James R. Otteson of the Manhattan Institute begins his article “An Audacious Promise: The Moral Case for Capitalism” with a shameless distortion of a quote from President Obama:
“The market will take care of everything,” they tell us…. But here’s the problem: it doesn’t work. It has never worked. It didn’t work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression. It’s not what led to the incredible postwar booms of the ’50s and ’60s. And it didn’t work when we tried it during the last decade. I mean, understand, it’s not as if we haven’t tried this theory.
—President Barack Obama, Osawatomie, Kansas, December 6, 2011
Clearly, Otteson wants you to think Obama attacked capitalism and the free market, but, of course, Obama did not. Here’s what Otteson elided between “they tell us” and “But here’s the problem”:
If we just cut more regulations and cut more taxes — especially for the wealthy — our economy will grow stronger. Sure, they say, there will be winners and losers. But if the winners do really well, then jobs and prosperity will eventually trickle down to everybody else. And, they argue, even if prosperity doesn’t trickle down, well, that’s the price of liberty. Now, it’s a simple theory. And we have to admit, it’s one that speaks to our rugged individualism and our healthy skepticism of too much government. That’s in America’s DNA. And that theory fits well on a bumper sticker.
In fact, Obama’s words make clear that he was criticizing Reaganite supply-side economics, which, as a professor of philosophy (Chair of the department at Yeshiva University, according to his bio!) should know, is not identical with “capitalism.” As a professor of economics, Otteson should also know that, at the very least, Obama’s case against trickle-down has some strong evidence to back him up. It should occur to anyone arguing in favor of supply-side to pause for a second and compare 30 years of predominating Reaganism with 30 years of Rooseveltian-Keynesian economics to consider which was more successful at resource distribution and scarcity management in the long run. I wouldn’t want to be on the Reaganist side of that debate if I wanted an easy win.
But learned professor Otteson does not take up the Reaganist mantle in his article. He decides, instead, to take the easier route and fight the great strawman, Obama the anti-capitalist. And he does an awful job at that anyway, repeating tired old canards about capitalism succeeding and socialism failing everywhere they’ve been tried, equating Adam Smith’s capitalism with Milton Friedman’s and, presumably, Mitt Romney’s and Paul Ryan’s, and thinking average wealth, in this age of greater and greater inequality, is a reliable sign of typical well-being.
Lord knows, I don’t think Obama is the very best we could hope for as president in this abominable age. His words, he has amply shown, are not to be taken as gospel truth about what’s in his heart and mind. But he clearly did not say what the Otteson claimed he said, and I don’t think Otteson should be given a pass practicing the kind of cheap, low distortion no competent professor would allow a student to get away with.