The United States has always struggled to balance its capitalist economy with its democratic ideals. We've spent the last many years telling ourselves that the two go hand in hand, only to watch capitalism thrive in China in the absence of democratic freedoms. Indeed, if there's been any lesson the last few years, it is that authoritarian capitalism -- rather than democratic capitalism -- may be the dominant ideology of the 21st century. And as I write in my newspaper column this week, that ideology may be coming to America.
The Wall Street bailout bill is a lot of things -- a giveaway, a heist, a legislative manifestation of crony corruption. But it's structure is pure authoritarian capitalism. Whether you think handing over $700 billion to speculators will help our economy or not (and many economists believe it will hurt it), it is undeniable that this bill vests authoritarian power in the hands of the Treasury Secretary -- and that is a radical departure from the fundamental tenets of our democracy.
What has differentiated America from other countries is our reliance on institutions rather than individuals. When we have faced crises, we have built institutions (think about the alphabet soup agencies out of the New Deal), not czars. That's what democracies do - they build nations of laws and institutions, not cults of personality.
This is clearly changing now. We saw Paul Bremer appointed monarch of Iraq after the invasion and we see Congress about to hand over its power of the purse to Henry Paulson so that he can be the financial despot, free to buy and sell whatever securities he feels like, with almost no oversight.
Perhaps this reflects a wider trend. We have become a country that has one national religion: presidentialism. That's the religion that says the president is an all-powerful deity - and the Oval Office is a position that is the only one that matters. That this outlook is fundamentally undemocratic and offensive to the principles of our Founding Fathers seems completely forgotten. We have embraced czarism with the zeal of cult worshipers -- and now this zeal has global economic forces at its back.
We are trying to economically compete with anti-democratic forces that can make financial decisions without any public input at all. As we saw with the debate over the bailout bill, the transnational corporate elite tell us our democracy and its careful deliberations are hurting our ability to make quick decisions in this global market -- and therefore that democracy must be subverted to the will of capitalism. Thus, a bill is rushed through Congress in a week that hands 5 percent of our entire economy to one man, Hank Paulson.
What will be the effect of this tectonic shift? It's hard to say, but with both parties endorsing the shift, we have to first and foremost realize that it is real. Capitalism is trying to euthanize democracy in the name of economic competitiveness -- and that is going to make this country a very different -- and in my opinion, a much scarier -- one from what it once was.
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