It is widely believed that politics and economics are separate and largely unconnected; that individual freedom is a political problem and material welfare an economic problem; and that any kind of political arrangements can be combined with any kind of economic arrangements… The thesis of this chapter is that such a view is a delusion, that there is an intimate connection between economics and politics, that only certain arrangements are possible and that, in particular, a society which is socialist cannot also be democratic, in the sense of guaranteeing individual freedom.
…For most citizens of the country, however, if not for the intellectual, the direct importance of economic freedom is at least comparable in significance to the indirect importance of economic freedom as a means to political freedom.
…The citizen of the United States who is compelled by law to devote something like io per cent of his income to the purchase of a particular kind of retirement contract, administered by the government, is being deprived of a corresponding part of his personal freedom…. True, the number of citizens who regard compulsory old age insurance as a deprivation of freedom may be few, but the believer in freedom has never counted noses.
…A citizen of the United States who under the laws of various states is not free to follow the occupation of his own choosing unless he can get a license for it, is likewise being deprived of an essential part of his freedom.
— Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, 1962, Chapter 1.
I had reason to re-typeset an old graduate school paper the other day, a necessity for filing my application to Hunter College’s Master’s in Education program online, as the 5-1/4″ disk the paper was originally on was going to be more trouble to revive than just typing the damn thing. It was a long review of then-recent trends in academic American history writing. More specifically, the paper asked, “What is ‘Marxist’ History?” as it applied to recent writing about the Civil War and Reconstruction, as this term was being widely bandied about, both as a pejorative, and more sympathetically as a means of describing historical methodologies deployed by some of the writers.
The most striking conclusion of the paper was that the contemporary historians that could best be described as “Marxist” were in fact exclusively those that described themselves as conservatives. In a nutshell, following loosely the gospel of Milton Friedman as roughly sketched above, these conservative historians believed that everything in American history follows from America’s economic structure, and that all freedom follows from economic freedom. Want democracy, they say, you must have capitalism. Want to understand the Civil War, you only need study the difference in cost between slave and free labor.
Crude Marxist sociological and historical writing of the 1930s and 1940s shared exactly this same premise: that everything in history is narrowly determined by the prevailing “means of production,” which is to say, the sociological structure of the economy. Germans are Germans and Russians are Russians, but give them capitalism, and they’ll all start to act the same way, and with the same self interest. Mainstream sociologists and historians tried to grapple with some of the absurdities of such a reductionist view of history. After World War II, those sympathetic to the legacy of “Marxist” or “Marxian” analysis found ways to incorporate political and cultural inputs and principles into their social theories, at the same time deriding the older tradition as mere “economic determinism” or “economism.”
Not so the conservatives. Like so much else in the modern conservative movement that arose from the sprinkler-salved deserts of Arizona and Orange County, conservative historians borrowed a first principle from an older, mostly left-wing critique of liberalism, and made it their own. It really is, and always will be, about the economy, stupid. Everything else is noise. The Civil War? It was about saving capitalism. World War II? It was about saving capitalism. The War on Terror? Well, that’s about saving “our freedoms,” of course. But as the sociological architect of modern conservatism, Milton Friedman points out, freedom is economic freedom. And despite the fact that it is patently obvious that, for instance, the idea that requiring a doctor to be licensed is an act of tyranny, is on its face as absurd a notion as anything that ever animated your Bolshevik man on the street, conservative historians and politicians keep promulgating this crude economistic nonsense. There are no morals, there are no politics, there are no reasonable limits to wealth. There is only fealty or treason to the Invisible Hand and the economic status quo.
It’s the great and only argument of today’s Grand Old Party. We can’t have health care because it would hurt the economy. We can’t have clean air or water because it would hurt the economy. We can’t have decent public schools because it would hurt the economy. The uber-wealthy can’t pay their fair share of taxes because it would hurt the economy. And anything that “hurts” the economy impairs our freedom. And if you don’t think the freedom to starve, the freedom to be poisoned by your food or water or air, the freedom to have the wrong limb operated on, the freedom to be denied care, the freedom of the truckdriver to drive drunk is freedom, then you don’t understand how the world works — you have not been blessed with the clarity of vision you would be granted if you just shared the ideological purity of today’s real Marxists, the new American conservative and his allies in the GOP. All taxation is tyranny, no matter how much you want the city to plow the snow from your streets, no matter how often you vote to have the government provide some basic service or protection that you know cannot logically be provided by the so-called “free market.”
Well, carry on, brave sons of the Marxist Right!You have nothing to lose but your automotive safety standards, your commuter rail service, your police force, your sewer cleaners, the army, air force and marines, your checks and credit cards or the brakes on your Toyota.
Have a nice day.