Americans need to admit we need a government — and it’s time to do it

As a speaker on a panel that last week, I was treated like royalty, sipping a cold glass of Prosecco and noshing on lobster rolls from the floor level of the Ronald Reagan Building. The hall was filled to capacity, tickets went for hundreds of dollars, but it was a better deal than flying to an out-of-town conference.

At the previous Trump Tower summit last June, at which the president met with various leaders, protesters infamously interrupted the proceedings, including disrupting the photo op by unfurling banners that read “Divide & Conquer” and “Come Together.” As if on cue, as I walked out of the building, a cluster of people swarmed me, lobbing questions, including a protester who said, “Let’s stop judging each other, America needs to bring people together, the world needs to come together, together to create peace.”

It’s not that I disagree with the content of her message, which was entirely understandable, but the message was a little confused—you can’t bring people together if they aren’t getting along, which should be the purpose of such a gathering.

I sympathize with the perspective of the protesters who oppose the president and the way he governs. Of course he needs to behave better, but when that means cozying up to despots like Vladimir Putin, treating elected leaders as supplicants and attacking free speech and an independent press, something’s gone amiss in America’s democracy.

No wonder so many people are unhappy with the status quo.

I’m increasingly unable to sit with friends and have a conversation about politics, because those conversations so often devolve into screaming matches.

And whether they know it or not, everyday Americans are beginning to follow Putin’s lead, for better or worse.

As we spoke, a conservative man whom I admired came up to me and said, “Can we just have an honest discussion?” I asked him to reconsider, to consider my political views, but he wouldn’t. He went on to say, “If you don’t agree with me, that’s fine, you’re welcome to disagree with me, but I think you are wrong about everything.”

Although he’s a surprisingly good customer who had thoughtfully mentioned some concern about Obamacare, his point is an old one. “Free market” economics are real, but they don’t always work. Eminent economists like St. Augustine tried to prove the point for centuries. In modern times, free-market economics have had another arrow in their quiver: competition. But without the safeguards that regulation provides, free markets fall apart. What we have learned from the government’s response to the financial crisis is that regulation alone can not save the financial system. So the real solution is in making the financial system safer—by restructuring banks, separating retail and investment banking, and continuing to regulate the banks through the FDIC.

By making sure the financial system is safe, we can keep lending and our economy growing.

And yet the Republicans are not interested in or able to move away from their free-market economic ideology.

Banks don’t lend themselves and must borrow from the government to do so.

And the government gets paid back only if all goes well. Banks just pay back what’s owed to the government.

We need competition, a thriving marketplace in which free markets are allowed to work. That is better for individuals who can enter the marketplace, more competitive and dynamic. It’s better for the economy as a whole.

It’s also the right thing to do for society as a whole.

It will be decades before we can truly admit that we need government oversight to regulate and protect the free-market system and the nation, but that’s the wrong way to go about it.

Longtime Washington Post writer and columnist James Fallows is the author of 18 books, including “The Great Risk” and “The Princess and the Warrior.”

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