In discussing the Tea Party movement, David Adams, campaign manager for Rand Paul, said that the guiding principles of the Tea Party movement are “distinctly Kentuckian: balanced budgets and getting government out of the business of picking economic winners and losers.”
If Adams and the Tea Party want to suggest as a matter of economics or of political philosophy that government should not be in the business of picking economic winners and losers they are free to do so. But it is simply wrong to suggest that this is the historical norm or historical reality. The government has been in the business of picking economic winners and losers since George Washington sided with Alexander Hamilton and chartered the First Bank of the United States. The government picked economic winners and losers in when it granted the charter to provide steam ship service on the Hudson River to Robert Fulton rather than John Fitch, James Rumsey, or John Stevens.
The Government picked economic winners and losers when it funded canals to open up the interior. The government program to fund canals, by the way, was one of the main programs of Henry Clay, the powerful Whig Speaker of the House from Lexington, Kentucky.
The government picked economic winners and losers when it built the Transcontinental Railroad. It picked winners and losers when it granted Edison the first contract to build electric service in New Jersey. It picked winners and losers when it bought planes for the Army and the Postal Service at the dawn of aviation. It picked winners and losers when it let the contracts to build ENIAC, the first digital computer. It picked economic winners and losers when it decided where to build the interstate highway system. It picked winners and losers when it selected IBM to build computers for the space program. These are just a sampling, but the point is that government involvement in picking economic winners and losers is pervasive through our economy and our history.
Whether this is right or wrong as a matter of political philosophy is an interesting question. Perhaps it is wrong for government to become as involved as it is. This is an issue that certainly should be discussed.
But whether it is right or wrong as a matter of economics is another matter. Perhaps government should have no role in the economy, but is has since the dawn of government. (Recall Joseph’s involvement in Egyptian agriculture, see Genesis 41:37 – 57.) Government and the economy are so intertwined that it is difficult to know where one starts and the other ends.
To suggest, as Mr. Adams does, that government should have no role in “picking economic winners and losers” is an interesting philosophical theory. But it is little more than a theory.
There is a term in political philosophy for people who suggest that government should be run based on untested theories, and it is not “conservative.” The soul of conservativism is the idea that human affairs should be governed by time tested and practical methods. Conservatives have long opposed “liberals” whom they castigate for trying to reform society based on untested social theories. But now some want to restructure society based on untested economic theories. The term for someone who wants to try to reshape society based on untested theories is not liberal or conservative, but radical. The reality is that the theory of the totally unconstrained free market is neither liberal or conservative but radical.