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Jewish World Review Dec. 31, 1999 / 22 Teves, 5760

David Corn

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History Lesson -- THE LIBERTARIAN conservatives of the Cato Institute have one of the busiest fax-blasters in Washington. Several times a day, I receive press releases from this outfit, each one referring to yet another initiative to discredit government. To capitalize on the faux end-of-the-century silliness, Cato recently faxed news of its study, “The Greatest Century That Ever Was: 25 Miraculous Trends of the Past 100 Years.” The report notes that “almost every indicator of health, wealth, safety, nutrition, affordability and availability of consumer goods and services, environmental quality, and social conditions indicates rapid improvement over the past century.” That’s a news flash? Couldn’t the same have been said in 1899?

Cato credits free enterprise for our 20th-century success, and cites an increase in the size of government as one of the few negative trends of the past 10 decades. But if one thinks about their list of positive trends for a moment, Cato’s view—government bad/commerce good—is undermined. The air, Cato says, is 97 percent cleaner. But it was government agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, that forced polluting corporations to clean up. (As far as I can tell, Cato analysts have never met an environmental regulation they like.) Wages are up since 1900. No thanks come from Cato for the minimum wage laws that helped fuel wage growth.

Electricity is widespread, indeed, partly due to government rural electrification programs. Deaths caused by infectious diseases are down. Let’s give credit to public health agencies. Home ownership is up. Hail the income tax deduction for mortgage interest—a government subsidy—and federal and state programs that encourage home-buying. The work week, Cato claims, is 30 percent shorter. It may not feel that way to most of us, but that stat should cause us to appreciate unions and workplace legislation.

Accidental deaths are down, yet Cato has never cheered the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and workplace safety standards. The income of African-Americans has increased tenfold. But would it be that high had there been no affirmative action, no passage of civil rights laws and no enforcement of these laws? Remember, such laws were opposed by segregationists as illegitimate governmental interference in free commerce.

Yes, there’s been progress these past hundred years. But not because corporations were permitted a free hand to do whatever they wished. This is a good point to keep in mind as we enter a new millennium. Cato and other laissez-faire cowboys will be arguing for fewer rules for the international corporatists of the go-go global economy, promising that no restraints will bring riches for all. Those truly familiar with the history of this century know better.

JWR contributor David Corn, Washington Editor of The Nation, writes the "Loyal Opposition" column for The New York Press ( His latest book is Deep Background.

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