The Rise of Economic Fascism in America
When people hear the word “fascism” they naturally think of its ugly racism and anti-Semitism as practiced by the totalitarian regimes of Mussolini and Hitler. But there was also an economic policy component of fascism, known in Europe during the 1920s and ‘30s as “corporatism,” that was an essential ingredient of economic totalitarianism as practiced by Mussolini and Hitler. So-called corporatism was adopted in Italy and Germany during the 1930s and was held up as a “model” by quite a few intellectuals and policy makers in the United States and Europe. A version of economic fascism was in fact adopted in the United States in the 1930s and survives to this day. In the United States these policies were not called “fascism” but “planned capitalism.” The word fascism may no longer be politically acceptable, but its synonym “industrial policy” is as popular as ever.
The Free World Flirts With Fascism
Few Americans are aware of or can recall how so many Americans and Europeans viewed economic fascism as the wave of the future during the 1930s. The American Ambassador to Italy, Richard Washburn Child, was so impressed with “corporatism” that he wrote in the preface to Mussolini’s 1928 autobiography that “it may be shrewdly forecast that no man will exhibit dimensions of permanent greatness equal to Mussolini. . . . The Duce is now the greatest figure of this sphere and time.1” Winston Churchill wrote in 1927 that “If I had been an Italian I am sure I would have been entirely with you” and “don the Fascist black shirt.2” As late as 1940, Churchill was still describing Mussolini as “a great man.”
U.S. Congressman Sol Bloom, Chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, said in 1926 that Mussolini “will be a great thing not only for Italy but for all of us if he succeeds. It is his inspiration, his determination, his constant toil that has literally rejuvenated Italy . .”3
One of the most outspoken American fascists was economist Lawrence Dennis. In his 1936 book, The Coming American Fascism, Dennis declared that defenders of “18th-century Americanism” were sure to become “the laughing stock of their own countrymen” and that the adoption of economic fascism would intensify “national spirit” and put it behind “the enterprises of public welfare and social control.” The big stumbling block to the development of economic fascism, Dennis bemoaned, was “liberal norms of law or constitutional guarantees of private rights.”
Certain British intellectuals were perhaps the most smitten of anyone by fascism. George Bernard Shaw announced in 1927 that his fellow “socialists should be delighted to find at last a socialist [Mussolini] who speaks and thinks as responsible rulers do.”4 He helped form the British Union of Fascists whose “Outline of the Corporate State,” according to the organization’s founder, Sir Oswald Mosley, was “on the Italian Model.” While visiting England, the American author Ezra Pound declared that Mussolini was “continuing the task of Thomas Jefferson.”5
Thus, it is important to recognize that, as an economic system, fascism was widely accepted in the 1920s and ‘30s. The evil deeds of individual fascists were later condemned, but the practice of economic fascism never was. To this day, the historically uninformed continue to repeat the hoary slogan that, despite all his faults, Mussolini at least “made the trains run on time,” insinuating that his interventionist industrial policies were a success.
The Italian “Corporatist” System
So-called “corporatism” as practiced by Mussolini and revered by so many intellectuals and policy makers had several key elements:
The state comes before the individual. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines fascism as “a political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized, autocratic government.”
This stands in stark contrast to the classical liberal idea that individuals have natural rights that pre-exist government; that government derives its “just powers” only through the consent of the governed; and that the principal function of government is to protect the lives, liberties, and properties of its citizens, not to aggrandize the state.
Mussolini viewed these liberal ideas (in the European sense of the word “liberal”) as the antithesis of fascism: “The Fascist conception of life,” Mussolini wrote, “stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with the State. It is opposed to classical liberalism [which] denied the State in the name of the individual; Fascism reasserts the rights of the State as expressing the real essence of the individual.”6
Mussolini thought it was unnatural for a government to protect individual rights: “The maxim that society exists only for the well-being and freedom of the individuals composing it does not seem to be in conformity with nature’s plans.”7 “If classical liberalism spells individualism,” Mussolini continued, “Fascism spells government.”
The essence of fascism, therefore, is that government should be the master, not the servant, of the people. Think about this. Does anyone in America really believe that this is not what we have now? Are Internal Revenue Service agents really our “servants”? Is compulsory “national service” for young people, which now exists in numerous states and is part of a federally funded program, not a classic example of coercing individuals to serve the state? Isn’t the whole idea behind the massive regulation and regimentation of American industry and society the notion that individuals should be forced to behave in ways defined by a small governmental elite? When the nation’s premier health-care reformer recently declared that heart bypass surgery on a 92-year-old man was “a waste of resources,” wasn’t that the epitome of the fascist ideal—that the state, not individuals, should decide whose life is worthwhile, and whose is a “waste”?
The U.S. Constitution was written by individuals who believed in the classical liberal philosophy of individual rights and sought to protect those rights from governmental encroachment. But since the fascist/collectivist philosophy has been so influential, policy reforms over the past half century have all but abolished many of these rights by simply ignoring many of the provisions in the Constitution that were designed to protect them. As legal scholar Richard Epstein has observed: “[T]he eminent domain . . . and parallel clauses in the Constitution render . . . suspect many of the heralded reforms and institutions of the twentieth century: zoning, rent control, workers’ compensation laws, transfer payments, progressive taxation.”8 It is important to note that most of these reforms were initially adopted during the ‘30s, when the fascist/collectivist philosophy was in its heyday.
Planned industrial “harmony.” Another keystone of Italian corporatism was the idea that the government’s interventions in the economy should not be conducted on an ad hoc basis, but should be “coordinated” by some kind of central planning board. Government intervention in Italy was “too diverse, varied, contrasting. There has been disorganic . . . intervention, case by case, as the need arises,” Mussolini complained in 1935.9 Fascism would correct this by directing the economy toward “certain fixed objectives” and would “introduce order in the economic field.”10 Corporatist planning, according to Mussolini adviser Fausto Pitigliani, would give government intervention in the Italian economy a certain “unity of aim,” as defined by the government planners.11
These exact sentiments were expressed by Robert Reich (currently the U.S. Secretary of Labor) and Ira Magaziner (currently the federal government’s health care reform “Czar”) in their book Minding America’s Business.12 In order to counteract the “untidy marketplace,” an interventionist industrial policy “must strive to integrate the full range of targeted government policies—procurement, research and development, trade, antitrust, tax credits, and subsidies—into a coherent strategy . . . .”13
Current industrial policy interventions, Reich and Magaziner bemoaned, are “the product of fragmented and uncoordinated decisions made by [many different] executive agencies, the Congress, and independent regulatory agencies . . . . There is no integrated strategy to use these programs to improve t
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