The Consortium

Pat Buchanan and the Free Marketeers

Pat Buchanan's strong showing in the early Republican contests is raising a question that the Washington elites have little desire to answer. That's because behind Buchanan's blustery "conservatism of the heart" is an economic message of national desperation. More than the Washington crowd wants to admit, the American people are hurting. They are seeing their futures pinched and their families damaged. They want to know why.

The erosion of the middle class has been under way for years, starting with the oil-price shocks of the 1970s and accelerating in the 1980s and 1990s. First, the textile and shoe workers lost their jobs. Then, the steel and auto industries took a hit. Next came the white-collar bookkeepers and middle managers, replaced by plastic floppies possessing vast computerized skills.

Today, even in the "growth" areas of the economy, such as telecommunications, healthy firms are down-sizing by the tens of thousands. Besides ruining individuals and families, the squeeze on incomes is crushing secondary businesses that rely on the average American's ability to shop for clothes or pay the mortgage or take the kids to a restaurant or mail in the cable bill.

Yet, these are problems that barely blip onto the radar screens of the well-to-do media elites that set the agendas on the weekend talks shows (before jetting off to give $30,000 speeches to corporate conventions). To the talking heads, from Cokie Roberts to George Will, there is almost a religious certainty about the benefits of free trade and free markets. Nothing can prompt a mocking put-down faster than a proposal that is called "protectionist."

At a personal level this reflex response makes sense. It's unlikely that Disney or GE or Westinghouse will replace one of these million-dollar faces with a 10-cent-an-hour Chinese woman worker or a desperate Mexican father trying to feed his family. Other Americans, however, don't have that luxury. They see how unrestrained free trade can truncate their lives.

What Pat Buchanan represents, virtually alone in the presidential race, is a challenge to the free-trade conventional wisdom. Though his message has a disturbing xenophobic tone, he is recognizing that average Americans want a government that will protect the nation's economic interests, whatever that takes. Ironically, the Republican success in drawing in lower-income social conservatives now threatens to fracture the party's traditional pro-Wall Street consensus.

But the Buchanan challenge raises even a deeper philosophical question: Do people exist to serve the economy or is the economy a resource that should be managed to serve the common good? Since Ronald Reagan's pivotal election in 1980, conservative and centrist "free marketeers" have controlled this debate, with the only acceptable answer being that "free market magic" must be allowed to work its wonders. That has led to an industrial base sold off by corporate raiders; financial institutions plundered in the savings-and-loan debacle; and a massive national debt.

With that dreary backdrop, it is time, finally, for a national debate on the wisdom of entrusting our futures to this sort of "magic." The last time these free-market sorcerer-apprentices got hold of the economic wands, it led to a flood called the Great Depression.

Robert Parry, Editor of The Consortium

Return to Editorial Index Page Return to Main Archive Index

Return to Consortium Main Menu.