Carolina Journal News Reports
Fox News host John Stossel, lefts, and former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, over Stossel's shoulder, meet students after their debate at UNC-Chapel Hill.
CHAPEL HILL — Former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean displayed a self-deprecating wit, but Fox television show host John Stossel wasn’t laughing about what he viewed as Dean’s flawed grasp of the free market.
The politician and the libertarian consumer affairs journalist exchanged good-natured barbs and ideas Sept. 20 before nearly 500 people at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Great Hall in a debate about “The Role of Government in a Free Society” organized by the campus chapter of College Republicans.
The 90-minute, freewheeling forum evoked ripples of laughter, bursts of applause, and wide-ranging queries from audience members during a Q&A session that followed the formal debate.
“I know my reputation is as a screaming liberal,” Dean said to laughter, acknowledging the unseemly screech after a 2004 post-caucus defeat in Iowa that torpedoed his promising Democratic presidential campaign.
But Dean had no monopoly on the punch lines. Among Stossel’s zingers was one that followed detailed remarks by Dean about the need for government finding solutions in the political middle and praising young people for having less “ideological bandwidth” than older politicians.
Stossel, a 19-time Emmy Award winner and New York Times best-selling author, and Dean tackled issues ranging from health care reform and the welfare state to constitutional interpretation and private property rights.
Their philosophies often clashed markedly. They occasionally agreed, and at other times were singing more or less from the same hymnal if not necessarily the same page.
Dean professed to be a capitalist supporting the free market.
“I believe the role of government is to rein in the excesses of capitalism,” he said. “I believe the biggest enemies of capitalism are the capitalists themselves.”
Government should “try to modulate out the cycle of ups and downs,” Dean said.
“You call yourself a capitalist, but I would call you sort of a socialist capitalist because you have faith in government to modulate these cycles,” Stossel responded.
Government intrusion in the free market only makes things worse, Stossel said.
“It gives us bigger booms and busts” and hurts consumers Stossel said.
He used an example of government lending programs that steered low-income consumers into home purchases they could not afford. After the buying boom turned to foreclosure bust, government spent even more money trying to fix the financial mess it created, he said.
They agreed on ending the war on drugs and allowing gay marriage as matters of individual choice. The drug issue got enthusiastic, sustained applause from the young crowd.
Their views on the Constitution offered two very different approaches to governing the country.
The founders enumerated the powers of the federal government in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, Stossel said.
“They did pass a Bill of Rights, and the preamble of the Bill of Rights says to prevent the abuse of government power restrictive clauses should be added,” Stossel said. Those were written into the Ninth and 10th amendments stating that powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states or the people.
“I think the federal government has gone way beyond its constitutional rights,” Stossel said.
“I see the Constitution as a living document that is going to be interpreted in the context of what makes sense in society today,” Dean countered. “It’s subject to interpretation, and I think you can make those kind of interpretations.”
Dean talked of the “national economy” and supported a liberal interpretation of the Commerce Clause in criticizing Stossel’s view that the Constitution should be applied literally.
Without that clause, Dean said, it would not be possible to build power transmission lines, interstate highways, and wind farms that advance the quality of Americans’ lives and help knit 50 states into a cohesive unit.
Stossel said there is a limited role for eminent domain. But he added such practices can be used by the powerful to exploit the general public.
“As always, our bloated government grows far beyond the original intention,” Stossel said in attacking the Commerce Clause and eminent domain.
Billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump used eminent domain to get government cronies to seize a woman’s house so he could expand his casino, Stossel said, and others have used it to knock down houses to build shopping malls.
Dean posited that unions fighting for the common worker and government intervention into the marketplace when necessary have lifted the wages and freedoms of Americans.
The 1950s were the most prosperous time for American workers and coincided with “the heyday of the labor movement, because, it turns out, that unions are essential for capitalism, too” Dean said.
He said banks take bad risks and spend lots of money knowing that the federal government will bail them out if they run aground financially.
“If they don’t bail them out, the entire economy is going to collapse,” Dean said. “It isn’t just poor, lazy people that are causing all these problems. It’s capitalists who forget what they owe to the society.”
Stossel credited capitalism for American exceptionalism, even though “it’s criticized on campuses like this, especially here in Chapel Hill.”
The United States “became more prosperous than any other because we had limited government, and it’s all in the Constitution,” Stossel said. He tossed pocket copies of the founding document into the crowd for effect.
Henry Ford ushered in the eight-hour workday and doubled the wages of his car factory employees because, as a capitalist, he devised a new manufacturing process and desperately needed workers. Chrysler and General Motors followed suit.
That is the free market effectively at work without government mandate, Stossel said. When central planners get involved and start imposing regulations, freedom and initiative are lost in the business world.
“Repeal all the laws that make it harder to work, all the licensing laws. You’ve got some crazy ones in North Carolina,” Stossel said.
Dean said, “I think it’s perfectly all right to pick winners and losers” in the market even if it means betting with taxpayer dollars. Without some central planning, U.S. consumer products would be made in China and Mexico, he said.
“We just want to work together voluntarily without government forcing us,” Stossel said to hearty applause.
If there is a demand in the market, he said, “greedy entrepreneurs will spot it far more quickly than politicians will,” and without removing so much capital from the economy.
Dan Way is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.