Let me begin by offering a pair of definitions. By “predator state” I mean a national government whose politics, as observed in the construction of complex deals in the spheres of social welfare, public investment, and regulation that have the effect of enriching specific private actors while passing along — perhaps — a diluted benefit to the broader public. Examples include efforts to privatize Social Security; the construction of Medicare Part D with its favors for drug companies; the construction of Obamacare with its favors for private insurance companies; the dawning era of public-private infrastructure partnerships, if there is ever a bill to that effect; health savings accounts; the privatization of the Veterans Administration and air traffic control; and of course, the incorporation of the Environmental Protection Agency into the oil industry.

This is not purely partisan. Predatory interests are a fact of political life and differences between parties in their willingness to cultivate them are a matter of degree. The rub, though, is that conservatives long ago accepted the twentieth-century reality that the modern economy is bound up inextricably in the state, that regulation is not a burden on private enterprise but a necessary condition for its existence in most spheres of economic activity, and they have adapted their politics to this reality by making it essentially into a politics of skimming off of state structures rather than opposing them, except as a matter of ritual and rhetoric. Those who feel the pull of the eighteenth century — there are a few, Paul Ryan comes to mind — have tended to remain on the fringe, although in some cases getting dangerously close to the levers of power.

The rhetoric of the free market in this situation serves mainly as a cudgel to discipline liberals and progressives and to prevent the development of a coherent worldview on the center-left; in this way left critics who speak with realism about the state are also marginalized within their own frame of political activity. That is, they are subordinated to a leadership which feels the urge on all occasions to pay obeisance and deference to the concepts of the free market and the free enterprise economy. And certain elements of a political agenda that might be construed as socialist — the single-payer option for health insurance, the public banking system, and in recent years, the purely public form of public works, are taken off the menu.

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