Progressives today say people should come before profits. Now in a privilege-ridden corporate state, that's a worthy goal, though progressives have no clue how to achieve it. How nice it would be if they were equally committed to putting people before bureaucracy. Here they fall down rather badly because their signature ideas would subordinate regular people to the dictates of the power structure.
Take MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. Maddow is intelligent, serious, and well-meaning—which makes her vision all the more unsettling: It has ominous implications not only for individual liberty, but also for its concomitant: authentic spontaneous social cooperation.
Maddow might say that if she had her way, the bureaucracy would reflect the people's interests, perhaps even consult them from time to time. But the naiveté of that vision is apparent from even a brief reading of political-economic history. When has bureaucracy actually represented—or cared about—plain people rather than being a tool of the power elite she claims to abhor (at least when Republicans hold some branch of government)?
Her commercials on MSNBC (said to be shot by Spike Lee) well articulate her bureaucracy-first vision. I've taken the liberty of transcribing her words:
When people tell us, "No, no, no. We're not going to build it. No, No, No. America doesn't have any greatness in its future. America has small things in its future. Other countries have great things in their future. China can afford it. We can't"—you're wrong! And it doesn't feel right and it doesn't sound right to us because that's not what America is.
Note the nationalistic "we" and the equation of national greatness with big government projects. (Neoconservative empire-builders have no monopoly on this.) The things unencumbered people would build in a freed market are too small and insignificant for Maddow. The state bureaucracy knows better. (Why are progressives enamored with China?)
She amplifies the point in another spot:
Not every idea that's good for the country is a profit-making idea for some company somewhere. It's never going to be a profitable venture for some company to come up with this idea [pointing to a railroad bridge] and build it on spec. That's not gonna happen! It needs some government leadership frankly to get something done in common that's gonna benefit the country as a whole.
The Social Problem
In disparaging profit as impotent to produce big things for the general good (with no evidence proffered), she moves bureaucracy—by nature self-serving, inflexible, conservative—center stage. She shows her unfamiliarity with how competition and entrepreneurship would function in a freed market (as opposed to the corporatist economy she conflates it with). Entrepreneurial profit, as both a motive and a reward, helps human beings cope with pervasive ignorance about how best to use scarce resources in addressing our endless wants. Rhapsodizing about the wisdom and efficiency of bureaucracy shows an obliviousness to the most basic social problem: How can a multitude of people with different values, preferences, and tastes, as well as diverse and incomplete information about the world around them, coordinate their activities for maximum mutual benefit?
Two basic approaches to the problem are available: 1) Let individuals, guided by the price system, strive for what they want by cooperating freely (no privileges, no restraints on peaceful action) under rules that respect all persons as equals, or 2) let bureaucracy—that is, the coercive state—decide for them, perhaps periodically administering the opium of democracy to lessen the pain of their essential powerlessness. Big things must crowd out small things. The latter approach assumes (or pretends) that politicians and bureaucrats possess the knowledge and commitment to the public weal to make the optimal tradeoffs. The freed market would provide a check on waste while respecting free choice. Bureaucracy does neither.
Maddow doesn't simply favor stopgap Keynesian spending to restore economic vitality. She disturbingly equates pervasive bureaucracy with national greatness:
This . . . whole fight about whether or not the government should be doing anything right now . . . that's a fundamental fight about what kind of country we're going to be and whether or not we take recovery from this economic disaster seriously. You have to build your way out of it. You have to be a stronger country when you come out the other side of this recession than when you went in. You have to or you will be left behind.
"You" equals bureaucracy. If the state does great things, the country will be great. The people must be shown the way.
That has an eerily familiar ring.
[Our] conception of life stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the State. . . . It is opposed to classical liberalism which arose as a reaction to absolutism and exhausted its historical function when the State became the expression of the conscience and will of the people. Liberalism denied the State in the name of the individual; [we reassert] the rights of the State as expressing the real essence of the individual. And if liberty is to be the attribute of living men and not of abstract dummies invented by individualistic liberalism, then [our conception] stands for liberty, and for the only liberty worth having, the liberty of the State and of the individual within the State. . . .
The State . . . is a spiritual and ethical entity for securing the political, juridical, and economic organization of the nation, an organization which in its origin and growth is a manifestation of the spirit.
That's Benito Mussolini.
I was reluctant to invoke the F-word because some will take it as mere sensationalism. I do so only to make an analytical point. Despite their many differences, Maddow and friends want one thing that Mussolini wanted: national glory and prosperity through state-chosen and state-coordinated grand projects. Bureaucracy first. Individual freedom is to be tolerated only so long as private preferences don't interfere. (Let's not forget that before World War II, respectable world leaders saw fascism as a promising third way between the extremes of Marxism and liberalism.)
Of course Maddow thinks liberal values—such as free speech and dissent—can be preserved. Mussolini knew better. What would happen to an Occupy Wall Street-style protest against some big state project initiated by Barack Obama?
Bureaucratic dominance does not merely lower material living standards or reduce profit opportunities. It crushes lives and dreams. Government's grand projects—the interstate highway system and urban renewal, for instance—steal homes, shops, and communities through eminent domain and other interventions, while well-connected corporate interests reap benefits. They also harm people by damaging the environment and fostering big "private" firms over those of human-scale.
Maddow might say that in her vision, bureaucracy would be different. It would not. Exploitation by a ruling elite is inherent in its nature.
Sheldon Richman is editor of The Freeman, where this article originally appeared.