What democracy can do is obscured by today’s free market, anti-regulatory, anti-government rhetoric. That rhetoric creates real winners and losers, but taking it at its word, it’s based on an everyone-for-him-or-herself form of individualism. It asserts that our successes and failures are almost solely the result of our personal abilities and denies that what we accomplish always rests in part on what society gives us.
That flatly contradicts reality. This country blossomed because we worked together, with a spirit of cooperation. Cooperation that made associations, large businesses and elective government possible.
Everyone-for-him-or-herself-alone ideologues shouldn’t blind us to the public role in development. America’s Founders knew they needed government. As aptly described in the show Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton, Robert Morris and their colleagues understood the importance of a banking system and had government create it. Across the thirteen original states, Founders used government to open transportation to the west. Washington himself was deeply involved in efforts by Virginia and Maryland. When New York, which had a sea level path to the interior, finally built the Erie Canal, it set the path for industrialization and settlement for a century and a half, and made the North into the powerhouse that won the Civil War.
Today we’ve lost a shared sense of the public investments necessary to continued development, and the foundations of American success are falling apart. Bridges take unsuspecting occupants into the rivers and ravines below. Water systems deliver lead, mercury, and an armory of toxins. Sewage systems poison rivers, people and the living things that depend on them. Trains crash for lack of decent equipment. The electronic grid barely carries ordinary loads. The next solar storm can take the electrical and internet grids down, bringing the country to a lengthy stand-still. American colleges and universities have been the envy of the world but stripping their resources will ensure their replacement abroad and with them the R&D that has been central to American leadership. We are the wealthiest of countries but too cheap to fund our infrastructure, terrified that taking care of America would actually put people to work, or that public spirit in building and rebuilding America will help someone else’s business.
The best stimuli for business are investments in the capacity of the public, infrastructure for getting things done, and rules that create a common floor of good behavior. The idea that everything depends on lowering taxes is pure garbage from people who want their winnings the easy way – by taking them away from the people.
Trump promised to put infrastructure in his budget. It’s hard to know whether he’ll keep that promise, whether enough Republicans will follow him, or whether it would include anything more than a wall on the border or brick and mortar repairs. Public investment could make infrastructure better and more resilient, as so dearly needed in Puerto Rico and on the coasts. Public investment could go well beyond controversial minimum wage laws by offering decent, useful, jobs at livable wages. Public programs could improve the private market by creating a model to compete with, like the public health care option that Obama tried to get.
Madison, Hamilton and their contemporaries had a much more patriotic and mature understanding of what American progress depended on – the people, the whole people, not just a few plunderers appropriating for themselves what should be our birthright.
Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School. A widely recognized constitutional scholar, he has served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and was a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran. His latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics.
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