In The Road to Serfdom (1944), Friedrich Hayek explained the danger of that approach: "Economic control is not merely control of a section of human life which can be separated from the rest; it is the control of the means for all our ends.…Economic planning would involve direction of almost the whole of our life." And in fact, Jackson's stands on the issues add up to a vast expansion of the state's power over every American:
• He offers a program of "universal and comprehensive health care" with "cradle-to-grave protection." The yearly cost would start at $50 billion but would soar as more and more people took advantage of the program. The inevitable result: strict federal rationing of health services.
• He endorses the Harkin-Gephardt agriculture bill, which would place mandatory production controls on subsidized farm commodities and forbid farmers from selling more than their crop quota. Whoever failed to take part in the program would not be allowed to sell program crops. Even Mikhail Gorbachev might find this proposal a tad oppressive.
Jackson backs the bill, along with higher dairy price supports, because he wants farmers to get more money. It doesn't bother him that such programs would force everyone to spend more on food. "The reality is that if urban people are working," he says, "they can pay a few more pennies for a glass of milk or for a cone of ice cream or for a loaf of bread."
• He says that when "truckers are deregulated and when small banks are deregulated, and airlines are deregulated, and you cut the Housing and Urban Development budget back from $32 billion to less than $10 billion, a whole pocket of people are simply wiped out by a shift in our priorities." Apparently he would repeal deregulation—even though his rationale is goofy. Nearly every study shows that deregulation has given people greater choice at lower cost; for instance, discount prices for flights over 2,500 miles have dropped by 35 percent in real terms. Why would he make consumers pay more?
And his claim about the HUD budget is bogus: in constant 1982 dollars, outlays for fiscal 1988 are the same as for fiscal 1980—$15 billion. Besides, how much good does the money do? Ever visit a housing project? When Jesse speaks, a whole pocket of reality is simply wiped out by his mendacity.
• He wants a "code of conduct" for American business "to ensure that its investment decisions are made in the best interests of the community." That is, he would compel firms to put their money wherever the government told them to.
• He supports racial quotas in jobs and schooling. If you applied for an opening and your group were "overrepresented," Jackson would slam the door in your face.
• He backs "comparable worth," the notion that employers should be forced to pay men and women the same not just for equal work but for jobs of "comparable" value. To carry out such a policy, the government would have to judge how much money each job in America is worth. Never mind about such little things as collective bargaining or the marketplace: a huge new federal bureaucracy would decide your pay.
These proposals might strike some readers as unwise, costly, or restrictive. They're also dangerous: the greater the growth in government control, the greater the risk of overreaching and abuse.
That's especially true in Jackson's case. Extreme as his proposals may sound, they are probably only a moonshadow of what he would try to do if he had the power. Over the years, hints of a more radical agenda have slipped out. In the 1970s, he outlined his "kingdom theory" of economics, which says "the community" should make business management decisions:
"Control of the store means determining who will be clerks and bookkeepers, and who will have such monetary awarding (sic) jobs as butchers and meat managers within the store. By that same token, it is also to determine the amount of shelf space which the community feels should go to the products of black producers…which banks the store will transact its financial operations in; who conducts the collection services for the store.…At the same time, this principle applies to all other institutions in the community."
Jackson's apologists might claim that he was just proposing local boycotts of unfair businesses, not pushing Marxist nostrums for the whole country. His rhetoric, however, rings with the ideas of the Bearded One. He calls the plight of rural America "a new feudalism"; Part One of Marx's The German Ideology explains the central role of "feudalism" in Marx's theory of history. "Workers of the world must unite," Jackson says in his stump speech. Where have we heard that before?
His collectivist urges aren't tempered by traditional Western ideas of moderation and political restraint. At Stanford University last year, where students and instructors were protesting a course in Western civilization, he reportedly led demonstrators who chanted, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture's got to go."
That incident stirs bad memories. In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek recalled that many English and American students came back from the Continent in the 1930s unsure whether they were communists or Nazis "and certain only that they hated Western liberal civilization." Then as now, trashing the thoughts of Aristotle or Adam Smith clears the path for totalitarianism. And as Hayek taught, it doesn't matter whether the tyranny is leftist or rightist, because both brands amount to the same thing.
Jackson doesn't see that. While he passionately attacks South Africa, he smiles upon dictatorships that proclaim "national liberation." His 1984 tour of Latin tyrannies put his double-think on display. He visited indoctrination centers on Cuba's Isle of Youth and called them "creative." At the University of Havana, he cried, "Long live Castro. Long live Martin Luther King. Long live Che Guevara," thereby implying that communist thugs stood for the same things as an apostle of freedom and nonviolence. Later he flew to Managua, where he praised the communist government for putting Nicaragua "back on the road to democracy, peace, and reconciliation."
None of this means that Jackson aims to bring Cuban-style repression to the United States or name Daniel Ortega as secretary of Health and Human Services. Rather, it indicates his odd attitude toward power. Unlike the American Founders, who deemed no one virtuous enough to be trusted with unchecked political power, Jackson seems to approve of any government fiat as long as the motive is "progressive." He once said that if he were the mayor of a big city, he "would force the government to call out the National Guard to deal with existing injustices.…There's no reason why the Army couldn't come down the street with bayonets, looking for slumlords." Of course, Jackson was just talking big, not laying out an actual plan. But his willingness to mention martial law should trouble anyone who values civil liberty.
Says Adolph Reed, a Yale political scientist who criticizes Jackson from the left: "An irony of [Jackson's] political style, and the leadership model in which it is embedded, is that—while ostensibly popular and immediately representative—it is fundamentally antidemocratic." Although he has gone through the motions of the electoral process, he thinks that his real mandate comes from above. According to biographer Barbara Reynolds, he used to tell his underlings, "I am anointed, not appointed."
Like other leaders who considered themselves anointed, Jackson gains strength through demagoguery. Hayek described the strategy: "The contrast between the 'we' and the 'they,' the common fight against those outside the group [is] always employed by those who seek not merely support of a policy, but the unreserved allegiance of huge masses."
Jackson casts the issue of our time as big business against the common guy, "the barracudas versus the small fish." In a debate last October, he said: "Since 1973, we have lost 38 million jobs—multinational corporations, merging, been (sic) purging workers and submerging our economy.…These corporations are now flying beyond any accountability. They must be regulated and reinvest in America."
That quotation shows how a demagogue distorts the facts. The economy has not "submerged"—it's in the longest peacetime expansion in history. Corporations are hardly flying outside government's grasp, as any reader of the Federal Register can attest. And Jackson just plain lied about job losses: between 1973 and 1987, we had a net gain of 27 million jobs.
And yet Jackson's oratory still gets crowds to holler approval. Through his instinct for political symbols and his ability to tap popular resentments, he manages to overcome an audience's normal skepticism. Imagine what would happen if he could combine this power over minds with power over the U.S. federal government.
So let's go back to the original question: What would happen if he actually ran things? Even with defense cuts his social programs would bloat the budget. "If you put all of it down on a piece of paper and you put a price tag on that piece of paper, there's no way we won't end up with a deficit that's not $200 billion but $300 billion," says Democratic consultant Ted Van-Dyk.
Jackson has already proposed big tax increases. In the wake of a mounting deficit he would propose more. And without doubt, a big recession would follow.
Jackson would not react to a slump with a sudden embrace of supply-side economics. If his public record offers any guide, he would seek an even larger role for government: more bureaucrats, more forms, more control of our lives. Normally, people would spurn a leader who took away so much of their liberty. But as a skillful demagogue, Jackson might find a way to direct their frustration toward a scapegoat: big business, or perhaps a foreign country.
All of us would have far less freedom, but some groups might stand in particular risk of discrimination. Jackson denies that he is anti-Semitic, and he has striven to improve his relation with the Jewish community. But anyone contemplating Jackson leadership must consider what he has said:
• "Once we began to move up, Jews who were willing to share decency were not willing to share power."
• "I'm sick and tired of hearing about the Holocaust."
• "Zionism is a poisonous weed."
• "The Jew began to be revealed as the landlord and shop owner."
• "You just can't trust the Jews. I never have trusted those people."
Nobody knows if American voters will ever trust the presidency to the man who said these things, but it is certain that he will wield great influence over his party for years to come. Already, other Democratic leaders have adopted his stands in one form or another. And in making their political calculations, they must constantly ask themselves what Jackson will think or say. The Democratic Party is well along the road to Jessedom.
John J. Pitney, Jr., is assistant professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "What Jesse Really Wants".