“Laissez-faire is a pretense,” writes post-conservative pundit Phillips (The Cousins’ Wars, 1999, etc.). “Government power and preferment have been used by the rich, not shunned.” In other words, in this country, the rich not only get richer, they also get more privileged.
As a polity, Americans tend to indulge the affluent, imagining that somehow their wealth will trickle down to the less fortunate. The reality is, notes Phillips, “painful disparities—working to the detriment of ordinary people who rarely understand what is happening or why—have been the historical rule, and not the unfortunate exception.” American politicians traditionally have been more than indulgent, allowing the rich to accrue all sorts of political favors, evade taxes and duties, and live at a far remove from the rest of society: witness recent giveaways in the current administration’s tax reforms. Politicians and commoners alike have been deluded by a false sense of participation in the system and the false promise of a level playing field, but the fact that 48 percent of Americans held some stock in the year 2000 speaks less, Phillips argues, than the fact that 90 percent of the earnings growth in the last two decades has gone into the pockets of the top 1 percent of our society. His sense of moral outrage over this fundamentally undemocratic gulf, a potential seedbed for true class warfare, is well placed and effective, though it may surprise readers who remember him as a conservative advisor to the Nixon administration. Even more valuable, however, is Phillips’s careful analysis of the political boom-and-bust cycles in American history whereby Republican administrations help send aloft speculative bubbles that upon bursting, as all bubbles must, prompt spurts of progressive reform that curb—if only briefly—the power and public appetites of the wealthy.
Sturdy economic history with a heavy dash of social criticism—and, as many conservative critics have said before of Phillips, excellent ammunition for liberals.