Political Hay

How the President ‘Accommodates’ Free-Market Thinking

He does it the same way a boa constrictor swallows its prey.

By 4.6.12

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Living like a liberal isn't easy. Just ask Matt Labash, who tried it for ten days -- doing his best to break none of the 538 commandments found in the book: 538 Ways to Live Work and Play Like a Liberal.

To take one example, the book tells you to question the source of the foodstuffs at your local grocery or supermarket. Labash manned up to the task. Seeing a big pile of Chiquita bananas on display at a Trader Joe's, he grilled a stock clerk, who played it safe by referring him to a manager named Sunshine.

"Say, Sunshine," he said. "You guys stock Chiquita bananas here. Don't they lop off their workers' hands to keep them in line?"

"I've heard something like that," she laughed nervously. "But I really couldn't tell you specifics -- though you should check our website if you're curious about labor conditions."

At first glance, it might seem that all Labash got from his valiant and sustained effort of trying to think and live like a liberal was a brilliantly funny cover story in the Weekly Standard. But his story also clues us into an important reality.

Most of us who aren't liberals are caught up in the same dreary game of thinking it is necessary to go along with the liberal playbook in many matters. We do it without even thinking about it. This is how Labash described the scene at the Weekly Standard:

Many of his other liberalizing-the-workplace suggestions I skip, because we already do them. We already recycle. We don't have plastic water coolers. We already have environmentally friendly toilets… Krebs [i.e. the author, Justin Krebs] says to relax the office dress code. But if our dress code were any more relaxed, we'd be wearing cut-offs and half-shirts to work, making us look like some sort of neocon Mountain Dew commercial.

Our acquiescence to liberal norms allows liberals to think that they have already won the cultural war and have only a mopping up exercise to do before getting back to the kind of raw political power that they enjoyed at the outset of the Obama administration.

This allows the president to act in a magnanimous way -- like a cat playing with a mouse that has no chance of escape. In such a mood Mr. Obama went out of his way to sing the praises of free enterprise in his speech on Wednesday to the Associated Press.

Perhaps you didn't know that Barack Obama might be the second coming of Milton Friedman or F. A. Hayek. But this is straight from the official transcript of his speech: 

As president, I've eliminated dozens of programs that weren't working, and announced over 500 regulatory reforms that will save businesses and taxpayers billions, and put annual domestic spending on a path to become the smallest share of the economy since Dwight Eisenhower held this office. I know that the true engine of job creation in this country is the private sector, not Washington, which is why I've cut taxes for small business owners 17 times over the last three years.

So I believe deeply that the free market is the greatest force for economic progress in human history. My mother and grandmother who raised me instilled the values of self-reliance and personal responsibility that remain the cornerstone of the American idea.

Let us pass over the nettlesome facts -- beginning with the fact the assertions that this president has championed regulatory relief and done anything remotely serious to cut spending is patently false. There can be no gainsaying the fact that this president has presided over the biggest increase in the federal budget in the past 60 years -- along with the biggest increase in the size of the nation's debt load since World War II. There is also the inconvenient fact (in Al Gore-speak) of the longest and weakest recovery from an economic downturn since the Great Depression.

The interesting question is: What did he have to gain from telling an audience of newspaper editors and reporters of his "deep belief" in free markets?

Surely, this was another chance for him to bask in the glow of admiration that he enjoys whenever he speak to the mainstream media. He knew that this audience would like the rhetorical contrast between his being willing to speak up for free enterprise and their (his Republican rivals) incessant criticism of his record of economic overreach and ineptitude.

Most of the savants in the news media (and I speak with the long experience of someone who spent a dozen and half years at major newspapers and magazines) were happy to think: If Mr. Obama can find something good to say about free enterprise, why can't they find something good to say about Solyndra, high-speed rail, and all the rest? Why can't Mitt (or Rick or Newt) be more like Barack?

Of course, the interior monologue that I have invented also suggests that same reporters and editors who were cheering Mr. Obama's remarks at the AP dinner were very much inclined to think of his paean to free enterprise as part of the eyewash that is needed to keep moderates and independents from worrying too much about the perilousness of our current economic course.

Later on this speech, Mr. Obama went on to rail in his usual way about "trickle-down economics" and the ever-present tendency (as he sees it) for the rich to prey upon the poor under conditions of economic freedom. You will never hear this president mimic Milton Friedman in talking about how free enterprise succeeds precisely because it is based on the principles of open competition and voluntary exchange -- as opposed to government planning and coercion.

But was the earlier talk of his belief in free enterprise just eyewash?

It was nothing but eyewash if you think the president was "accommodating" free marketing thinking in almost the same way that he "accommodated" leaders of religious institutions who objected to the mandate that they had to offer free contraceptives and abortion-inducting drugs as part of their health care plans. He dealt with that by ordering insurance companies to make these benefits "free" to anyone who wanted them.

In doing so, he added insult to injury -- imputing that a cost that might be too great for many people to bear on their own would also be one that insurance companies could afford to give away at no charge with passing along the cost to other consumers regardless of whether they wanted this benefit for themselves or not.

But maybe there is more to it than mere eyewash when Mr. Obama sings the praises of free enterprise.

Perhaps it is more in the nature of an aide to digestion.

As Winston Churchill famously noted, "It is the habit of a boa constrictor to besmear the body of its victim with a foul slime before he devours it."


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About the Author
Andrew B. Wilson, a frequent contributor to The American Spectator and a former foreign correspondent, writes from St. Louis.