Eliot Spitzer Attacks Libertarianism

Recently by Robert Wenzel: The Advancing Totalitarian Medical State Means It’s Time for Young Doctors to Leave the U.S.

Eliot Spitzer is out with a new book, Government’s Place in the Market.

It’s a tiny book, only 83 pages and Spitzer writes only 59 of the pages. The remaining pages are critiques of Spitzer’s comments by Dean Baker and Robert Johnson. The book does need critiquing.

Spitzer’s commentary is simply not in touch with reality. On the first page of the introduction, Spitzer writes that we have forgotten what we had learned from the crisis. What did we forget?

…in the immediate aftermath of the bankruptcy of the entire financial system, there was a consensus that the libertarianism that had dominated Washington for 30 years was an abject failure. (p.4)

Say what? Thirty years of libertarianism? A period when the United States central bank, the Federal Reserve, boosted the money supply from $1.6 trillion to $7.7 trillion. A period during which it became near impossible to start a brokerage firm to compete against the banksters, without spending literally millions to pass through all the regulatory hurdles. A period during which government attempts to regulate every nook and cranny of our lives exploded. This Spitzer tells us was a period of libertarianism.

Spitzer contrasts this "libertarian" period with some earlier period where a:

balanced approach was what had worked during the periods of our nation’s greatest prosperity… (p.5)

What the hell is he talking about? Spitzer’s "libertarian period" is the most regulated period in the history of the United Sates. There was no earlier "balanced approach" that fostered "our nation’s greatest prosperity." This is just fiction.

In Chapter 1, Spitzer writes relative to his theme of 30 years of libertarianism:

For 30 years a libertarian leadership dominated leadership circles, beginning politically with President Ronald Reagan…(p.16)

Ha! Murray Rothbard in 1989 warned us about these Spitzer-type build ups of the myth of the libertarian Reagan:

Eight years, eight dreary, miserable, mind-numbing years, the years of the Age of Reagan, are at long last coming to an end. These years have surely left an ominous legacy for the future: we shall undoubtedly suffer from the after-shocks of Reaganism for years to come…

There was no "Reagan Revolution." Any "revolution" in the direction of liberty (in Ronnie’s words "to get government off our backs") would reduce the total level of government spending. And that means reduce in absolute terms, not as proportion of the gross national product, or corrected for inflation, or anything else. There is no divine commandment that the federal government must always be at least as great a proportion of the national product as it was in 1980. If the government was a monstrous swollen Leviathan in 1980, as libertarians were surely convinced, as the inchoate American masses were apparently convinced and as Reagan and his cadre claimed to believe, then cutting government spending was in order. At the very least, federal government spending should have been frozen, in absolute terms, so that the rest of the economy would be allowed to grow in contrast. Instead, Ronald Reagan cut nothing, even in the heady first year, 1981…

The much-heralded 1981 tax cut was more than offset by two tax increases that year. One was "bracket creep," by which just inflation wafted people into higher tax brackets, so that with the same real income (in terms of purchasing power) people found themselves paying a higher proportion of their income in taxes, even though the official tax rate went down. The other was the usual whopping increase in Social Security taxes which, however, don’t count, in the perverse semantics of our time, as "taxes"; they are only "insurance premiums." In the ensuing years the Reagan Administration has constantly raised taxes – to punish us for the fake tax cut of 1981 – beginning in 1982 with the largest single tax increase in American history, costing taxpayers $100 billion.

Creative semantics is the way in which Ronnie was able to keep his pledge never to raise taxes while raising them all the time…

How about deregulation? Didn’t Ronnie at least deregulate the regulation-ridden economy inherited from the evil Carter? Just the opposite. The outstanding measures of deregulation were all passed by the Carter Administration, and, as is typical of that luckless President, the deregulation was phased in to take effect during the early Reagan years, so that the Gipper could claim the credit.Such was the story with oil and gas deregulation (which the Gipper did advance from September to January of 1981); airline deregulation and the actual abolition of the Civil Aeronautics Board, and deregulation of trucking. That was it.

The Gipper deregulated nothing, abolished nothing. Instead of keeping his pledge to abolish the Departments of Energy and Education, he strengthened them, and even wound up his years in office adding a new Cabinet post, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Overall, the quantity and degree of government regulation of the economy was greatly increased and intensified during the Reagan years. The hated OSHA, the scourge of small business and at the time the second most-hated agency of federal government (surely you need not ask which is the first most-hated), was not only not abolished; it too was strengthened and reinforced. Environmentalist restrictions were greatly accelerated, especially after the heady early years when selling off some public lands was briefly mentioned, and the proponents of actually using and developing locked-up government resources (James Watt, Anne Burford, Rita Lavelle) were disgraced and sent packing as a warning to any future "anti-environmentalists."

The Reagan Administration, supposedly the champion of free trade, has been the most protectionist in American history, raising tariffs, imposing import quotas, and – as another neat bit of creative semantics – twisting the arms of the Japanese to impose "voluntary" export quotas on automobiles and microchips. It has made the farm program the most abysmal of this century: boosting price supports and production quotas, and paying many more billions of taxpayer money to farmers so that they can produce less and raise prices to consumers.

And we should never forget a disastrous and despotic program that has received unanimous support from the media and from the envious American public: the massive witch hunt and reign of terror against the victimless non-crime of "insider trading." In a country where real criminals – muggers, rapists, and "inside" thieves – are allowed to run rampant, massive resources and publicity are directed toward outlawing the use of one’s superior knowledge and insight in order to make profits on the market…

Foreign aid, a vast racket by which American taxpayers are mulcted in order to subsidize American export firms and foreign governments (mostly dictatorships), has been vastly expanded under Reagan. The Administration also encouraged the nation’s banks to inflate and pour money down Third World rat-holes; then bailed out the banks and tin-pot socialist dictatorships at the expense of U.S. taxpayers (via tax increases) and consumers (via inflation)…

I am convinced that the historic function of Ronald Reagan was to co-opt, eviscerate and ultimately destroy the substantial wave of anti-governmental, and quasi-libertarian, sentiment that erupted in the U.S. during the 1970s.

Yes, Rothbard knew, way back, that the interventionist Reagan would be the strawman libertarian for those like Spitzer to use as an example of supposed libertarianism that has failed us. Although, it would probably be difficult for even Rothbard to imagine the degree to which Spitzer would stretch the concept.

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2011 Economic Policy Journal