WASHINGTON -- The great temptation -- or perhaps the job description -- of the commentator is overinterpretation. Events are fit neatly, or are forced roughly, into the narrative of our own desires.
So the pop of a credit bubble and a Wall Street panic become the fatal crisis of capitalism, calling for "drastic, frankly socialistic measures" -- for commentators who would support such measures bust or boom. "The crisis that kills capitalism," recalls economist Gary Becker, "has been said to happen during every major recession and financial crisis ever since Karl Marx."
The role of public authority in the regulation of markets is a matter of debate. The moral achievement of capitalism is not. It is the system of economic interaction that rewards human creativity and enterprise -- that produces social organization without coercion or oppression. And what are the alternatives? The comfortable decline delivered by democratic socialism? Feudalism? Anarcho-syndicalism?
We are also seeing the political version of this ideological overreach. Democrats seem headed for a broad victory. But seldom has a cause of such an outcome been more directly traceable to one event. In mid-September, John McCain was running about even with Barack Obama. Following a financial crisis identified with Wall Street, bankers and (somewhat unfairly) Republicans, McCain was several points behind.
But this obvious explanation has not stopped commentators from claiming the Republican slide as the vindication of other long-held beliefs.
For some, the presumed Democratic victory heralds a broad American embrace of liberalism. This would be more credible if the Obama campaign was not conspicuously devoid of ideas, liberal or otherwise. Obama's largest political success has consisted of avoiding charges of liberalism while possessing a conspicuously liberal voting record. On the evidence of his final appeal, Obama is a committed tax cutter. His political strategy has emphasized reassurance and stability, not ambition or innovation. This may be smart. It will hardly yield an ideological mandate.