Buchanan's diagnosis is sound, but not his medicine

February 27, 1996|By Robert Kuttner

"I'M NOT AGAINST capitalism,'' Pat Buchanan declared in South Carolina, fresh from his New Hampshire triumph. ''I'm against corporate butchers.''

Unfortunately, the two often go together. The essence of pure capitalism is its unsentimentality. If butchery maximizes profit, so be it.

Mr. Buchanan is trying to blend oil and water. On the one hand, he is the most extreme conservative in the race -- a foe of big government, regulation, taxes and social spending. On the other hand, he is a champion of the working class and scourge of big corporations.

He couches this appeal as economic nationalism. The problem, he contends, is foreigners stealing our jobs, immigrants undercutting our wages, corporations moving work overseas and the delegation of economic sovereignty to international organizations.

But to take his own rhetoric seriously, Mr. Buchanan would have to offer remedies that are essentially social-democratic rather than Republican. Corporations would have to have compacts with their workers. CEOs would be restrained from the butchery he decries. These inconsistencies will become clearer as the campaign progresses. Either Mr. Buchanan will be revealed as a kind of left-Democrat with oddly reactionary views on social questions. Or his rhetoric on economic nationalism will ring hollow as he reverts to an essentially Republican view that the best market is the freest market.

Of course, the economic agony of ordinary people that Mr. Buchanan has tapped is as old as capitalism itself. For more than a century, American liberals and European social democrats have sought politics and policies to reconcile an essentially free market system with a measure of social protection.

This task is never easy, for in a market system capitalists ordinarily enjoy a lot of wealth and power, which they use to resist constraints on their freedom to maneuver. The instruments of economic security against the butchery of raw capitalism are those of the moderate left, not the nationalist right.

They include social insurance to protect working people from arbitrary job loss and personal economic calamity; socialized health care to de-link medical coverage from employment or personal wealth; strong unions to give workers bargaining power with the boss; regulation to limit the ability of corporations to act out their most destructive impulses; public investment to provide jobs and facilities that market forces neglect, and management of trade to keep nations with lower social and labor standards from dragging down those with higher standards.

Except for his support of tariffs against the exports of low-wage countries, Mr. Buchanan is against all these remedies. This is hardly surprising, for every one of them expresses a left-of-center conception of markets, workers and government.

High and low roads

The high road to economic security is a regulated market economy. The low road substitutes nativism -- because it refuses to tamper with the fundamentals of free-market capitalism.

This discussion raises another intriguing question. Where are the Democrats on these issues?

Unfortunately, Democrats have lately been pulled so far to the right on pocketbook issues that candidates like Messrs. Buchanan and Perot can make off with much of the Democrats' own natural base of anxious working-and middle-class voters. Whenever a moderately leftish Democrat like House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt or Sen. Ted Kennedy or Labor Secretary Robert Reich seriously raises pocketbook issues and their logical remedies, commentators (invariably with six-figure incomes) dismiss them as relics of the 1930s.

The last two Democratic presidents have substantially joined the Republican attack on public spending and regulation, and have resisted articulating the traditional progressive view that capitalism needs to be housebroken. They have embraced Republican ideas like NAFTA, are reluctant to criticize the Federal Reserve for keeping the economy stuck in second gear, and are substantially in hock to the same corporations as the Republicans. No wonder economically vulnerable voters are confused about their natural political home.

The Republican panic about Pat Buchanan is deserved. By forcefully raising the issue of economic vulnerability, he pushes the whole debate to the left. A month ago, the issues du jour were budget balance and the flat tax. Today they are corporate greed and working-class wages. Thank you, Pat.

There is something unnatural about a Republican loudly sounding the theme of economic insecurity, a theme that contradicts everything else conservatives believe about free markets. But there is something even more unnatural about the Democratic silence.

Until lately, Robert Reich was the black sheep of the administration. Every time he gave a speech warning of corporate excess or calling for measures to raise wages, he was attacked by conservatives in the administration for scaring the money markets or practicing ''class warfare.''

Now that Pat Buchanan has demonstrated that economic fears equal political pay dirt, we can expect Democrats -- maybe even Mr. Reich's boss -- to begin speaking with a bolder voice. It's about time.

Robert Kuttner is a syndicated columnist.

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