Robert J. Shiller. “Everybody Calm Down. A Government Hand In the Economy Is as Old as the Republic.” Washington Post. 28 Sept. 2008 – It has become fashionable to fret that the current crisis on Wall Street marks the end of American capitalism as we know it. “This massive bailout is not the solution,” Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) warned Tuesday. “It is financial socialism, and it is un-American.” It is neither. The near-collapse of the U.S. financial system and Washington’s sudden and massive intervention to try to shore it up certainly mark a major turning point, but a bailout would represent a thoroughly American next step for our economic system — and one that will probably lead to better times.
Americans may assume that the basics of capitalism have been firmly established here since time immemorial, but historical cataclysms such as the Great Depression strongly suggest otherwise. Simply put, capitalism evolves. And we need to understand its trajectory if we are to bring our economic system into greater accord with the other great source of American strength: the best principles of our democracy.
No, our economy is not a shining example of pure unfettered market forces. It never has been. In his farewell address back in 1796, 20 years after the publication of Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations,” George Washington defined the new republic’s own distinctive national economic sensibility: “Our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand; neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce, but forcing nothing.” From the outset, Washington envisioned some government involvement in the commercial system, even as he recognized that commerce should belong to the people.
Capitalism is not really the best word to describe this arrangement. (The term was coined in the late 19th century as a way to describe the ideological opposite of communism.) Some decades later, people began to use a better term, “the American system,” in which the government involved itself in the economy primarily to develop what we would now call infrastructure — highways, canals, railroads — but otherwise let economic liberty prevail. I prefer to call this spectacularly successful arrangement “financial democracy” — a largely free system in which the U.S. government’s role is to help citizens achieve their best potential, using all the economic weapons that our financial arsenal can provide.
So is the government’s bailout a major departure? Hardly. Today’s federal involvement offers bailouts as a strictly temporary measure to prevent a system-wide financial calamity. This is entirely in keeping with our basic principles — as long as the bailout promotes, rather than hinders, financial democracy.