Why Obama Can’t Give You a Fair Shot and a Free Market

And he definitely shouldn't give you lower gas prices.

My wife and I sat down Tuesday night with a bottle of wine, a bowl of popcorn and a healthy dose of trepidation to watch the third debate of the 2012 presidential campaign. We didn’t expect to hear anything new from the candidates, and for the most part we didn’t—although we were happy to see someone in the Obama camp instructed the President on how to speak when your words are being timed.

The final question of the night asked the candidates to dispel what they consider to be the biggest myth about themselves or their campaigns. Romney used his two minutes to assure the American public that contrary to his previous utterances about the 47 percent of freeloaders who use government services without paying for them, he indeed cares about 100 percent of U.S. citizens. Quaint, right?

The President chose to respond to allegations that he is a closet socialist, bent on replacing our cherished free-market system with a welfare state based on “trickle-down government” and the belief that the economy can’t sustain itself without government meddling. Calling the free-enterprise system “the greatest engine of prosperity the world’s ever known,” the President stated for the record:

“I believe in self-reliance and individual initiative and risk-takers being rewarded. But I also believe that everybody should have a fair shot and everybody should do their fair share and everybody should play by the same rules, because that’s how our economy is grown.”

From the quizzical look on my wife’s face it was obvious we were having the same thought. “How do you reconcile free-market capitalism with everyone getting a fair shot?” she asked for both of us. “Isn’t it possible that those two things are mutually exclusive?”

It was a good question, but if it occurred to the President he chose to keep it to himself. I can’t say I’d blame him.

In fact, laissez-faire capitalism is fundamentally unfair because, in its purest form, it is designed to mimic nature, which is itself fundamentally unfair. So how do you superimpose a system that is inherently biased and arbitrary onto a vision for society based on fairness and equality?

In his 1998 book, On Democracy, Robert A. Dahl comments on the tenuous relationship between capitalism and pluralistic democracy, noting:

“[A] market-capitalist economy inevitably generates inequalities in the political resources to which different citizens have access. Thus a market-capitalist economy seriously impairs political equality: Citizens who are economically unequal are unlikely to be politically equal. In a country with a market-capitalist economy, it appears, full political equality is impossible to achieve. Consequently, there is a permanent tension between democracy and a market-capitalist economy.” [emphasis mine]

To level the playing field, and to ensure companies don’t mislead consumers or destroy entire forests in the quest for profit, you need rules and protections, which the government provides—much to the chagrin of Libertarians and their bounty of supporters in the GOP.

To again quote Dahl:

“In no democratic country does a market-capitalist economy exist (nor in all likelihood can it exist for long) without extensive government regulation and intervention to alter its harmful effects.”

But at what point does this transition us to something new—something other than a truly free-market system? And once we’ve made that transition, is it prudent to continue to pay tribute to an idealized model that doesn’t really exist and, if Dahl is to be believed, would destroy us as a democratic nation if it did? More importantly, assuming the answer to that last question is no, could America ever field a presidential candidate with the guts to say so? I, for one, highly doubt it.

Political campaigns are little more than marketing exercises, but unlike Walmart, which advertises more than a hundred varieties of underarm deodorant alone—when it comes to politics, Americans have a choice of just two brands, and they both smell pretty much alike.

Consider the first question of Tuesday’s debate posed by an audience member: Does the federal government have a responsibility to work to keep gas prices low?

In responding, both candidates pretty much said that “yes it does,” and then they sparred over who has the better plan for doing so. At the root of both their arguments was the assumption that the goal is, and should be, cheap and abundant fossil fuel for everyone. But wouldn’t a true leader of his or her people point out that high gas prices are not necessarily a bad thing when you consider that extracting and using fossil fuels are contributing to the decline of our planet’s environment?

Could you imagine a candidate saying: “Yea, gas prices are high, but that’s because the cost of using gas is so high. Gas prices are high because we are running out of safe and sustainable ways to get it. So my administration will spend less time trying to bring you cheap gas and more time focusing on developing safe alternatives and building affordable and easily accessible public transportation”?  Show me that, and I’ll show you a candidate who wouldn’t make it through a first-round primary.