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Commentary: Where the right and left merge

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 26, 2009 - If you share my embrace of the ironic, you will appreciate a theme of this essay: the common root in the pre-ordained failure of both Marxism and free market capitalism. The common underpinning is the pretense that we humans share a utopian capacity to align personal ambition with the common good.

For Marx and Engels, the saintly agent of this equation was the proletariat. The world they would violently wrest would contain no private property, no nationalism and no reason for conflict. A beneficent state would own all means of production and communication, all property. Eventually, the state would wither away to irrelevance in an egalitarian and strife-free society. There would be an end to ministers, parliaments, laws, armies, courts and even tax collectors. You will notice that it hasn't happened.

To equate such fantasy with the mundane daydreams of free market ideologues seems perverse. But, in fact, market purists adapt a central pillar of the Marxist Valhalla: Government interference should wither away because we have divined strictures that manage our economic affairs through the genius of self policing enterprise. And the policemen are super rich executives. That's right. Folks with lives dedicated to amassing outsize fortunes need no oversight. Why? Because market perfections render public service a natural byproduct of CEO greed.

Through utopian eyes, free marketers present a dictatorship of the proletariat reconstituted as a barony of benevolent billionaires. Just leave them alone (unless they want bailouts, subsidies or constrained competitors). Just leave them alone and their productive engines will shepherd us to that promised land of plenty. For non-utopians who have noticed what leaving them alone has wrought, it might be viewed as Marx gone Madoff.

A delicious incongruity in free market dogma is that, despite armies of zealous proclaimed acolytes, no one actually believes in a genuinely free market. If you are among the millions who profess such convictions, enjoy your laissez faire peanut butter as you seek security on an elevator that wasn't inspected or on an airplane where market forces determined the training of the pilot, the frequency of maintenance and the experience of air traffic controllers.

There may be profit in polluting and pretending that unfettered enterprise will purify the water and sanctify the air. But does anyone believe that the environment would be cleaner without external regulation, that our health would improve if profit-hungry insurers had expanded free market reign over who gets treated and who gets to die?

There are individual incentives for needing to believe. But a house of laissez-faire cards is no match for millennia of human frailty and the elixir of personal ambition. As Ronald Reagan used to say about ambitious non-capitalists: "Trust but verify."

The seminal meeting place for left and right is in believing because one is conditioned to believe, asserting because one is supposed to assert, replacing truth with image and thought with ideology. In his book "True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post Fact Society," Farhad Manjoo suggests that most of us inhabit that place.

Manjoo describes a world where pre-determined images are far more important than truth. He highlights "selective exposure" and "selective perception," the theses that most people expose themselves primarily to ideas that support pre-determined viewpoints, that when we see alternative opinions, we selectively perceive discordant evidence as weak or dishonest. He provides multiple examples to illustrate that the more committed you are to a viewpoint, an ideal or even a football team, the less likely you are to pursue a dispassionate evaluation of evidence before concluding that your viewpoint is correct or your football team has been cheated.

It's here in Steven Colbert's world of truthiness in which left and right join forces, where ambiguity is anathema and every activist shade finds comfort with skepticism that need never be introspective. It's where contradiction and complexity yield eagerly to the anti-intellectual clarity of yes or no self-deception; where Israel is right or wrong, but never both; where unambiguous falsehood becomes dogma as millions imagine 9/11 as an inside job or Saddam as steeped in the conspiracy.

This human quest for certainty has always provided a path to power. Abusing it is the cynical pursuit of demagogues, an affirmation of virtue for true-believing ideologues.

Our founding fathers curbed would-be abusers through multiple constraints on political power. And their remedy applies equally to the corporate royalty of today. To provide billions to an unregulated market is to assume that the barons of corporate finance can resist the very temptations that impelled them toward their imperious executive suites. It is to imagine that they are something they have never been and are not destined to become.

Ken Schechtman is a freelance writer and a professor at the Washington University School of Medicine.