There exists an ineluctable tension between property and democracy: political freedom is, among other things, the dangerous idea that the polity gets to define property rights
Today, we are an ailing nation—socially, politically, and economically
By Nazarul Islam
In two and half centuries, the United States has aged with new complications. Today, we are an ailing nation—socially, politically, and economically. In the recent presidential election, one political party had promised to “make America great again—again.” The other rallied supporters to “build back better.”
Painfully, nobody talked about “morning in America” or anything similarly sunny. Everyone can see that it is dark outside.
During the country’s last national funk, in the 1970s, Americans latched on to the idea that the market would set them free. The result was an era of religious reverence for property rights and markets in everything, as a solution not just to the country’s economic problems but to its social and political problems, too.
People were reclassified as a form of capital and told to invest in themselves. Pollution was re-conceived as a tradable good. Again, Spending money was declared to be a form of free speech.
The evangelists of free exchange insisted that unregulated capitalism and liberal democracy were symbiotic. A half century later, it was getting harder to find people who still thought that could be true. There exists an ineluctable tension between property and democracy: political freedom is, among other things, the dangerous idea that the polity gets to define property rights.
Maintaining a market economy and a liberal democracy always requires a careful balancing act. And it is clear that Americans of all political persuasions are losing interest in forging their necessary compromises. This is obviously an alarming trend.
Justifiably, there is a growing willingness to sacrifice democracy. Historian Quinn Slobodian pointed out in his 2018 book, Globalists, defenders of property rights are not opponents of government involvement in the economy; rather, they have sought, with considerable success, to encase property in a fortress of laws expressly designed to limit the power of the polity.
This defense of privilege is understandably infuriating to the many Americans who lack the economic security to provide for their families or the opportunity to pursue their dreams. It fuels the reflexive hostility toward the market that increasingly colors policy debates among liberals, and the rest.
In his new book, ‘Freedom from the Market’, Mike Konczal, the director of the Progressive Thought Program at the Roosevelt Institute, a think tank focused on economic inequality, goes beyond arguments in favor of regulating markets or establishing new government programs to redistribute income.
From the earliest days of the republic, Americans have defined freedom as what we keep free from the control of the market. With due emphasis on the history of the Homestead Act and land ownership, the eight-hour work day and free time, social insurance and Social Security, World War II day cares, Medicare and desegregation, free public colleges, intellectual property, and the public corporation, scholars have shown how citizens have fought to ensure that everyone has access to the conditions that make us free.
At a time when millions of Americans—and more and more politicians—are questioning the unregulated free market, policy institutions in America, they have offered a new narrative, and new intellectual ammunition, for the fight that lies ahead…..
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