Freedom’s just another word for letting corporations do whatever they want

Conservatives at the Heritage Foundation announce America no longer "fully free," take bath in vat of $100 bills

Topics: U.S. Economy, War Room, Bank Bailouts, Bank Reform, Taxes,

I think the best thing about running a newspaper would be the fun you could have putting certain headlines next to each other. Today, I’d make my lead story,

  • Heritage Foundation downgrades America to “mostly free”: conservative think tank blames “government’s interventionist responses to the financial and economic crisis.” (So it’s a long headline.)

Then in the number-two spot, we’d have,

Number three?

So, Heritage apparently think the U.S. has become quantifiably less free. The think tank counts 10 different economic freedoms, which factor into an overall economic freedom score of 78.0. Sure, America runs up some huge numbers. We get a rock-solid 91.3 on “business freedom” — that’s how much regulation and red tape is involved in opening up shop. And we knock it out of the park with a 94.8 on “labor freedom.” Here’s what Heritage says on that category: “The United States’ labor regulations are highly flexible. The non-salary cost of employing a worker is low, and dismissing an employee is not burdensome.” U! S! A!

But it’s the other categories that are killing our average. Our “fiscal freedom” — that is, tax obligations — are burdensome enough to earn the U.S. a 67.5. (Someone should tell Exxon and GE.) We’re getting a grim 58.0 on “government spending.” Explains Heritage, “In the most recent year, government spending equaled 37.4 percent of GDP. Spending increases totaled well over $1 trillion in 2009 alone, an increase of more than 20 percent over 2008. Stimulus spending set for the next three years is estimated to equal 5 percent of 2009 GDP.”

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But let’s not forget the all-important “financial freedom” category. About the regulation of financial firms, the think-tankers gripe that the damn bureaucrats just insist on sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong.

The government has intruded on firms’ management in unprecedented ways (for example, by setting caps on executive compensation) … Concerns continue over the intrusive nature and cost of the 2002 Sarbanes–Oxley Act, which increased disclosure and internal control requirements to the detriment particularly of small firms.

The whole pseudoscientific quantitative system here is beyond preposterous. I’m imagining a team in the basement of the Heritage Foundation, wearing green eyeshades and punching away at calculators. (“Healthcare reform passed? Fiscal freedom is cratering!”) It takes literally the demonstrably false claim of libertarian economist Friedrich von Hayek, that each step the government takes into the economy is a step down the “road to serfdom.” Hayek argued that unrestrained capitalism and political freedom went together, and the state can’t alter the one without the other. We should go ask the Swedes how living under the socialist boot-heel feels. But we can let this slide in favor of the more important point.

To sum up Heritage’s findings, let’s tell a little story. Let’s say you open a business and hire some staff. Easy enough, so far. You’re doing pretty well and growing rapidly, helped along by the ease with which you can lay off your workers during regular downswings. After a few years, though, you make what seems like a ton of money on some big gambles, but they go sour. The good news is, the economy can’t take the hit of losing you, so the government backstops you, and in return only imposes some feeble regulation. But the the economy is sinking anyway. People can’t afford to buy your products anymore, so the feds step in here too, and pump dollars into the economy wherever they can to get things moving again. You come out in one piece on the other side, and as punishment are forced to pay some of the lowest taxes, as a percentage of gross domestic product, of any developed nation. And even though your country is no longer fully free — that’s what this means, right? — nobody stops your whining while you slop at the public trough.

Never let us say, friends, that the American businessperson has not tasted of the bitter herbs of oppression.

Well, I suppose American capitalism would never have gotten where it is today without a certain measure of chutzpah. But this is a truly magisterial performance that Heritage has put in. What we have here is essentially the corporate arm of American conservatism, greedily gobbling up tax money and, between bites, complaining about how the food sucks.

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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