Rick Santorum got high marks for his near-victory speech in Iowa. In the Washington Post, E.J. Dionne called it "by far the best speech Tuesday night." Santorum's address impressed me, too, but for a different reason: his astonishing endorsement of feudalism, wrapped up in a soaring tribute to something he called "freedom." A sharper illustration of the bad faith of at the heart of conservative rhetoric I never have seen in all my life.
He began by doing what conservative presidential candidates always do in this season of economic privation: talked about his family's one-time economic privation. It wasn't off the cuff. "As you know," he said, "I do not speak from notes, but there's a couple of things I want to say that are a little more emotional, so I'm going to read them as I wrote them." And what were the words he so carefully wrote to read at this, his moment of triumph? That his grandfather came to the United States from Italy in 1925: "because Mussolini had been in power now three years, and he had figured out that fascism was something that would crush his spirit and freedom and give his children something less than he wanted for them." He came because—why else?—he loved freedom.
(Brief digression: he says his grandpa came in 1925. Someone should look into this. The racist Immigration Act of 1924 had the previous year made it very, very difficult for anyone from such a dirty, disgusting, non-Anglo Saxon place like Italy to emigrate to the U.S. Maybe Santorum got the date wrong. In any event, the very fact of the 1924 law is another disturbance marring the official Republican cult of America-Is-And-Always-Has-Been-Perfect that I will be discussing below. End of digression.)
So, from the unfreedom of Mussolini, he marched into the rosy-fingered dawn of American freedom—which Santorum described thusly:
"He left to the coal fields of Southern Pennsylvania. He worked in the mine at a company town, got paid with coupons, he used to call them."
Let us dwell on that. Grandpa Santorum lived in a company town where he was paid in "scrip" in lieu of cash. That means what his grandson calls "freedom" was, well and truly, something more like slavery.
Until the late 1950′s, when changes in federal and state laws, along with changing economic realities doomed the practice, many companies issued tokens, or scrip, for use by their employees in company run stores. This was especially widespread in the coal fields of Appalachia, where many miners also lived in company owned towns. In these company towns, or “coal camps,” the only store in town was usually owned or run on behalf of the coal company.
In theory, scrip was an advance against unearned wages and usable only by the employee to whom it was issued. In practice, many miners were never able to fully retire their debt to the company store and scrip became the unofficial currency of the community, even being placed in the collection plates of some coal town churches.
Scrip in the very beginning was more a trade credit or demand deposit at the single local general store. Ledger credit scrip, however, gave way to scrip coupon books, which eliminated the tedious bookkeeping chores involved in over the counter credit – transactions that must be followed by ledger entries.
To put it plainly: miners like Rick Santorum's grandfather were enslaved to their companies, tied by feudal bonds to the company towns where they lived and worked. First off, quite simply, because they had no money to go elsewhere (remember, they didn't get paid in money, but in coupons only redeemable at the "single local general store"; and how can you move if you don't have cash-money?). And secondly, yet more sinisterly, corrupt accounting systems typically kept families perpetually in debt—making moving to another place of one's choosing, the basic act of a free human being, a jailing offense. There was no "freedom." No market economy. This was debt slavery, just like the song says:
Santorum continued in his speech:
He ended up continuing to work in those mines until he was 72 years old, digging coal.
That, however, was a curious contradiction to the line that came directly before, which was a bizarre acknowledgment that his grandpa seemed to understand what a raw deal he was getting:
Eventually he figured out that that was a trip to nowhere, so he started taking less—taking money less so he could start to save, and he did. And after five years, he got his citizenship and brought my father over at the age of seven.
Someone in our press corps: can you please ask Rick Santorum what he is talking about? Just on the basic level of narrative, it makes no sense to me.
What makes even less sense, however, is the philosophical lesson he claims to draw from the story. He announced his candidacy in Somerset County, where his grandfather found "freedom" by becoming a debt-slave.
Because I believe foundationally, while the economy is in horrible condition, while our country is not safe as it was, and while threats are rising around the world, while the state of our culture under this administration continues to decline with the values that are unlike the values that built this country, that the essential issue in this race is freedom, whether we will be a country that believes that government can do things for us better than we can do for ourselves, or whether we believe, as our founders did, that rights come to us from God and, when he gave us those rights, he gave us the freedom to go out and live those rights to build a great and just society not from the top down but from the bottom up.
The punchline: Government certainly did a better job freeing Grandpa Santorum from debt slavery than he could have freed himself. For what ended company towns' practice of deb slavery? Largely, of course, state and federal laws.
Does Rick Santorum want us all to sell our souls back to the company store? I'm sure not. What he's revealing here is something more banal: the conservative denied of the fundamental fact that the free reign of property frequently results in gross abuses of basic human liberty. And yet the free reign of property is what, fundamentally, conservatives define as liberty.
Santorum is right. The basic issue in this race is freedom. Would that there were more Democrats who knew how to tell our version of the story: that sometimes—frequently—it takes government to establish liberty where none existed before.