Granted, I’m getting older, but I’m not going deaf. So, that can’t be the reason I haven’t heard screams of outrage and protest regarding the Fed’s bailout of Bear Stearns from those one-note people who only know how to extol the virtues of the market.

You know them and their arguments: How the market should be totally free to, in effect, regulate itself. How it always corrects itself. How government does best by keeping hands off and how interference is to be avoided at any and all costs.

Well, where are you guys? I don’t hear you doing the bailout version of the primal scream.

Could it be that I’m being too harsh and that even these free-marketers have been sobered by the results of the push in the last seven years to keep hands off the markets and let them do what they “do best”? But if the multi-faceted mess that we’re in now (and it certainly doesn’t take an MBA to recognize recession, subprime crisis, choking credit markets, swooning dollar, rising inflation, stagnant job creation) is the result of keeping hands off as much as possible, then my only response is the venerable ‘Oy.’

I find it wildly ironic that when crunch time came, the most ideologically rigid free-market administration in history crafted the biggest and riskiest government bailout since the Great Depression.

Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson said he was more concerned with stopping a systemic collapse than the perceived ‘moral hazard’ of what he was engineering along with the Fed. But by bailing out a large Wall Street firm that gambled big time and lost, Paulson and this administration have gone way beyond the former dim line of ‘moral hazard.’

And how about that deal that was crafted to save Bear from failing? The Treasury and the Fed must have had to twist Jamie Dimon’s arm almost to the breaking point to get the CEO of JP Morgan Chase to accept a deal whereby he would have to pay $236 million for Bear (or $2 per share), get a major brokerage franchise, get Bears’ $1.5 billion headquarters building in Manhattan and a $30 billion guarantee by the Fed that it would protect Morgan from Bear’s worst assets. I hope they didn’t have to use waterboarding or something similar to get Dimon to take this deal.

It must have been hard work, however, and that’s why President Bush acknowledged Paulson in brief remarks by saying, “I want to thank you, Mr. Secretary, for working over the weekend.”

But it does prove that a meltdown of the system can be avoided if a cabinet official is willing to work over the weekend.

When pooh-poohing having crossed the ‘moral hazard’ line, Paulson pointed to the consequences for Bear Stearns’ shareholders whose stock was once a high-flying $170 per share and is now $2. This, apparently, is the salutary lesson and the one that shows appropriate effects do truly proceed from causes. Gamblers do indeed pay for their sins.

Well, not quite. I’m not sure that having Bear fail would not have had a much more salutary effect–the kind of slap in the face the market needs in order to know the real consequences of taking outrageous and unfounded risks.

True, there would have been some short-term pain, but long-term it would have been bracing.

Now, there’s just the feeling that the federal government was a white knight to one big foolish Wall Street firm and handed perhaps the sweetheart deal of the century to another institutional powerhouse.

When push came to shove, years of high-sounding dogma about the free market caved, showing it was simply about abetting greed. And the courage of convictions was nowhere to be found.