Allan Powell: Five conservative myths

January 13, 2012|By ALLAN POWELL

For some time, the Washington Post has published a series of stories with the theme of “Five Myths About,” featuring subjects such as millionaires, scientists or athletes. Why there are always five myths is a mystery, but I will retain that number, although conservatives have other well-known myths.

One reliable myth is that “government cannot create jobs.” It is strange that no one in the audience challenges a conservative orator when such a patently spurious statement is made. A “job” is defined as “a piece of work of defined character undertaken for a fixed price.” There are no qualifiers about who the employer is or who the employee is. If this “piece of work” remains in effect for a long period of time, it is called a career. A police officer, a food inspector or a public school teacher hold jobs created by the government.

This is the kind of statement made by someone wanting to diminish the role of public service. Conservatives who want to privatize government agencies are actually interested in giving jobs to their friends. It would be a revelation to track down how many military jobs were turned over to Halliburton by Dick Cheney. This is called “crony capitalism.”  

Another myth treasured by conservatives is that “government programs are socialism.” Correctly understood, socialism is government ownership of the means of production. Each socialist society makes a determination about the scope of ownership. Several existing socialist societies confine ownership to several basic needs, such as transportation or public utilities such as water or electricity. They are also likely to have a fairly sophisticated health system.

The right-wing and Libertarian advocates in America have such a pronounced distaste for any government in our lives that they try to confuse ownership with regulation. This is driven by those who have a selfish reason for objecting to all regulation — it subtracts from profits. The most vocal opponents are in very dangerous industries or are polluters of the environment. We cannot permit them to scare politicians into failure to protect public health, safety and environment. If we followed the advice of the anti-regulation proponents, we still wouldn't have anti-trust laws and our economy would be under the control of giant monopolies.

A third myth is more subdued and more subtle. Nonetheless, the myth that “capital is the source of wealth” creation makes it obvious why we call our economy “capitalist.” We are apt to forget that economists recognize four factors of production — land, labor, capital and management. These four factors do not operate in a static relationship. Industries with the need for very expensive instruments require huge outlays of capital while truck farmers and orchardists are labor-intensive. In various ways, there are four basic factors in the creation of wealth by making products or giving services.

Still another myth is that “free markets are self-correcting.” Almost by sheer reflex, it is asserted that, while our economy has “ups” and “downs,” it automatically returns to a state of equilibrium. A simple bit of study will show how shallow this myth may be. Find any current American history book and locate the chapter on the development of the American economy. In all likelihood, there will be a series of periodic charts that shows business cycles for a given span of years.

It is reasonable to assume that the peak periods in the cycle indicate those times when the economy was in a “corrected” state of prosperity. But, what is to be said about the number of instances where the economy fell to the bottom of the cycle? The critic asks why the focus is on the top (self-correcting) rather than the bottom (self-inflicting) periods.  One more conservative myth to consider is the “trickle down” theory. Wealth, it is assumed, naturally works its way down from entrepreneurs in the marketplace to consumers and through laborers’ wages. The uninhibited marketplace is the proven way to manage the distribution of wealth. Their solution to the problem of a cessation of a trickle has always been “patience.” The trickle will again commence “as if by an unseen hand” if we allow it time.

It was John M. Keynes who exploded this myth by pointing out that when capitalists cannot, or will not, stimulate the economy when the trickle has come to a halt, it is a necessary obligation of government to provide a stimulant by starting at the bottom with a burst of purchasing power. Conservatives respond by labeling Keynesian measures as myths.

From all of this give and take, it is clear that human beings are addicted to myths. No matter how much education or experience we have, there is still the need for security. Myths provide our security blanket. Some elevate these myths to certainties and have the means to promote and perpetuate their myths. It is imperative that we maintain an open society where myths are rationally and openly debated on their merits.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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