The Failure of the Liberal Economic Experiment?

The plunge in the U.S. economy in 2008 and 2009 became an irresistible opportunity to pronounce the failure of the form of capitalism that emerged at the end of the 20th century. “One had expected competition and abundance for everyone, but instead one got scarcity, the triumph of profit-oriented thinking, speculation and dumping,” said Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France. The current crisis, he noted with a certain pleasure, signaled the end of the “illusion of public impotence” and the “return of the state.”

There was ample reason for such grave-dancing. Between July 1, 2008, and June 30, 2009, total U.S. economic output, adjusted for inflation, dropped at an annual rate of 3.8 percent—the worst 12-month decline since 1946. The unemployment rate, which started 2008 at 5 percent, had doubled by the fall of 2010. The number of jobs fell for 21 months in a row, and by May 2010 the median unemployed worker had been out of work for 23 weeks—compared with 10 weeks in the depths of the 1973-75 recession.

The quarter-century that began shortly after Ronald Reagan’s election had been widely viewed as a period in which a free-market approach had proved its superiority to state direction of economies. In the United States, cutting top income tax rates in half, reducing regulatory burdens, and spreading free trade seemed to have produced significant prosperity and remarkable stability. Between 1983 and 2008, gross domestic product grew at an average of 3.2 percent annually. Only once did output fall in a calendar year, and that was by just two-tenths of a percentage point. Inflation, interest rates, and unemployment were tame.

Then, suddenly, an asset bubble in real estate exploded, the growth and stability vanished, and the United States suffered its worst economic misery in (take your pick) 34, 53, or 71 years. So you would expect that the American public, following President Sarkozy, would see the recession as a severe setback—or even a death blow—to conservative economic policies that were aimed at limiting the power of government and liberating the private sector.

You would have expected that, and you would have been right—but only briefly. Since the beginning of 2010, a surprising reversal has occurred. Rather than supporting and encouraging government intervention to mitigate an economic calamity caused by “profit-oriented thinking,” Americans have come to believe that government has failed to fix the problem and may, in fact, have made it worse. Now it is liberal, not conservative, economic policies that are suddenly in jeopardy.

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