President Reagan was not the originator of this central trope of free-market (neo-liberal) politics, but he famously said in his first Inaugural Address in 1981, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” President Clinton, a Democrat, continued this theme during his terms culminating the the deregulation of the financial industry in 1999 setting the table for the collapse of 2008 and the Long Recession. Listening to almost any discussion by Republicans and Democrats you can find this theme, “If just get government out of the way, free markets will solve our problems.”
This ideology is ahistorical, counter-factual nonsense. It is asserted without any basis in fact. It is rhetorical cover for policies that have led to the vast enrichment of the wealthy and corporations and the impoverishment of everything public.
Capitalism is notoriously short-sighted and risk averse. Capitalism will not invest in basic scientific research where whatever practical outcomes that might arise may not come for decades. Capitalism did not invest in research on DNA, microchips, nor did it or could it build the interstate highway system. Capitalism has no mechanisms for building or maintaining the infrastructures required for our lives. Capitalism will not build roads, airports, railroads, housing, provide healthcare and education, worry about old age or the infirm. By its very nature capitalism is incapable of common effort except in the form of oligopolies and monopoly to control a market and crush competitors to extract higher prices.
You may very well be reading this article on a smartphone whose key technologies were invented by government funded research, microchips, touch screens, voice recognition, encryption, the web itself, and more, these are all technologies that were created using public monies. By its very nature capitalism could not create these technologies because no private investors could or would suffer the risks involved in such long-term uncertain work.1
Next time you hear this familiar ideological blather about government from politicians, talking head experts, or your neighbors, Talk Back. We need government to provide a mode of action to sustain our lives and life on this planet.
- See Block, Fred L., and Matthew R. Keller. 2011. State of innovation: the U.S. government’s role in technology development. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers and Mazzucato, Mariana. 2011. The entrepreneurial state. [↩]