I continue to read the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and columnists in a “know thy enemy” mode. As the recent economic crises have pretty much razed the paper’s entire stable of totems, it has been fun to watch the rhetorical writhings. Mostly, they speak for themselves. But I think I cannot let this Christmas-eve gem from Holman Jenkins pass without comment. I think it will prove representative of the sort of hilarity we can expect to read from unrepentant free-marketeers over the coming year.
Here’s a shorter Jenkins:
(1) Since we only had one Great Depression, we can’t really draw any lessons from it, because we never got to run the experiment twice. We have no evidence that government spending helped end the Depression, or that more spending would have ended it faster.
(2) Despite said inability to draw lessons from the Great Depression, we do know — thanks to “plenty of evidence from history” — that “actions hostile to business tend to be related to an absence of prosperity.” Therefore people who argue that in the 1930s the “government did not do enough to restore business confidence, or did too much to damage it, piling on taxes, regulation and labor unions” are on “firmer ground” than advocates of government spending.
(3) But never mind these lessons from the Great Depression, because we live in a democracy, and democracies in general can’t be trusted with something as important as an economy. Give the people power and they will inevitably make bad policy.
(4) Sometimes democracies somehow stumble into periods of prosperity anyway, and when they do, this prosperity is “self-reinforcing” because “powerful interests” become powerful enough to resist all that bad policy that a democracy might wish to promulgate.
(5) These periods of prosperity do not last forever, and “once prosperity blows up” the same “self-reinforcing cycle” becomes “an unvirtuous one,” and instead of “powerful [business] interests” promoting prosperity, we get democratic governments promoting “costly or vindictive wish lists.”
(6) Government bailouts and the Federal Reserve’s extreme measures “may in retrospect be seen as just the right medicine. At the moment, no rational investor or business manager looks upon such doings with confidence in our economic future.”
(7) “Bottom line: Politics is in charge — in a way that makes a lost decade of subpar prosperity more likely than not.”
Jenkins’ account of recent events displays the sort of hermetic reality avoidance once only observable in unreconstructed Stalinists. Government must keep its hands off business! We can only trust the unfettered corporation to maintain a virtuous cycle of prosperity! When prosperity “blows up,” we can only trust the same “powerful” business interests to restore it! Don’t ever sully your analysis by asking how it was that your business-driven prosperity “blew up” in the first place. And once the blow-up happens, and people start asking why government didn’t restrain business from wrecking the economy in the first place, turn around and hold government responsible for the coming “lost decade.”
It is entirely possible that we are headed for a “lost decade of subpar prosperity.” But if that is the case, it is hardly excessive government meddling that is at fault, but rather the very philosophy that Jenkins espouses — of leaving our prosperity in the hands of powerful business interests unchecked by effective public oversight.
The good news is that people like Jenkins have next to no influence in the new administration. The bad news is they still have a platform in one of the nation’s two most influential newspapers.