David Brooks and Free Markets

David Brooks wrote in the NY Times today about the discontent he is feeling with the Democratic Party. His complaints about the health bill were accurate and forceful, but his understanding of the free market is not. He stated: 

Yet I confess, watching all this, I feel again why I’m no longer spiritually attached to the Democratic Party. The essence of America is energy — the vibrancy of the market, the mobility of the people and the disruptive creativity of the entrepreneurs. This vibrancy grew up accidentally, out of a cocktail of religious fervor and material abundance, but it was nurtured by choice. It was nurtured by our founders, who created national capital markets to disrupt the ossifying grip of the agricultural landholders. It was nurtured by 19th-century Republicans who built the railroads and the land-grant colleges to weave free markets across great distances. It was nurtured by Progressives who broke the stultifying grip of the trusts.

Progressives destroying trusts? Republicans building railroads? What is free about any of this?

The Progressives who destroyed trusts, if anything, were meddling with capital markets and free enterprise:  the right of two corporations voluntarily choosing to engage in an entrepreneurial contract. Railroads were not built by the free market. The Homestead Act of 1862 actually limited where railroad companies can build stations and lay tracks. It also monopolized favorable companies, choking any other railroad corporation trying to get a feel of the market. Furthermore, Republicans induced a choking sensation on the market with the Homestead Act by controlling who gets to build around stations and who doesn’t.

There’s nothing free, creative, or choice-driven about these examples Mr. Brooks mentioned.  There’s also nothing republican about it, in the sense of the small-R republicanism our founders sought to engrain in our government and political discussion (or even the best of the big-R Republican Party in those few moments it has really sought to limit government).  These aren’t examples of limiting government or promoting the free market.  And although I find David Brooks’ reading enjoyable, I have to respectfully disagree with his assessment here.

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