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Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson: Proof that free enterprise doesn't work is on the snowy streets of Washington

Individualism is a fine ideal; it’s only a shame individuals suck

A small American in a small art-lover's beard – a small art-lover's beard on an even smaller art-loving American would be a better description – greets us at the door to the permanent collection and asks us to leave our coats in the cloakroom.

I let him know we would rather not; our time is limited and we don't want to spend it queuing for cloakrooms when we could be looking at the Rothkos and the Bonnards for which the Phillips Collection is renowned. May we keep them on? He shakes his head politely. Washington is a polite town. "They look pretty heavy anyway," he says, as though he's insisting on this only for our convenience.

I don't say that the weight of my coat is my business, that no one tells me how many clothes I may wear at Tate Britain, and that this is pretty rich all round given the fuss America is making at the moment about state intrusion into what Brits call civil liberty and Americans free enterprise. If free enterprise means anything doesn't it mean I may look at Rothko in a coat if I so choose?

In fact, if he'd had his way, Rothko would have determined not only how many clothes people looking at his work should wear, but of what colour and what weave. There's a small Rothko room at the Phillips Collection, chapel-like according to the painter's stipulations, an environment in which, in his words, the walls are to be "defeated" so that the space can be "saturated with the feeling of the work". Myself, I think the artist should leave feelings of saturation to the person looking. Which is what Bonnard does. Look if you like, Bonnard says. My colours will work on you or they won't. Very French. But not Rothko, who is very American. With Rothko you don't look at the work, you submit to it.

Call this art as tyranny. First the gallery dictates your wardrobe, then the artist commandeers your mind. So is this an American paradox or another instance of American schizophrenia? Free the individual and then tell him what to do with his freedom; entangle him in red tape and then raise the roof if anyone mentions socialism.

The shock jocks of American television are defining socialism as the government invading your home with a shotgun and stealing your furniture. The mad hatter's tea party, whose patrons include Sarah "Read-My-Hands" Palin – otherwise described by the comedian Bill Maher as "the Nudnik from Alaska" – is making inroads into popular opinion with a mix of perfectly explicable loathing of the banks and perfectly inexplicable anxiety regarding health-care reforms which they are convinced will lead to the elderly and the sick being left to bleed to death in the corridors and waiting rooms of filthy hospitals, as they are in England, rather than on the roads as they are, if they happen to be uninsured, in the USA. (Don't bother to correct me on either score. I am infected by the new adversariality of American politics. Someone attacks you with unreason, you strike back with more unreason still.)

You would think that what has happened in Washington this last week would have finally disclosed to Americans the overwhelming truth about free enterprise: namely, that it doesn't work. It's the snow I'm talking about. Not who was responsible for making it fall, but who is responsible for clearing it away. Questioned by snowed-in citizens on the matter of uncleared sidewalks, the Mayor of Washington, Adrian Fenty – a man with an unnervingly over-polished bald pate – explained that responsibility for clearing a path outside a house or shop falls to the individual whose house or shop it is, and not the city. Interrogated further as to why he hadn't used his powers to compel people to fulfil these responsibilities, Mayor Fenty raised a hand and did to his glistening head what he will not do the city sidewalks, "I prefer the carrot to the stick approach," he said.

Meaning, we don't hold with telling people what to do in these parts, unless they're wearing too many clothes to look at art in.

So the situation is this: some stretches of sidewalk appear passable, because owners of property have been out with their shovels, but these you can access only by leaping the hummocks of filthy snow, or fording the roaring rivulets of freezing sludge, left by owners of property who don't give a shit. The consequence of which is that the cleared sidewalks are of use to you only if someone helicopters you in.

Now wouldn't you think that if you were clearing your own two feet of pavement you would clear the two feet on either side of you while the spade was in your hand, no matter that the persons charged with that responsibility can't or won't? If not as an act of common courtesy, then in order to make your own coming and going that little bit easier. In socialist England where the Government steals our furniture and leaves us to die where we fall, we shovel away snow and ask who the snow belongs to later. But in free-enterprise Washington this apparently is not possible. What's mine is mine, what's yours is yours. So go break your neck. But it's said politely.

I could have the sidewalks cleared in minutes. I'd invite government intervention. That's what governments are for. To make us do in a body what we are cussedly incapable of doing as individuals. Individualism is a fine ideal; it's only a shame individuals suck.

Bill Maher, to whom I've already referred, made the same point in an interview with Larry King the other day. "The people stink," he said, alluding to the illogicality of the popular disillusionment with Obama for not doing what would, were he to do it, disillusion them still more.

There, in a nutshell, is the case against empowering the people. They stink. But how can you not love a country where someone will say that on television? We Brits might shovel one another's snow but we haven't the courage to insult the Demos. Love is what our politicians and comedians crave. They want the people to adore them. Cry a little over them. Feel their pain. Not even Paxman will tell the British public they stink.

So, thanks to Bill Maher, I approach the great democratic experiment which is America from an upside-down position. It doesn't work because the people stink. But in a country where you can say the people stink, the people can't stink. So it does work.

It's convoluted, but you can get there. Which is more than you can say about the sidewalks.