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Mark Shields: Bias in Favor of Action

The Great Financial Crisis of 2008 tests the philosophically conservative/operationally liberal political theory.

The late Republican pollster Bob Teeter, a man treasured by those lucky enough to have know him for his integrity as well as his wisdom, told me many years ago what is about to happen in the weeks and months ahead in our nation’s response to the Great Financial Crisis of 2008.

Mark Shields
Mark Shields
Here is what Teeter taught me: American voters are philosophically conservative but operationally liberal. That is not a contradiction, he explained, because, when interviewed, Americans will more often tell you that they want the federal government, with all its red tape, out of their pockets, out of their hair and a lot smaller. Unmistakably conservative.

But these same folks, Teeter cautioned, when told that just outside of Pocatello, Idaho, a single can of tuna fish had been discovered with a trace of botulism in it, react less theoretically: Where the heck was the federal government? I want a full report on my desk by tomorrow morning explaining what went wrong and what is being done about it. Who’s responsible? Emphatically liberal-activist.

As Teeter, with his wry smile, explained: “All most Americans want is an accountable, energetic, effective but small federal government working on our side — 24 hours a day — cheap.” That’s how American voters can simultaneously be both philosophically conservative and operationally liberal.

Which brings us directly to the current national economic crisis featuring Wall Street’s badly shaken Masters of the Universe — who had smugly privatized all unseemly profits — now looking to taxpaying American families to pick up the bill Wall Streeters cannot pay and, thus, “socialize” their losses.

The philosophical conservatives’ quarter-century day in the sun is about to end. Deregulation, the magic silver bullet to cure any and all national ills, has been found wanting. You had to know that, after “self-regulation” — the preferred euphemism for U.S. government authorities asking no questions and demanding no answers — of trade with China resulted in the uninspected importation of toys, baby bibs, pet food ingredients and jewelry, all with unacceptably high levels of lead paint that threaten the health and lives of our children and pets.

With some luck, we can now hold a real countrywide debate about the proper role of government in our national life. We could begin with this: “The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people what they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do, for themselves — in their separate and individual capacities.” That is the straightforward definition of the nation’s most revered Republican, Abraham Lincoln.

We, you and I, are unable — without vigilant and expert federal regulation — to ensure that the water we drink, the food we eat and the medicines we take are all safe. The same is true for the airplanes we fly and the cars we drive, as well as the roads and bridges we drive them on.

his is incontrovertibly true about the no-holds-barred world of finance, where brilliant 20-somethings with MBAs were regularly coming up with new and exciting instruments to package for ever-quicker profit. Understand this: The crumbling cornerstone of the Bush economic saga was not about making cars or making airplanes or, even, about making movies. It was all about making a buck.

“We must find practical controls over blind economic forces and blindly selfish men,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt told his fellow citizens the last time the country went through a similar financial crisis.

Say goodnight to the long day of deregulation. We will soon enter an era of renewed and popularly mandated regulation, because American voters are, as Teeter understood, “operationally liberal.”

We want to know how this happened, who is responsible for it and what we — through a re-energized federal government — have to do to make sure that it does not happen again.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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