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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

Will Democrats ever understand capitalism?

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks during a campaign event on Monday in Grimes, Iowa. Credit: AP/Patrick Semansky

If you shut your eyes during the Democratic primary debates and listen to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, you can almost hear 2016 Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina — with one major difference.

Like Warren, the former Hewlett Packard chief executive was laser-focused on the “rigging” of Washington by special interest groups, especially corporate lobbyists.

“The game is rigged, and now you see it in plain day,” Fiorina says.

And indeed we do. 

“The system is rigged,” Warren says.

And indeed it is.

But where Fiorina sought an equal playing field for American entrepreneurs large and small, free as practicable from regulatory disincentives that only deep-pocketed companies can afford to circumnavigate, Warren merely seeks to strip those companies of their ability to gain special treatment so that more can be squeezed from them. The profit-hobbling taxes and federal regulations would remain. And grow.

Warren isn’t alone in her disdain for corporate America. Most Democrats in the primary field rail regularly against “Wall Street putting profits over people” as if profit is a nasty word. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders seems to say nothing but that, and former Vice President Joe Biden said in the last debate that he’d immediately reverse President Donald Trump’s corporate tax cut if he were elected president. None seem to appreciate, or even acknowledge, that those corporations represent the greatest public welfare entity ever known to humanity.

Somewhere around 60 percent of Americans — Republicans, Democrats and independents alike — are relying on an IRA or 401K-type savings product to help with their retirement. Millions more hold public pensions. They fear government-run Social Security isn’t going to provide enough for them in their twilight years, or even be solvent when they’re ready to retire for that matter, so they or their fund managers logically turn to the private sector to accumulate wealth. They invest in the greediest businesses by definition if they are prescient — the ones that deliver the best returns over time — because those profits will be shared with them as partial owners. Yes, shared. And that’s the thing about capitalism; warts and all, it works for everyone. It’s a system that only succeeds when it enriches others.

Former President George H.W. Bush eloquently spoke of this in his 1988 Republican acceptance speech for the presidency. “Competence is the creed of the [government]  technocrat who makes sure the gears mesh but doesn't for a second understand the magic of the machine,” he observed. However well said, the point seemed obvious at the time, almost cliché after President Ronald Reagan’s eight years of powerful free-market advocacy. But positive talk about capitalism 22 years later is almost unheard of in U.S. political discourse. After the controversial corporate bailouts, it seems, Americans love to hate the hand that feeds them.

Millennials have picked up on that and now openly flirt with socialism, a system they clearly don’t understand. They are split down the middle, if you believe surveys, in their  support of capitalism vs. socialism, which strongly suggests they don’t understand capitalism, either. That’s not just disappointing, it’s dangerous. Capitalism is freedom, freedom is capitalism and America was built on the promise and practice of both.

As a former chief executive of a multibillion-dollar corporation that started in a California garage, Fiorina well understands the magic of the machine. She knows that clogging its engine with red tape isn’t just counterproductive, it’s just plain stupid. So is maintaining an unfair regulatory system that puts innovators at a competitive disadvantage to established companies. That’s what we should be debating now — how to better harness capitalism for the American good by letting it run freer, not how we can bleed it further to fund more government programs.

It’s a pity that Fiorina’s not on the debate stage today. What a public benefit it would be to see her and Warren go head to head on one of the fundamental issues of our time. 

It would be a lot more illuminating than what we’re seeing now, on all sides.

William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.