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Friday, April 1, 2005

“Corporate” Power Alone Is the Problem?

Bill Moyers Misunderstands the Nature of the State

One of the tried and true formulas for giving a speech is the “loss of the golden days” approach. The speaker contrasts an imagined time in the past when things were good with present conditions. The present, of course, is bad and rapidly getting worse. Some evil force that the listeners are bound to dislike is then blamed for the deplorable state of affairs, and the speech concludes with an exhortation to the faithful to go forth and battle the nemesis.

Such a speech was given last June at New York University by Bill Moyers. (See moyerstranscript.pdf.) Moyers, whose career as a public figure allied with the redistributive and managerial state goes back to the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, has lately been pontificating about the condition of the world on PBS, from which he recently retired. Moyers seems to view himself as an eminence grise of modern American “liberalism,” revealing all the nation’s shortcomings to his spellbound audience. That would be a respectable role if he got the analysis of our shortcomings right. Alas, he doesn’t even come close.

Part of what bothers Moyers—and the supposed cause of the loss of the “golden era”—is the recent dominance of “the corporate Right” in Washington. Thanks to the greedy moguls of business, we have turned our backs on the goodness of “commonwealth” (the compassionate, sharing society that gave us subsidized universities, the “safety net” of welfare, progressive taxation, and so forth) in favor of a cold, blind, pursuit of mere wealth. Moyers begins with particular instances of suffering that he blames on that shift. For example, a working-class family loses its home because the husband can’t earn enough to pay the rent; a woman can’t find a good job because her Medicaid-provided dentures fit badly and give her a strange appearance. Moyers wants us to “get mad” about such cases. He wants us to blame the rise of “the corporate Right” for our shameful national decline that allows such tragedies to occur.

There are just two things wrong with Moyers’s analysis. First, the use of government power to assist individuals and interest groups in amassing unearned wealth is not a recent phenomenon in the United States. Second, the deleterious effect of the manipulation of politics is not just a creature of Moyers’s hated “corporate Right.” It is equally a creature of the Left, and the pursuit of self-interest through government power is every bit as harmful when done by so-called liberals as when done by conservatives. Instead of clinging to the tribalistic groupthink that labels one “wing” good and the other bad, Moyers ought to realize that the coercive use of government power has undesirable effects no matter which ideological camp is behind it. The problem, in short, is government power itself, which inevitably attracts rogues and schemers.

Returning to my first point, Moyers is apparently under the impression that it is some recent development that the power of the government has been harnessed for private gain.

Did Big Business tycoons suddenly wake up to the profit-making potential of government favors circa 1970? Hardly. Looking back over U.S. history, one finds that attempts to use the government for private gain began early on and have never let up. Devious businessmen secured subsidies for canal projects, shipbuilding, and, most notoriously, railroad construction throughout the nineteenth century. Nor is such favor-seeking uniquely American. Centuries before it had colonies in the New World, the British monarchy was in the business of conferring monopolies and subsidies on favored businesses. Not only is the problem of which Moyers complains not new, but it is also not confined to “the Right.” “Liberals” are just as interested in and adept at manipulating government power for self-serving ends as conservatives, but Moyers is too enthralled with their egalitarian rhetoric to see what’s going on. He contends, for example, that “public education” was instituted in America to give all children an equal chance at success. But that’s wrong on two counts. Nongovernmental educational opportunities were available to all in the early years of the United States, and people were able to obtain the optimal degree of education for themselves and their children without any government schools. Naturally, Moyers fails to take note of the fact that the gap between black and white educational accomplishments narrows considerably for children who attend nongovernment schools.

Furthermore, government schools were instituted not from a desire for an egalitarian society, but rather because educators wanted to guarantee and expand their market. Self-interest was behind public education in the early 1800s, and self-interest perpetuates it. Arguably, nothing does more to cause the socioeconomic disparities Moyers laments than the education establishment’s rabid opposition to a free market in education. But he does not criticize it in the least.

Environmentalist Privilege

A more recent example of leftist use of government power is the ability of environmental groups to get government to set aside land to prevent its being put to commercial use. As a consequence, wealthy folks can hike in their $200 boots, enjoying unspoiled vistas and feeling good about themselves for “saving the planet,” while poor people have fewer job opportunities and pay higher prices for resources kept artificially scarce.

If Bill Moyers believes that it is only conservative interest groups that play the game of politics for private gain, he should open his eyes.

Of all the nonsense in Moyers’s speech, none more clearly shows his failure to understand reality than his ritualistic denunciation of tax cuts. He moans about the recent (and small) reductions in income-tax rates because they were “tilted towards the wealthiest people in the country.” To Moyers, that is the end of the argument. But he overlooks the crucial difference between money in the hands of people who earned it (whether wealthy or not) and money in the hands of politicians: In the former case, some of it will be invested productively, whereas in the latter, none will be invested productively and some will even be devoted to purposes that hinder production.

Millions of Americans who are not poor owe their standard of living to the fact that the government didn’t tax away more money than it did, leaving enough in private hands to create goods and employment. If it had taxed less, there would be fewer people living in poverty today. Egalitarians, however, prefer to gratify their own desire to control the distribution of wealth than to allow a free society in which more people can prosper.

Contrary to Moyers’s assertion, there has been no “profound transformation” in America, no “powerful shift toward private and corporate control.” If he means a shift to private property, freedom of association, and free trade, it would be a glorious thing, but the leviathan state continues to grow. It enriches those with political pull regardless of professed ideology, while it chisels away at freedom and throttles our potential for progress and greater prosperity.

Bill Moyers has fallen for one of the biggest myths of all time, that you can have a powerful state that will only do the supposedly good things that you want. I guess that’s the adult version of the tooth fairy.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.