Many Americans, perhaps even an electoral majority, agree that our government and economy are rigged by the elite holders of concentrated wealth, abetted by the media beholden to that wealth. We disagree, however, about the origin of and therefore the solution to this problem. Some believe the culprit is too much government, whereas others believe it is too much concentrated wealth.
The former perspective has a compelling logic: the bigger the government, the more involved it is in the economy and our daily lives, the more that the influence of the self-serving elite is endowed with the coercive power of taxation and regulation. The solution, then, is to shrink government, opening the social space to be filled by people and businesses free to pursue their own interests without coercion. But this perspective overlooks the coercion latent in our history and our nature.
Throughout history, including the present, elite power has been wielded to benefit a few at the expense of the many, and at particularly severe expense for some, e.g., the many Native Americans, African Americans, women, and low-income workers on whose land and labor the elite’s wealth has been built. Given this history, government cannot simply withdraw from the economy and leave an even playing field. A few will still hold history’s accumulation of concentrated wealth, and the exploited will still have little to no resources, money, health care, education, job skills, status. The myth that anyone who works hard enough can climb the socioeconomic ladder mistakes the anecdotal evidence of a few lucky exceptions for an opportunity open to all.
And even if a blank slate were possible, an unregulated market would lead to ruinous concentrations of wealth by virtue of human nature: we seek security for ourselves and our in-group before all else, especially before people who are “other” and the rest of life on Earth which is given even less consideration. Faced with collective action problems, most egregiously the tragedy of the commons, we sacrifice the greater, long-term good of all for the narrow, short-term safety of ourselves, our families, or however “our people” are defined in terms of race, religion, nationality, or otherwise. We horde resources for ourselves against everyone else or, better yet, consume them before anyone else can. This appropriation or destruction by a few deprives everyone else of vital resources that should belong to all. How is that less coercive than taxation or regulation?
The difficulty is that up to and including now, government has usually been an overpowering tool on the side of the elite and therefore deserves blame for exploitation, not only in neoliberal America but even in avowedly socialist Soviet Russia or contemporary Venezuela. What we need is government — like those in northern Europe — empowered by a united democratic will to break up the concentrations of wealth built on the backs of exploited groups, and invest that wealth in providing public goods for the benefit of all.