All of a sudden, this election is shaping up as a verdict on capitalism.
The Obama campaign wanted it to be about President Bush. The McCain campaign wanted it to be about character. But because the markets are shooting off in all directions like bullets from a dropped pistol, the stakes have suddenly been raised dramatically.
We are in the midst of the worst panic in history, it's true (because it is global). But, as historian John Steele Gordon pointed on in The Wall Street Journal, panics are not unusual in American history. We've experienced them almost every 20 years since 1819. Gordon blames Thomas Jefferson, which is intriguing, but the point is that we've always emerged from these periodic paroxysms intact and that our economy has continued to grow.
Gordon believes more sensible banking policy would prevent future panics. But if we elect a crypto-socialist like Barack Obama and give him a bigger Democratic majority in the House and a filibuster-proof Senate, banking regulation may be the least of our troubles.
Well, you may say, "Win some, lose some. McCain isn't all that great anyway. Conservatives and Republicans will simply have to examine their consciences and come up with a winning strategy for next time." Perhaps. But there are a few problems with that sanguine approach.
In the first place, Democrats can, with a super-majority, change the rules of the game. They can make the District of Columbia the 51st state with two new senators (guaranteed to be Democrats in perpetuity). They can reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine, which required radio stations to provide equal time to all political viewpoints.
While the doctrine was enforced by the Federal Communications Commission, radio stations shied away from politics altogether. With the demise of the doctrine, conservative talk radio flourished. Liberal talk radio has never found much of an audience.
Reviving the doctrine would kill one of the principal irritants to liberals and Democrats, to say nothing of disemboweling the First Amendment.
To elect a super-majority of Democrats at a time of economic dislocation is to flirt with depression. Nearly all economists agree that two moves by the Hoover administration deepened and prolonged the panic of 1929 and turned it into the Great Depression: raising taxes and imposing protectionist trade policies.
Obama proposes to do both of those things. Obama's smooth reassurance that only the top 5 percent of earners in America will see their taxes rise is almost certainly false and beside the point.
If the most productive members of society — those who create the majority of jobs — are taxed, we will have fewer jobs. It's the old rule that if you tax something, you get less of it.
While Obama is killing jobs by taxing the productive, he proposes to renegotiate NAFTA and other trade deals thus putting the one bright corner of our economy, the export sector, in his crosshairs.
Obama has a million schemes to redistribute the wealth of the top 5 percent, (who by the way, already pay more than 50 percent of the taxes in our steeply progressive system).
He wants to provide college for "anyone who wants to go and agrees to perform community service," community development block grants, child care, and universal preschool, housing, retirement and on and on. He seems determined that more people will ride in the wagon than pull it.
"Well," you may say, "if the Democrats drive the country into a deep recession, so much the worse for them. The Republicans will come back strong — even with two senators from DC." Perhaps.
But in hard times people tend to ask for more government, not less, and this tumble started while Bush was in the White House. Franklin Roosevelt continued to invoke the boogey man of Hoover long after the Depression was his own. In fact, Democrats used Hoover successfully for 40 more years.
Finally, there is a one-way ratchet in public policy. Liberal reforms are never undone. How hard have conservatives tried to eliminate the Department of Education or subsidies to public television? Would they have more success uncreating a new nationalized health care system?
An Obama-Pelosi-Reid regime — if it were to get a filibuster-proof majority — will certainly be able to shift the country's direction sharply to the left. The only question is: Would the shift be permanent?