The original Gilded Age witnessed a flurry of political and economic reforms designed to counteract widening inequality and the threat of oligarchy that accompanies it. But the ideas driving these reforms were developed in the midst of contentious political arguments with opponents to whom the need for substantial change was not obvious. This is probably one of the key lessons that we residents of the new Gilded Age have to learn from our predecessors: The struggle for political-economic change has to be rooted in the articulation of a guiding set of ideas. The wisdom or necessity of sweeping reform is often less obvious than liberals and leftists assume.
Actually, to be more specific, this is not a lesson that all of us in the current era need to remember. The opponents of inequality may need the reminder, but inequality’s defenders, then as now, are acutely aware that their positions must rest on solid ideological foundations. Exhibit A:
Freedom is the ability to buy what you want to fit what you need. Obamacare is Washington telling you what to buy regardless of your needs.
— Paul Ryan (@PRyan) February 21, 2017
Obviously, this is political rhetoric (and in an especially condensed form), but even so, it’s unmistakably Ryanesque—not just in its blend of cloying earnestness and pseudo-profundity—but in its self-assured declarative tone: Freedom just is the intoxicating brew of consumerism and individualist fantasy that Ryan imbibed from his ideological heroes (and apparently dreamed of as a young man, while imbibing an intoxicating brew of a more literal kind). This is a cramped view of freedom that will do little to ameliorate inequality or help Americans achieve a meaningful degree of self-rule, but in that respect it resembles what scholars call the “laissez-faire republicanism” of the first Gilded Age. This was another attempt to articulate a vision of freedom that would, in effect, leave workers powerless to resist the demands of business owners—including on such crucial issues as wages, unionization, workplace safety, and maximum hours. It’s tempting to dismiss such arguments as little more than intellectual window-dressing, but scholarly reconstructions have demonstrated how they employed powerful conceptions of freedom, including the freedom (especially resonant in the decades after abolition) of individual laborers to enter into a contract without any outside interference.
Of course, this vision hinges on an ultimately tendentious view of when workers can reasonably be said to have voluntarily entered a contract. Only an excessively abstract conception of freedom can champion the voluntarism of a laborer “agreeing” to work 18-hour days in sweatshop conditions because the alternative is starvation. The point, however, is that this ersatz conception of freedom had to be exposed through argument, countered (at least in part) by being answered on its own terms. What would a truly voluntary labor contract look like? How can workers establish conditions of labor that are not intrinsically exploitative?
The political imagination required to answer that question, and many others like it, generated some of the most important and creative political thinking of late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Set aside, for a moment, the question of whether Paul Ryan is making a genuinely intellectual argument in good faith. Instead, take his words at face value. “Freedom is the ability to buy what you want to fit what you need.” We could start by saying that, for one thing, freedom is much more than that. But we could also note that “what you need” is health insurance—we all do. And that the ability to buy it is poorly served by leaving people at the mercy of under-regulated insurance companies and offering them useless financial assistance that can’t possibly cover costs. It wouldn’t change a mind as rigid as Ryan’s, but it might set the groundwork for a broader project of persuasion among voters. And it would be entertaining to see him try to articulate a response.