Analogy of the Day: Definitions and Same-Sex Marriage

Aside

Opponents of Same-Sex Marriage often claim that the issue is not one of civil rights; individuals in same-sex couples have the same right to get married as any other individual…to a person of the opposite sex. Many of these detractors consider the expansion of the definition of marriage just to satisfy the desires of homosexuals a “special privilege,” and government should not be in the business of making special accommodations for select citizens.

This line of reasoning has always struck me as particularly unfair. So, I’ve thought of an analogy that properly highlights why Same-Sex Marriage is not an issue of one group demanding extra-constitutional “special privileges,” but one of basic human freedom.

Statement A:

Marriage is defined as the legal/religious union between a man and a woman. All men and women have the right to be married to a member of the opposite sex. Therefore, homosexuals have the same rights as everyone else–to get married to a member of the opposite sex.

Statement B:

Voting is defined as the formal expression of one’s preference for a candidate from the Democrat party. All people who vote have the same right to vote for a Democrat. Therefore, Republicans have the same rights as everyone else–to vote for a Democrat.

If voting doesn’t allow citizens to exercise free choice in the first scenario, how can a narrow definition of marriage allow for a diversity of sexual preferences? The answer is it cannot, and it’s time we as a society revisited some of the basic definitions informing our civil liberties.

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Repeal and Replace?

As the fate of Obamacare is debated in the Supreme Court, let us not forget an inconvenient truth. While polls show that the majority of Americans oppose this law, and while the Individual Mandate’s constitutionality is arguable, there is simply no good alternative.

This is the subject of a memory-jogging piece in New York Magazine by Jonathan Chait.

One of the hard facts about public opinion during the health-care debate was that, while the public quickly soured on health-care reform, it remained quite sweet on the concept of health-care reform. This is why Republican opponents took care to insist at all times they only opposed the particulars of President Obama’s plan, and wanted instead to reform the system their way, with all the popular things and none of the unpopular stuff. Republicans declared they had a “moral imperative” to reform the system, robotically insisting their plan was not merely to repeal health-care reform but “repeal and replace.” As Jonathan Bernstein notes, just last January, Republicans in Congress promised to have their all-gain, no-pain alternative ready and raring to go for the summer so they could move if the Supreme Court overturned Obamacare.

But, in a development that received almost no attention at all, Republicans quietly conceded last week that they aren’t going to replace Obamacare at all.

 

 

Huge majorities of the public support, in the abstract, the idea of universal coverage. But they turn much more negative when presented with specific measures to offset the costs, like taxes or cuts to Medicare. Republicans have been claiming to support the general goal of expanding coverage but simply opposing any specific measure to do so. But conservatives actually oppose the idea of universal health insurance on moral principle. They tend not to concede this straight out, but the belief pops up from time to time.

 

[Conservatives] may debate over the particulars, but the particulars don’t ultimately matter. Conservatives just don’t want to lay out the resources to provide universal coverage. They think of health insurance the way I think of flat-screen televisions — a nice thing to have, and something I’d like everybody to have, but not something to which everybody is entitled. I’d like to see conservatives defend that philosophical position openly rather than couch it in easily cast-aside particulars.

Obamacare may very well be declared unconstitutional. But before we return complacently to the prior status quo, we must not forget two things:

2) The alternative, leaving over 50 million Americans uninsured, and the soaring healthcare costs such a fate would engender, was the apocalyptic scenario spurring the passage healthcare reform in the first place.

1) Republicans opposed every other proposed measure to fix healthcare; Single Payer?–when hell freezes over! Public Option?–why, that’s socialism!

“Obamacare” is a dirty word in today’s political discourse, and the Individual Mandate has proved to be political kryptonite, but these are unfortunate reality that only our collective social amnesia has allowed to prosper.

Thought of the Day: Republican Marxists?

Presidential campaigns are full of of vapid rhetoric. Everybody knows this. Substantive policy discussions and thoughtful philosophical positions are guests forever snubbed at the $3,000 per-plate luncheons.

Yet, I can’t tear myself away from these carnivals of empty grandstanding. Why? Because, every now and then, you get to see some nudity.

That’s right. Someone always ends up naked. Or should I say something. In the stunning displays of mental acrobatics that occur when a candidate and his ilk contort their positions to fit their audience du jour, the viewer may get the rare chance to see an ideology so thoroughly undermined that it ends up…well, naked.

Take for instance this little gem from ThinkProgress:

Back in February, Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign released a statement touting an endorsement from Ohio Auditor Dave Yost. “I’m pleased to earn Dave’s support,” Romney said, “I look forward to working with Dave to spread my message of more jobs, less spending, smaller government.” Romney got that chance today at an event near Cleveland, OH. Introducing Romney, Yost had some sharp, yet somewhat puzzling, words for President Obama. Yost said that Obama touting his decision to order the raid that killed Osama bin Laden is like “giving Ronald McDonald credit for the Big Mac you ate for lunch.” Yost said it’s “the guy at the griddle” that deserves the credit.”

Okay, granted, a) Romney didn’t personally make the ridiculous analogy between Ronald McDonald and Obama and, b) it’s a low-blow move to equate a candidate with his supporters’ every utterance, but isn’t there something strangely Marxist about this statement? Isn’t it a rather odd position for a Republican, someone who ostensibly elevates the value of capital above that of labor, to make?

Romney’s camp reportedly distanced itself from Yost’s statements, likely to avoid the backlash that would result from criticizing Obama’s greatest military success. But as to the merits of the argument itself, hell, if that’s what Republicans believe, let me connect a few dots for them:

If the blue-collar, low income worker deserves more credit for the company’s product than the owner of capital, then:

  • The blue-collar, low income worker deserves a higher (or at least equal) wage than the CEO
  • The blue-collar, low income worker should, by right, organize whenever possible to obtain the best possible collective bargaining position. This doesn’t harm the business, because the blue-collar, low income worker is vitally important to it.
  • The CEO, who has been enjoying record bonuses while the majority of blue-collar, low income workers have seen their incomes stagnate, should be compelled to take some sort of pay cut. Maybe Congress can think about passing some sort of financial reform bill that addresses this gross injustice.
  • The blue-collar, low income worker, who is currently uninsured, really deserves some basic and decent medical coverage. Maybe Congress can think about passing some sort of health care bill that addresses this gross injustice.

How wonderful that we are all on the same page.

Born This Way? Or, does it really matter if homosexuality is a choice?

Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon drew the ire of gay rights groups for a series of comments she made in an interview with the New York Times last week. Nixon, an out of the closet bisexual person, claimed that for her, being gay is a choice:

“I gave a speech recently, an empowerment speech to a gay audience, and it included the line ‘I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better.’ And they tried to get me to change it, because they said it implies that homosexuality can be a choice. And for me, it is a choice. I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me.”

Armed with swift scorn for Nixon’s comments, prominent bloggers like AMERICAblog’s John Aravosis responded:

“[Nixon] needs to learn how to choose her words better, because she just fell into a right-wing trap, willingly. When the religious right says it’s a choice, they mean you quite literally choose your sexual orientation, you can change it at will, and that’s bull. It’s not a “choice,” unless you consider my opting to date a guy with brown hair versus a guy with blonde hair a “choice.” It’s only a choice among flavors I already like.  And if you like both flavors, men and women, you’re bisexual, you’re not gay, so please don’t tell people that you are gay, and that gay people can “choose” their sexual orientation, i.e., will it out of nowhere.  Because they can’t.  And when you tell the NYT they can, you do tremendous damage to our civil rights effort.  Every religious right hatemonger is now going to quote this woman every single time they want to deny us our civil rights.  Thanks.”

Aravosis is right—Nixon’s comments can be used as ammunition in the anti-gay arsenal, but that’s due to the poverty of our national discourse on issues of sexual orientation and the LGBT community’s complicity in framing the debate on the terms of those who seek its delegitimization.

Extensive research has been conducted with the goal of determining the extent to which homosexuality is an immutable characteristic of one’s biology versus a product of postnatal environmental factors. “Born This Way” has become the reactionary LGBT rallying cry in the Epoch of Gaga. But the scientific question of nature versus nurture has nothing to do with our common understanding of choice, and dwelling on it serves only to obfuscate the actual role of choice in respect to one’s sexual preferences.

For instance, I don’t like chocolate ice cream. I don’t know why I don’t like it, I just don’t. Both of my parents and my sister like chocolate ice cream, so  my preference isn’t a genetic predisposition. Alternately, It may be a combination of past experiences that has led me to disqualify this treat which so many others enjoy. Ultimately though, the question of whether my dislike for it is due to genetics or environmental factors is quite irrelevant— because it is a preference, not a choice. I can choose to eat chocolate ice cream, but I can’t choose to like it.

Seen in this light, Nixon’s comments are understandably frustrating. Aravosis writes, “What the haters, and Cynthia Nixon, are leaving out is that for most men it’s an easy choice since they’re not into other men at all, they’re only into women.  But for gay guys, they’re into other guys, and not into women.  So for us, it’s the only choice; and for straight guys, it’s no choice at all.”

If our preferences are our preferences regardless of biological or environmental factors, “Born this Way” seems to be a logical framing of the issue. But does claiming homosexuality to be an inborn trait represent an effective Kung Fu chop to the haters? Hardly. Whether a rapist is “born this way” or freely chooses to act as he does affects only whether society will send him to a mental institution or to prison. The fact remains that, regardless of the underlying cause of his actions, society regards him as a dangerous deviant.

By sounding the “Born this Way” horn, the LGBT community falls into a similar trap. To those who are repulsed by homosexuality, who seek to deny gays protection under the law, and who just wish they would “crawl back into the sewer,” arguing that homosexuality is an inborn characteristic does nothing to expunge the deviance and sin associated with it. Born this way or chose it—the only difference it makes to the haters is whether to “pray the gay away” or seek a medical intervention.

Nixon raises this point in the latter part of her New York Times interview:

“A certain section of our community is very concerned that it not be seen as a choice, because if it’s a choice, then we could opt out. I say it doesn’t matter if we flew here or we swam here, it matters that we are here and we are one group and let us stop trying to make a litmus test for who is considered gay and who is not…Why can’t it be a choice? Why is that any less legitimate? It seems we’re just ceding this point to bigots who are demanding it, and I don’t think that they should define the terms of the debate.”

There is an unintended yet real undercurrent of self loathing hidden in the “Born this Way” defense, and by using it, the LGBT community is unwittingly allowing the opposition to frame the debate to their disadvantage.

“I can’t help the way I am! I was just born this way!”

In order for the message of sexual orientation equality to gain traction, the LGBT community needs to shift its focus from the argument that gayness is a regrettable but unavoidable inborn trait to the argument that the debate itself doesn’t matter. If there’s nothing wrong with being gay, whether it’s a biological trait, a choice, or merely a preference, the nature versus nurture issue is irrelevant.

Let’s return to my dislike of chocolate ice cream. You probably didn’t think that paragraph was the most enthralling. Why? Because frankly, nobody cares whether or not I like chocolate ice cream. The factors informing our choices and the reasons behind our preferences are important only if our preferences and choices have moral consequence. Since no one thinks the choice between Chunky Monkey versus Cherry Garcia raises any great moral quandary, no one cares to debate why one would choose one over the other.

It is precisely on these grounds that the LGBT community should stake their claim. To the haters, homosexuality has moral consequences regardless of its cause. The claim that some people are “Born this Way” will neither convince religious right-wingers of their own bigotry nor deal a death blow to gay rights opposition within our national discourse. But attitudes are changing towards homosexuality, not because it’s becoming seen as less and less of a choice, but because the heterosexual majority is becoming increasingly familiar with LGBT people carrying out loving, supportive relationships, raising children, and being productive members of society—in short, it sees these alternative lifestyle preferences as carrying little or no moral relevance.

The LGBT community would be better served to abandon as fruitless ground the framing of the debate on the terms of nature versus nurture. Perhaps then, Lady Gaga shouldn’t have written a song called “Born this Way,” but rather “Who the Hell Cares?”

Progressives Should Love Ron Paul: Point-Counterpoint

Glenn Greenwald sent shockwaves through the blogosphere earlier this month, calling on progressives to undertake a rigorous moral inventory regarding President Obama, the upcoming election and his GOP challengers. Essentially, Greenwald questions why so many progressives blithely disregard Ron Paul given that he is a greater advocate than Obama for issues “liberals and progressives have long flamboyantly claimed are both compelling and crucial.”

According to Greenwald, Ron Paul creates a sort of mass cognitive dissonance in the minds of progressives. By holding up a mirror to the shortcomings of the current Commander-in-Chief, Paul forces the Left to confront that which it has willingly ignored.

“Progressives like to think of themselves as the faction that stands for peace, opposes wars, believes in due process and civil liberties, distrusts the military-industrial complex, supports candidates who are devoted to individual rights, transparency and economic equality…”

If President Obama has repeatedly committed acts fundamentally at odds with progressive values, don’t progressives compromise their moral foundation in supporting his re-election?

An excerpt of Greenwald’s list of progressive grievances reads like Big Brother’s to-do list:

“[Obama]  has slaughtered civilians — Muslim children by the dozens — not once or twice, but continuously in numerous nations with dronescluster bombs and other forms of attack.  He has institutionalized the power of Presidents — in secret and with no checks — to target American citizens for assassination-by-CIA, far from any battlefield. He has waged an unprecedented war against whistleblowers, the protection of which was once a liberal shibboleth. He rendered permanently irrelevant the War Powers Resolution, a crown jewel in the list of post-Vietnam liberal accomplishments, and thus enshrined the power of Presidents to wage war even in the face of a Congressional vote against it. His obsession with secrecy is so extreme that…even worked to amend the Freedom of Information Act (another crown jewel of liberal legislative successes) when compliance became inconvenient.

 

He has entrenched for a generation the once-reviled, once-radical Bush/Cheney Terrorism powers of indefinite detention, military commissions, and the state secret privilege as a weapon to immunize political leaders from the rule of law…He has vigorously prosecuted the cruel and supremely racist War on Drugs, including those parts he vowed during the campaign to relinquish…He’s brought the nation to a full-on Cold War and a covert hot war with Iran, on the brink of far greater hostilities…His support for some of the Arab world’s most repressive regimes is as strong as ever.

 

Most of all, America’s National Security State, its Surveillance State, and its posture of endless war is more robust than ever before…He has created what The Washington Post just dubbed “a vast drone/killing operation,” all behind an impenetrable wall of secrecy and without a shred of oversight.”

These inconvenient realities would fail to sound the mental alarms if progressives could rest assured that Obama’s opponents are bigger warmongers and surveillance statists. But the presence of Ron Paul represents an intractable aporia, forcing progressives to accept that it is the Republican candidate — not the Democrat — who would be the anti-war, pro-due-process, pro-transparency, anti-Drug-War advocate.

Given this torrid mental terrain, Greenwald presents only one logical avenue of escape. If progressives don’t want to support Ron Paul, yet wish to maintain a modicum of ideological integrity, they’d have to be comfortable with the following statement:

“Yes, I’m willing to continue to have Muslim children slaughtered by covert drones and cluster bombs, and America’s minorities imprisoned by the hundreds of thousands for no good reason, and the CIA able to run rampant with no checks or transparency, and privacy eroded further by the unchecked Surveillance State, and American citizens targeted by the President for assassination with no due process, and whistleblowers threatened with life imprisonment for “espionage,” and the Fed able to dole out trillions to bankers in secret, and a substantially higher risk of war with Iran (fought by the U.S. or by Israel with U.S. support) in exchange for less severe cuts to Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs, the preservation of the Education and Energy Departments, more stringent environmental regulations, broader health care coverage, defense of reproductive rights for women, stronger enforcement of civil rights for America’s minorities, a President with no associations with racist views in a newsletter, and a more progressive Supreme Court.”

A tough pill to swallow, no doubt.

But perhaps the prescription has been doled out too hastily. If our line of critique does not sufficiently take into account the demons of Ron Paul’s nature, then, well, you’ll see…

“Attention to all self-proclaimed liberals and progressives.

I would like to properly introduce you to a man about whom you’ve heard much…but at whom you might wish to take a second look.

Unlike Barack Obama, he supports an immediate end to our current and ongoing wars abroad.

Unlike Barack Obama, he supports an end to predator drone attacks by the United States military, which kill innocent civilians and foment growing hatred of America. He believes that the so-called “war on terror” as we’ve engaged it has undermined American freedoms at home and contributed to greater tensions and anti-American sentiment abroad.

Unlike Barack Obama, he supports an entirely revamped Middle East policy, in which the U.S. will no longer subsidize the oppression of the Palestinian people by the state of Israel.

Unlike Barack Obama, he supports either abolishing or fundamentally reforming the Federal Reserve system, and he opposed bailing out the banks with public funds.

Unlike Barack Obama, this individual opposes government spying and believes in absolute freedom of speech and the press, and as he puts it, “reduced government intrusion into our lives.”

Ladies and Gentlemen of the left, I give you your perfect candidate for 2012:

David Duke.

Oh I’m sorry, did you think I was talking about someone else?”

Of course, Ron Paul isn’t nearly as bad as David Duke, but author Tim Wise still presents a valid criticism of Greenwald’s argument. Wise asks, what about the “90 percent of his political platform [that] is right-wing boilerplate about slashing taxes on the rich, slashing programs for the poor and working class, breaking unions, drilling for oil anywhere and everywhere, and privatizing everything from retirement programs to health care”— is that just chopped liver?

To equate Progressivism and Ron Paul’s Civil libertarianism is an act of false equivalence—the two originate from vastly different ideological sources. To be a progressive means to seek through policy to rectify problems of disenfranchisement, poverty, lack of opportunity and structural oppression stemming from a profound belief in the interconnectedness of humanity and the understanding that the Good must be measured socially. But to support Ron Paul based on this supposed compatibility  empowers an ideology that holds that “only the self matters…the reactionary, white supremacist, Social Darwinists of this culture, who believe — as does Ron Paul — that  that the police who dragged sit-in protesters off soda fountain stools for trespassing on a white man’s property were justified in doing so, and that the freedom of department store owners to refuse to let black people try on clothes in their dressing rooms was more sacrosanct than the right of black people to be treated like human beings.”

So Ron Paul rails against the torture and indefinite detention of suspected terrorists. Does that mean progressives can allow themselves to forget that he equates anti-discrimination laws, which seek to extend equal opportunity to all persons, with equal tyranny? These and corollary views are all part of a movement, the philosophical underpinnings of which of do not resemble Progressivism in the slightest.

“I’ve talked with [Ron Paul devotees] on numerous occasions, with their “Who is John Galt?” signs… They never talk about the institutional racism at the heart of the drug war. They never talk about how we need to rethink the war on terror (except insofar as it inconveniences them to be body scanned at the airport, when everyone knows, we should just be checking brown-skinned men in turbans). These guys are largely attracted to Paul because he’ll get government off their backs, by lowering their taxes, cutting spending that helps poor people whom they regard as lazy, ending the “suffocating” regulations that they believe stifle innovation, and vouchsafing their God-given right to own any and all manner of assault rifle they desire, the latter of which they simply “know” President Obama is going to forcibly confiscate, along with their handguns, rifles, and maybe even Super-Soakers any day now.

They want the government to stop taking their tax dollars and “giving them” to Mexicans and blacks, or anyone of any race or ethnicity who in their mind isn’t smart enough or hard working enough to have their own private health care. They don’t want the government to help homeowners who got roped into predatory loans by banks and independent mortgage brokers: instead they blame the homeowners for not being savvy enough borrowers, or they blame government regulation for ostensibly “forcing” lenders to finance housing for minorities and poor people who didn’t deserve it.”

Ron Paul is for some progressives the Obama they intended to elect in 2008. But just as Greenwald cautions us to avoid glossing over Obama’s shortcomings, so too must we soberly consider the entire package deal that Paul places before us.

Newt Gingrich, the GOP and “Selective Defiance”

For all their cries of executive overreach in the Obama Administration, today’s GOP hopefuls seem to be in the mood for a little presidential muscle-flexing themselves. Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann have led a campaign against the powers of the federal judiciary this year, going so far as promising to disregard “unfavorable” federal court rulings. As Bob Egelko of the San Francisco Chronicle writes:

” At a debate Tuesday night sponsored by the antiabortion group Personhood USA, [GOP] candidates were asked how they would respond to a Supreme Court ruling overturning a law that declared life begins at conception.

“Obviously, you enforce the right to life,” answered Texas Gov. Rick Perry, according to news accounts.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., said it was time for Congress and the president to “reclaim that authority to make law…The Supreme Court can’t arbitrarily tell us what the law of the land is.”

That position dovetailed with the views Gingrich has espoused in recent weeks, calling for an end to “judicial supremacy” on subjects such as abortion, gay rights, school prayer and national security. He has proposed forcing federal judges to justify their rulings before Congress, impeaching and removing them from office for wayward decisions, abolishing their courts and selectively defying their rulings.”

Every so often, a politician makes a statement so ridiculous and patently hypocritical, that any critique is self-evident, so I’ll confine myself to two observations. Firstly, in asserting that the executive branch should have the power to “selectively defy” federal court rulings, Gingrich and Co. have staked a position entirely foreign to our political culture. It isn’t a conservative position, and it certainly isn’t liberal a position; in fact, it simply has no business in a liberal democracy under the rule of law.

As much as I hate the demagogic phrase “un-American,” I cannot imagine a more apt time to use it.

This leads me to my second observation—ideological consistency regarding the proper scope of federal court authority has never been the GOP’s strong suit. For instance, one need look no further than the Republican reaction to the 2008 Supreme Court case of District of Columbia vs. Heller, in which the Court overturned the city’s ban on handguns. As GOP presidential contender John McCain stated at the time,

“Today’s decision is a landmark victory for Second Amendment freedom in the United States. For this first time in the history of our Republic, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms was and is an individual right as intended by our Founding Fathers. I applaud this decision as well as the overturning of the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns and limitations on the ability to use firearms for self-defense…Today’s ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller makes clear that other municipalities like Chicago that have banned handguns have infringed on the constitutional rights of Americans…today, the Supreme Court ended forever the specious argument that the Second Amendment did not confer an individual right to keep and bear arms.”

A state legislature democratically enacts a law and the Supreme Court is justified in overturning it? There’s no explanation for such brazen cognitive dissonance aside from the conclusion that the GOPers aren’t really concerned with debating the philosophical issues surrounding Supreme Court authority; they want to impose a specific ideology, using whatever means necessary and without regard for legality or jurisprudence.

Of course, one might object that such is simply the nature of politics regardless of party, and one would be partially correct. W need look no further than the absurd debate surrounding the National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act (in which Republicans argued in favor of an expanded gun rights bill on the basis of federal authority while Democrats argued against it on the basis of state’s rights) to see that neither side cares about legal process as much as implementing a specific agenda. But before we begin assigning false equivalence, I’d like to posit that the kind of political doublespeak coming from the GOP on the issue is particularly bald-faced and audacious.

Let’s rewind to the third presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain, for, as Jon Stewart puts it, a moment of Zen:

SCHIEFFER:…Senator McCain, you believe Roe v. Wade should be overturned. Senator Obama, you believe it shouldn’t. Could either of you ever nominate someone to the Supreme Court who disagrees with you on this issue? Senator McCain?

MCCAIN: I would never and have never in all the years I’ve been there imposed a litmus test on any nominee to the court. That’s not appropriate to do.

SCHIEFFER: But even if it was someone — even someone who had a history of being for abortion rights, you would consider them?

MCCAIN: I would consider anyone in their qualifications. I do not believe that someone who has supported Roe v. Wade that would be part of those qualifications. But I certainly would not impose any litmus test.”

How convenient.

The Persistence of Dumb Narrative

As we enter this election year, and countless political slogans and buzzwords prepare to bombard our psyches, it’s important to examine the power of narrative in framing our national political conversation. Narrative is what makes “wealth re-distribution” a political virtue in some political cultures and a cardinal sin in others; it is what determines whether the top 1% of wealth holders are seen as “job producers” or greedy “fat-cats”; it is what imbues meaning to phrases like “Climate change,” “social justice,” and “entitlements.”

As an opening salvo in this year’s political verbiage battle, US News & World Report issued a doctrinaire reassertion of the free market, limited government narrative. Responding to President Obama’s income-inequality-centric Osawatomie speech, author Stephanie Slade concedes that wealth and political power is unfairly concentrated in the hands of the few, but argues that Big Government is the culprit.

“What people often fail to recognize is that the state is itself the tool by which the haves keep the have-nots without…It is only by intervening to choose winners and losers—by trying to substitute the judgment of the few in positions of power for the judgment of the many in an open marketplace—that a government cedes influence to those with the most to spend.”

This is the rallying cry of the Free Marketeer narrative; well intentioned yet naive progressives want to reduce inequality through forced redistribution, but  aggravate the problem by creating more opportunities for the powerful to exert their influence. For the sake of argument, let’s assume this narrative is correct about the naiveté and quixotism of liberal socioeconomic philosophy, but do Free Marketeers offer a more pragmatic story, one based on fact instead of fancy, highfalutin’ theories?

In the Free Marketeer narrative, productivity and wealth go together like bagels and lox.

“Within a free market, inequality comes almost exclusively from one place: unique individuals’ differing levels of productive ability…The more productive you are, the more wealth you can accrue, and the less productive you are, the less wealthy you’re likely to be.”

But can one honestly argue that investment bankers are so much more productive than teachers or firefighters as to justify their vastly different incomes? Free Marketeers seem to forget that the market often works whimsically, rewarding great wealth to some and a piddling to others based not on their productivity, but on mere happenstance.

John Cassidy of the New Yorker offers a stark rebuttal to the Free Marketeer narrative, arguing that Wall Street is essentially the story of obscenely wealthy institutions engaging in activities with no productive value:

“In effect, many of the big banks have turned themselves from businesses whose profits rose and fell with the capital-raising needs of their clients into immense trading houses whose fortunes depend on their ability to exploit day-to-day movements in the markets…Some recent innovations, such as tradable pollution rights and catastrophe bonds, have provided a public benefit. But it’s easy to point to other innovations that serve little purpose or that blew up and caused a lot of collateral damage, such as auction-rate securities and collateralized debt obligations. Testifying earlier this year before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, said that financial innovation “isn’t always a good thing,” adding that some innovations amplify risk and others are used primarily “to take unfair advantage rather than create a more efficient market.”

The persistence of this narrative lies not only in its conception of productivity as an infallible mechanism of resource allocation, but also in the allure of its holy grail­–the perfectly competitive market.

“If the economy were allowed to function organically, there would be little reason for people to waste resources on ‘high-priced lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions…wealth would cease to give an unfair political advantage to those who possess it, and inequality would once again be a function of work ethic and ability alone.”

In our political discourse, there are very few utter illusions masquerading as facts more preposterous than this. Even introductory economics textbooks allow that a perfectly competitive market exists only in theory. And as for the assertion that without any regulatory interference “wealth would cease to give an unfair political advantage to those who possess it, and inequality would once again be a function of work ethic and ability alone?” I can think if no more quixotic or highfalutin’ theory.

The reality is that holders of wealth and capital have virtually unlimited power to design the rules of the game. The regulatory authority of the state is the only effective counterbalance to the confluence of wealth and power. Factors like imperfect information, monopoly, barriers to entry, collusion and fraud are intractable parasites in the body economic, allowing wealth to perpetuate itself, and divesting the average citizen of equal leverage.

The reason the Free Marketeer narrative maintains its persuasive power is due to our proclivity for historical amnesia. Never having lived in such a reality, people are free to romanticize and aggrandize, elevating an ideology untested in their lifetime to an almost divinely ordained status.  But as we enter a politically divisive year, fraught with challenges to the progressive vision of America, let us not forget the historical reasons behind the creation of the social safety net and the poverty of blind narrative.