It’s hardly a surprise that the coalition of social-justice groups that held a press conference in Washington, DC, on December 10 had no influence on the latest lurch into austerity.
The press conference in the Cannon House Office Building demanded that Congress make deep cuts in the nation’s military budget, reject reductions in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and redirect funds into sorely needed social safety-net programs. Along with other political and community leaders, members of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign talked about how joblessness, hunger, foreclosures, and economic distress were hurting their families.
After the press conference, they walked in the snow to the office of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), co-chair of the Budgetary Committee, to present a “People’s Budget” and supporting petitions (see the video).
Unfortunately, the austerity agenda, premised on the idea that working Americans should shoulder economic losses caused by Wall Street’s criminal recklessness, required that Congress decree otherwise. The bipartisan budget deal reached later on Tuesday exempted the Pentagon from sequestration, while allowing proposed food-stamp cuts to move forward and blocking unemployment extensions.
For Republicans, austerity represents a step towards economic freedom and ending the tyranny of Big Government. For Democrats, austerity means responsible fiscal policy and deficit reduction. Or so the usual media narrative tells us. Don’t believe it.
Conservative politicians don’t want smaller government. They adore Big Government. For Republicans, moderate Democrats, and the lobbyists who sustain them with fat campaign checks, the ideal is powerful government that serves the One Percent more efficiently, generously, and exclusively.
They favor massive government intervention that feeds the corporate sector through taxpayer-funded subsidies, handouts, bailouts, insurance to cover losses in the stock market, boondoggle contracts (manna for the defense industries), privatization of public resources and services, and international trade deals that privilege big business at the expense of democratically enacted labor, environmental, and public-health protections. In short, a massive redistribution of wealth and power to the top.
We can discard the idea of an eternal struggle between government intervention and freedom. The real choice is intervention for the benefit of most of the population or for wealthy elites. The pure no-government libertarian ideal is a pipedream, existing only in places like Somalia. The U.S. came close during the Gilded Age, a time of endless sweatshop drudgery, poverty, and destitution for tens of millions of Americans before the corrections of the Progressive Era. That’s what conservativism means now, a return to the Gilded Age and the reign of the Robber Barons.
Food-stamp cuts represent a propaganda victory for this ideal. Millions of Americans complain that the lady at the supermarket who pays for groceries with food stamps is a drain on our tax dollars, probably living in the lap of taxpayer-funded luxury. Meanwhile, arms manufacturers, banks, oil companies, and other industries suck up billions from the public coffers with hardly a peep.
The era of deregulation, globalization, privatization, slashed safety nets, and bloated military budgets commenced with the Reagan Era, with some precursors under President Carter, such as the relax of airline industry regulations. It persists whether Democrats or Republicans control the White House and Congress.
Ronald Reagan’s administration made a special effort to enact the anti-regulation economic theories of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, even after the deregulation of the savings and loan industry, inspired by these theories, inflicted a catastrophe that ultimately cost the public over $370 billion. For all his rhetoric about shrinking government, President Reagan expanded the federal government’s size and power and tripled the national debt.
The libertarian dogmas of Messrs. Hayek and Friedman don’t supply freedom as most of us understand the word — the capacity of all people to act and determine the course of their own lives, without coercion. Instead, they provide a license for wealthy elites to exploit, plunder, pollute, and commit crimes with impunity.
Of course, corporations themselves don’t care much about academic theories and political ideologies. Their sole interest is profit and power.
The State-Cartel Ideal
The capitalist libertarian model has two effects. First, it allows big business to consolidate into a small number of corporations (cartels) with the monopolistic power to control the market, killing competition and turning the “free market” into an illusion.