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Jack Weinstein

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What is Philosophy?


This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “Do we live in a commercial republic? A discussion about American Government and its Economy” You can hear the whole episode online here.
Something has happened in the last two decades that has become so normal, we rarely think about it: we all know how much money movies make. Box office grosses of opening weekends are reported as major news stories. There are no more epics, only blockbusters.

Sure, film companies have done this forever, but they are businesses out for a profit and we are audiences out for a good time. Is the movie experience going to be any better if the ticket sales are high? I doubt it. But this is the time we live in, and there’s a word for money being the ultimate standard of success: capitalism.

I’m an Adam Smith scholar—longtime listeners know that—and I have more than a soft spot for the free market, but there’s also a case to be made that capitalism is a virus, that it overtakes everything it encounters, from arts and entertainment, to politics itself. America thinks of itself as a Democracy, but every other country in the world thinks of us in terms of our economy and power, and truth be told, our most vocal politicians and pundits seem to agree. Capitalism and democracy, they think, are the same thing. Just as movie quality is discovered through ticket sales, the will of the people, they tell us, is declared with our wallets.

Now, we can have a conversation as to whether this is good or bad; we may do so today. We can also have a debate about whether or not one can even have democracy without capitalism. I’m sure that will come up, too. But before we do any of that, we need to have a conversation about the claim that America has always been capitalist, that it was designed to cultivate the economic before the political, because that version of history just isn’t true.

What America has been, it turns out, is a 238-year old negotiation about the relationship between political and economic ideologies. From its very founding, it has been a battleground for those who think the government should guide the economy and those who think the government should stay out of it. Our guest today, Mike O’Connor, has written this history, documenting the evolution of the debate from the time of the Founding, to the antebellum South, to progressivism, to today. One of the central questions before us tonight is, how do we create philosophical conversations based on a historical fact?

Philosophy shapes economics by declaring where the boundaries of the market really lie. The late Gary Becker argued that economics can explain all human activities, whether they are based on desire, love, or generosity. He thought that even marital activities could be described and predicted, starting with the assumption that each spouse is self-interested and is in the relationship to maximize his or her personal pleasure. What this does to marriage is really problematic—it makes everyone a free agent and erases all personal loyalties. What it does to politics however, is undermine almost every political ideology, because it assumes that that there are no legislators who govern solely for the good of the people.

I can feel your mocking. There are no leaders who honestly seek office for others’ sake, you think. There is no one left who truly cares for duty, for country, for the betterment of humanity; there never really were. But I’m not so sure. I think our skepticism is learned, not from experience, but from the economics that has superimposed itself on our political ideology. Radical capitalism has lowered our expectations.

I said before that we no longer have epics, only blockbusters. Well, now it seems that we no longer have legislators or leaders, we only have politicians. And this gets us back to the central question: if democracy demands capitalism and is incompatible with anything else, and if capitalism assumes that everyone is self-interested all the time, no matter what, then we have to abandon the hope that there are leaders out there to look up to, or who are doing things because they’re right, better, and just.

On today’s episode, we are going to travel back and forth through American history and engage the passionate debates about what kind of economy is best for the United States. But in order to do this, we have to first acknowledge that politics and economics are two different things. Democracy is not capitalism and capitalism is not democracy, and only some of our most prominent thinkers believed they were the same. The problem isn’t that these people won—the battle still rages on. It’s that they try to convince us that there were never any other options on the table, that theirs were the only voices out there. But doing so is bad history and even worse philosophy; it has to stop.

Was the United States always a laissez-faire, minimalist government that let the market oversee itself? Certainly not. Was it destined to be eventually? That’s for us to decide.

2 comments on “Was America always laissez-faire?

  1. Phillip I. says:

    I don't accept the premise that the current government is a laissez-faire minimalist government that let's the market oversee itself.
    Speaking as a small business owner, it seems as if there are permits, fees, licences, registrations, and governing bodies regarding almost every aspect of running a business.
    That does not seem to fit with the idea of a laissez-faire government.

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