Attention Free Marketeers: America Won’t Wait for the ‘Invisible Hand’ to Punch its Ticket
In all due respect, I come to bury the recently departed David Koch – and his brand of free-market fundamentalism – not to praise him.
Arch-conservatives such as David and Charles Koch, just like previous petro-billionaires the Pew brothers and the Hunt brothers, champion the laissez-faire, or hands-off, model of political economy, arguing that the private sector and its vaunted “Invisible Hand” provide all the guidance necessary to deliver the benefits of free market capitalism.
Conservatives deride activist government policies as meddlesome intervention and ill-advised Big Government interference, but such practices have a proud history of success in the American experiment in democracy.
And in actuality, the American system has long utilized an activist approach to creating opportunities for more widespread prosperity, and this approach has taken many forms.
And ironically, it was a failing project that provided the impetus.
In 1785, years before the Constitution’s signing and his election as our first President, George Washington helped establish and served as the first president of the Potomac Company. The firm attempted to construct a canal to make the Potomac River a major navigation channel for trade in the newly established United States.
Washington’s plans floundered because of, among other reasons, a lack of available technical expertise, conflicts between the states, an unstable American economy, and unreliable government aid.
The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company stepped in and eventually completed the project, linking the Ohio and Potomac rivers and opening up Appalachian trade to the Northeast.
Washington’s project led to a realization that infrastructure would be crucial to facilitate trade and the development of a large and growing country, and that federal government support and oversight would be necessary.
The shortage of American-based civil engineers ultimately doomed the original project but highlighted a crucial and unmet need, and soon civil engineering came to America to put planning, design and construction on a more sound professional footing. Interestingly enough, the first academic degree offered by the U.S. Military Academy was in engineering.
In 1908 the Inland Waterways Commission noted the project’s significance:
“The earliest movement toward developing the inland waterways of the country began when, under the influence of George Washington, Virginia and Maryland appointed commissioners primarily to consider the navigation and improvement of the Potomac; they met in 1785 in Alexandria and adjourned to Mount Vernon, where they planned for extension, pursuant to which they reassembled with representatives of other States in Annapolis in 1786; again finding the task a growing one, a further conference was arranged in Philadelphia in 1787, with delegates from all the States.
There the deliberations resulted in the framing of the Constitution, whereby the thirteen original States were united primarily on a commercial basis — the commerce of the times being chiefly by water.”
As the nation expanded, additional infrastructural projects made other inland rivers and waterways more amenable for trade.
Later on, at the height of the disastrous American Civil War, President Lincoln embarked on developing the Trans-continental Railroad, an ambitious public-private project that connected the East to the vast western wilderness. Train stations rapidly developed as hubs for trading and, eventually, burgeoning cities, as a growing and restless population trekked west in search of a new life promising opportunity.
Lincoln also championed land-grant colleges, which provided government grants for agricultural colleges in each state and prepared students of modest means for the opportunities that lay ahead, and his Homestead Act made millions of acres of government-held land in the West available for purchase at very low cost and provided opportunities for ambitious citizens to settle and develop the untamed wilderness.
A few decades later Republican President Theodore Roosevelt responded to the failure of French interests to construct the Panama Canal, and he pushed the U.S. to step in and complete the job, one of the greatest engineering challenges of its time.
With trade in the Western Hemisphere growing, the need was obvious: prior to the canal, a ship traveling from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean had to go clear around South America. A New York to San Francisco journey measured some 13,000 miles and took months.
Teddy’s Democratic cousin President Franklin D. Roosevelt got this nation out of the worst economic disaster in its history with massive government investments that provided work to citizens, electrified large swaths of the country with the Hoover Dam and Tennessee Valley Authority, and then, faced with the prospect of a fascist takeover of Europe, organized every mothballed factory, every shuttered foundry — every rusted scrap of obsolete productive capacity — into an economic powerhouse and fighting machine capable of turning the tide of history and liberating Europe.
Yes, FDR organized the nation’s recovery around the exigencies of war, but he did not anticipate the US maintaining a continuous war footing. Instead, due to his planning for a postwar America, and robust government investments, progressive tax policies that channeled private investment into job-creating economic activities, and programs such as the G.I. Bill and the FHA that enabled veterans to buy homes, go to school, and support and contribute to American prosperity, we were able to transition into the largest peacetime economy with the biggest technological base.
The value of Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s interstate highway system to facilitate movement and expanded trade is well known, but Eisenhower also pushed for developing the St. Lawrence Seaway, which connected the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean and facilitated expanded international trade.
Similarly, President John F. Kennedy in his tragically short term of office worked to promote American well-being and optimism through a widely shared prosperity and an emphasis on scientific, educational and cultural achievements, sought to community-organize through health care initiatives and civil rights reform, and promoted a sense of national purpose through initiatives such as the space program and the Peace Corps.
In a historic speech before a joint session of Congress, President Kennedy set the U.S. on a course to the moon with these words:
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”
More recently, President Barack H. Obama, elected in the middle of a calamitous economic collapse, marshaled tremendous resources through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – the stimulus program. As part of this massive effort, we committed $90 billion into clean energy – an unprecedented amount of funding into wind, solar, and other renewables – energy efficiency in every form; advanced biofuels; and electric vehicles, of which there are now more than one million on America’s roadways.
The stimulus produced the world’s largest wind farm, a half dozen of the world’s largest solar arrays, and America’s first refineries for advanced biofuels. It created a battery-manufacturing industry for electric vehicles almost entirely from scratch. It financed net-zero border stations and visitors' centers, an eco-friendly new Coast Guard headquarters, and jump-started three long-awaited mega-projects in Manhattan alone – the Moynihan Station, the Second Avenue Subway, and the Long Island Railroad connection to the East Side.
And it would have jump-started a multibillion-dollar rail tunnel to New Jersey and a high-speed rail system in Florida as well if Republican Governors Chris Christie and Rick Scott hadn’t killed those projects, and it would have pumped billions into modernizing and rebuilding aging public schools if not for the adamant objections of Republican Senator Susan Collins, a crucial vote for the stimulus bill.
Also thanks to the stimulus, we built power lines, water treatment plants, sewage plants and fire stations; we weatherized government buildings, refurbished parks, libraries, aging pipe systems and train stations; made 22,000 miles of roadway improvements, brought water to Central California farms and plumbing to rural Alaska villages, and committed $7 billion to bringing broadband internet service to underserved areas – a modern version of FDR’s rural electrification project.
Other components of the stimulus made crucial investments in health care – $27 billion to computerize our antiquated paper-and-ink based medical records system – as well as in transportation, medical and scientific research and the safety net, in addition to addressing the immediate needs of the cratering economy.
And despite the controversy over the historic size of the stimulus package, the Obama administration met every spending deadline, and it kept costs so far under budget that it was able to finance over 3,000 additional projects with the savings.
And that is the genius behind the success of the American Experiment: we have never stood still and passively waited for the ministrations of the “Invisible Hand” to guide the marketplace and shape our destinies.
No, as Americans we believe optimistically in our ability to beneficially organize, shape and transform our environment, and fulfill our capacity to actively create opportunities and achieve our potential — a capacity enshrined and safeguarded in our Declaration of Independence as the “pursuit of happiness.”
And so, the debate before us is not between big government and limited government; it is between smart, effective leadership that works to solve problems and bring people together to work toward mutually beneficial goals, on the one hand, and elitist and abusive governments that perpetuate the privileges of special interests, foster cronyism and stagnation, maintain power imbalances by dominating others, and which do not enjoy the consent of its people.
It’s the age-old battle between chaos and community.
And so it goes in the continuing struggle for A More Perfect Union.
Like what you read? Chip in, keep us going.