It is sad to see both major parties agree to spend $700 billion of taxpayer money to bail out huge financial institutions that are notable for two characteristics: incompetence and greed. There is a much better solution to the financial crisis. But it would require discarding what has been conventional wisdom for too long: that government intervention in the economy (“big government”) must be avoided like the plague, because the “free market” can be depended on to guide the economy toward growth and justice. Surely the sight of Wall Street begging for government aid is almost comic in light of its long devotion to a “free market” unregulated by government.
Let’s face a historical truth: we have never had a free market. We have always had government intervention in the economy, and indeed that intervention has been welcomed by the captains of finance and industry. These titans of wealth hypocritically warned against “big government” but only when government threatened to regulate their activities or when it contemplated passing some of the nation’s wealth on to the neediest people. They had no quarrel with big government when it served their needs.
It started way back when the founding fathers met in Philadelphia in 1787 to draft the Constitution. The year before, they had seen armed rebellions of farmers in western Massachusetts (Shays’s Rebellion), where farms were being seized for nonpayment of taxes. Thousands of farmers surrounded the courthouses and refused to allow their farms to be auctioned off. The founders’ correspondence at this time makes clear their worries about such uprisings getting out of hand. Gen. Henry Knox wrote to George Washington, warning that the ordinary soldier who fought in the Revolution thought that by contributing to the defeat of England he deserved an equal share of the wealth of the country, that “the property of the United States…ought to be the common property of all.”
In framing the Constitution, the founders created “big government” powerful enough to put down the rebellions of farmers, to return escaped slaves to their masters and to put down Indian resistance when settlers moved westward. The first big bailout was the decision of the new government to redeem for full value the almost worthless bonds held by speculators.
From the start, in the first sessions of the first Congress, the government interfered with the free market by establishing tariffs to subsidize manufacturers and by becoming a partner with private banks in establishing a national bank. This role of big government supporting the interests of the business classes has continued all through the nation’s history. Thus, in the nineteenth century the government subsidized canals and the merchant marine. In the decades before and during the Civil War, the government gave away some 100 million acres of land to the railroads, along with considerable loans to keep the railroad interests in business. The 10,000 Chinese and 3,000 Irish who worked on the transcontinental railroad got no free land and no loans, only long hours, little pay, accidents and sickness.
The principle of government helping big business and refusing government largesse to the poor was bipartisan, upheld by Republicans and Democrats. President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, vetoed a bill to give $10,000 to Texas farmers to help them buy seed grain during a drought, saying, “Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character.” But that same year, he used the gold surplus to pay wealthy bondholders $28 above the value of each bond–a gift of $5 million.