Excerpted from Salon (published NOV 9, 2010).
The resurgence of conservatism in American politics makes the question more urgent than ever.
by Michael Lind
Conservatives have long succeeded in persuading business that they are its friends and liberals are its enemies. In reality, the reverse is true. Liberalism saved American capitalism during the depression, and if American capitalism is to be saved from the Great Recession, liberals will have to rescue it.
Modern conservatives claim to be pro-business. But economic conservatism is not based on any empirical study of the actual economic requirements of successful modern industrial and service corporations in a modern mixed economy. The economic right combines an anachronistic tradition with a crackpot ideology.
The anachronistic tradition is Jeffersonian small-producer populism. Defending the rights of small farmers and small businesses was progressive in the 18th and early 19th centuries, when the enemies of freedom were aristocratic landlords who owned slaves and serfs and monopolies with royal charters. Although the industrial revolution rendered small-government Jeffersonianism obsolete by the mid-19th century, American conservatives continue successfully to appeal to Jeffersonian sentiments a century and a half later.
The crackpot ideology of the economic right is libertarianism. Libertarianism and communism are equally crazy in opposite ways. Libertarians believe that it is possible to privatize everything without anarchy, while communists believe that it is possible to socialize everything without tyranny.
Neither Jeffersonian populists nor libertarian ideologues have the slightest clue about how to run a complex technological society in the 21st century. Why should they? Jeffersonianism is a program for a primitive society of small farmers of a kind that no longer exists anywhere. At least, once upon a time, there were genuine Jeffersonian agrarian societies in the real world. There has never been a libertarian country and there never will be, because the maximum of government authority allowed by libertarian theory is well below the minimum required by a functioning community.
The true friends of business in America and the world have long been liberals, not conservatives. The propaganda of the right to the contrary, liberal thinkers like John Maynard Keynes and liberal politicians like Franklin Delano Roosevelt have never been socialists or collectivists. With the kindred classical liberals of the 19th century they have shared a commitment to individual rights, private property and limited government. However, they have believed that it was necessary to sacrifice some aspects of classical liberalism, in order to save as much as possible of the rest. Liberals have believed that limited doses of socialism would inoculate liberal society against totalitarian socialism as well as fascism and other illiberal systems. Indeed, Marxist radicals have often denounced American liberals and European social democrats for seeking to rescue and reform market society rather than replace it.