Alan Greenspan, Free Marketers, and Fanatics

Alan Greenspan is back in the news, after Bernie Sanders’ classic confrontation from years ago came up in the Democratic Debate (go watch it, it’s well worth your five minutes). I’ll admit, I haven’t thought about Greenspan for a while, not since he came out with that shocker after the ’08 crash (“Greenspan Concedes Error on Regulation“) where he admitted:

“Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief.”

So it sounded like the guy most closely associated with the Chicago School of Economics was having a religious conversion. If you don’t know the Chicago School, Wikipedia sums it up as a theory whereby “regulation and other government intervention is always inefficient compared to a free market.” So there you have it, the foundation for Movement Conservatives, Libertarians, the Tea Party, and others who find joy in scapegoating “big government,” deregulating the economy and undoing the better parts of the twentieth century.

It’s also what you’d expect from someone who’d grown up with the Objectivists, and Greenspan was one of Ayn Rand’s very own personal favorites. Objectivists are back in vogue these days, because they believe that only the free market, when allowed to prosper in pure, unregulated capitalism, delivers the ideal form of human society. That’s because when individuals are free to act according to their own self interest (the theory goes), you have a society of right-thinking, right-acting folks. According to the Objectivists, such freedom can only be realized under complete separation of state and economics, similar to the separation of church and state.

In other words: Regulations, bad, and you can see why Mr. Greenspan was so puzzled to find out that banks – surprise – sometimes act irrationally. (How a man who ideologically rejects regulation was allowed to run the Federal Reserve – the most powerful economic regulatory organization in the world – is a head-scratcher.)

You should check out the Objectivists some time. They make a lot of sense when you read them, especially when you’re 18 or 20 and have yet to live in the world – and by live I mean work, struggle, earn, experience, and interact with people beyond your own family. That’s when you realize that few things ever neatly line up in your day-to-day existence the way they appear to line up when you’re reading about them in books.

What Objectivists fail to recognize – just like libertarians or communists, for that matter – is that no single ideology will satisfy every problem, every time. If you ever find a political group that takes that approach, then my advice to you is to run, for you will have found yourself among zealots.

Sure, humans are often motivated by self interest. And just as often they are motivated by compassion and empathy and selflessness. You can’t build an entire social order around one or another, since all are true.

We humans are flexitarians at heart. It’s that flexibility that’s gotten us – skinny, fur-less and loping along – all the way to the top of the food chain. I wish more people would remember this, instead of battening down their thinking hatches and sticking to a fanatical view of the world, where everything would be perfect if only we’d follow one particular approach to the exclusion of anything that smells like “the other side.”

What we need are fewer zealots running the instruments of power. We need people with open minds and intellectual curiosity, with flexibility to apply a variety of approaches to solve a dilemma, rather than handcuffed to a single view. Like trying to manage the US economy by eliminating regulations as part of an unquestioned trust in free market-based solutions, every single time. It’s bound to fail, and it seems to, every ten years or so (don’t these people read history books?). These bubbles and crashes aren’t caused by “greed” on Wall Street (as if that’s something new) but by an absence of appropriate rules and boundaries to keep things in good working order. Regulations, by any other name.

I was a fanatic myself, two different times: Once of the Right (God Bless Ronald Reagan) and once of the further left, lets say.  But as I’ve gotten older and – maybe wiser – I don’t know what my personal political bucket should be labeled anymore. When you tie yourself down to a unbending viewpoint, you spend your energy rejecting any idea that doesn’t neatly fit with your preconception. And you’ll miss an awful lot of good ideas as a result.

That’s how grown-ups act; when we’re kids, and by kids I mean up to about 28, we take a monolithic, arrogant view towards the world. We’re adamant in our certainty. We know what’s what, and have yet to develop the maturity to recognize that the true path to wisdom starts from a perspective of uncertainty. Some of us achieve this among our close circle, when as parents, as friends, as uncles or aunts we learn to give advice based on our experience in an empathetic way that helps guide others to find their own answers. We don’t have such a good track record of this in the wider world, and if you don’t believe me, find a single example of a talking head on cable news who stops in their blathering to say, “well gee, that’s a good point, I never actually considered it.”

Cornell West once said, “When your prejudices and preconditions no longer sustain you, you’ve been educated.” Imagine a society filled with open-minded, contemplative grownups? That’s a world I could be happy living in. A world filled with people out to solve problem, rather than win arguments. And maybe that’s our hopeful destiny.

About Eric

Blogger, some-time poet, full time dad and marketing director.
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