Saturday, January 16, 2010

Rational Distrust vs. Rational Fear.

From Smile Politely (Champaign-Urbana's online magazine) comes an article by Dan Schreiber on what capitalism can do and what government can do - and warns us not to confuse the two.

I understand distrust of government. I really do. Government does things like start dumb wars in Iraq. Government killed hundreds of thousands of people during Communist purges. Government sometimes allows lazy bureaucrats to ignore your well-being.

But I also don't trust capitalism to automatically provide for the common good. The purpose of a company is to make a profit, after all. In countries with weak governments and strong capitalism, the only choices most people have are to work for long hours in substandard working conditions for a pittance. In our country, if it is unprofitable to insure people who are likely to get sick, capitalism's answer is to not insure those people and let them die. Companies choose profit over the public good because that is what they are designed to do.

It should be evident at this point that capitalism without government becomes economic slavery and government without a free market (of ideas and goods) becomes tyranny. The problem isn't the existence of one or the other, but that either will encroach on our freedom if it is allowed to become too powerful. We need both to balance each other out, because too much power in one place is inevitably corrupting.

So who is more powerful in America in the 21st century? An unwieldy but democratically elected government or multi-national corporations in search of the next quarter's profits? One way to answer this is to ask who is controlling whom. Government can tax corporations and put people in jail who don't follow laws. On the other hand, corporations can buy members of congress in order to enact favorable laws and gut enforcement of the laws that do exist. In the end, unjust laws can be changed with enough effort. But corporations are under no obligation to enact just labor practices or economic conditions unless government forces them to.

It is true that many liberals distrust capitalism. But it is not true that liberals naturally trust government. Liberals just recognize government as the only thing powerful enough to curb the excesses of capitalism. I suppose the important thing is to be able to differentiate between rational distrust and irrational fear, whether we are talking about government or capit


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