May 3, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Disney is suing DeSantis to protect its ‘economic freedom’

The Republicans are rapidly approaching the point of no return.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Woke capitalism,” in rightwing political circles, is about capitalism’s tendency to recognize the legitimacy of various people on the margins of respectable society by way of selling them stuff. 

When enough outpeople have amassed enough purchasing power over enough time, that tends to get the attention of the makers and sellers of stuff. To sell it to them, they have to get their attention. To get their attention, capitalists must recognize these outpeople as people. With that recognition, it’s a matter of time before the outpeople are in.

That’s a primal fear from the view of rightwing politics.

Things are better when outpeople are barred from accessing or possessing the benefits of the status quo. Things are worse when liberalism undermines barriers of entry. Things are even worse when capitalists, who are politically conservative, lay out the welcome mat by recognizing people who are undeserving of recognition. The preservation of the order should not be the price of turning a profit.

Disney says it’s suing DeSantis for “retaliating” against its criticism of a law that banned discussion of gender and sexuality in schools. But the Republicans of old would say that Disney is suing for its freedom.

But it’s this tension – between the desire to preserve a particular order and the desire for profit – that’s fracturing the Republicans, putting them at odds with the old consensus among them about the proper role of the state relative to the rights to life, liberty and property.

For most of the last century, economic freedom was more important to most Republicans than political freedom. The free exchange of goods and services was the first among equal constitutional rights. Freedom of speech was important. So was freedom of worship. But for the very obscenely rich, the most essential of these rights was free enterprise. 

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and his comrades in the Florida legislature, find themselves on this end of history, looking back through time, at the Republicans of old who held a dramatically different view.

Disney says it’s suing DeSantis for “retaliating” against its criticism of a law that banned discussion of gender and sexuality in schools. But the Republicans of old would say that Disney is suing for its freedom.

If you want to know more about that lawsuit, and about the evidence underscoring Disney’s claim that Florida retaliated against its decision to denounce “Don’t Say Gay,” I suggest reading Aaron Blake’s examination in the Post. Hint: things do not look good for DeSantis. 

But whether he retaliated is less important than the fact that the state reacted in any way whatsoever to a private firm doing things private firms do to ensure they continue dominating their share of the market. 

Whether he retaliated is less important than the fact that DeSantis is rapidly taking the GOP toward the point of no return. If they cross that point, they won’t be able to return because of political terms that were established by Republican and business leaders long before any of them came of age. Those terms are as simple as they are elegant and categorical – infringe one kind of liberty and you infringe them all. 

This comes straight from Friedrich Hayek. His 1940s book, The Road to Serfdom, was part of the intellectual foundation beneath all free-market thinking, from the postwar era well into the 21st century, according to historians Noami Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. “Capitalism and freedom are linked,” they said Hayek said in their essay, “The Magic of the Marketplace,” featured in a new compilation, Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Legends and Lies about Our Past.

“Conversely,” they continued, “if we abandon our economic freedom to centralized planning, whether in the name of fairness, efficiency, equality, or equity, it is only a matter of time before we lose our political freedom, too. Despite the best intentions of even its most benevolent exponents, Hayek argued, socialism must inevitably lead to totalitarianism. Socialism is therefore not just irrational; it is dangerous. [Hayek said:] “The unforeseen but inevitable consequences of socialist planning create a state of affairs in which, if policy is to be pursued, totalitarian forces will get the upper hand.” 

As Oreskes and Conway say, this “indivisibility thesis” was always mythical. It was invented in a time when socialism, especially Soviet Communism, seemed threatening. It doubled as protection against federal intervention into states. For decades, the Republicans, and the segregationist Democrats before them, denounced the villainy of big government in order to stop feds from helping outpeople, the same people now being recognized by the captains of “woke capitalism.”

Like all myth, its fans are legion. Many people – many Republicans, especially the suburban, moderate anti-tax type of Republican voter – haven’t stopped believing in the Gospel of Saint Friedrich, simply because Trump and his redhats appear to have stopped believing it. 

Respectable white Republicans still believe infringing economic liberty is the same as infringing political liberty. They still believe encumbering free enterprise violates the first among equal constitutional rights. As conditions change, they might even be persuaded, by an enterprising and moderate Democrat, that Disney is a victim of totalitarianism.

We’re not there yet.

I suspect the Democrats are still the “party of Big Government.” But at the rate we’re going – a rate established by the pace of competition with Trump for the GOP’s nomination – it might not be long before respectable white Republicans come to see violations of economic freedom as the same thing as social engineering, as the same thing as Hayek’s warning against totalitarian forces getting the upper hand.

That’s the point of no return.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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