Thursday, October 30, 2014

About letting the market decide

"Let the market decide."

The free market ideologues will have you believe that the market is perfect when it's unregulated, or, at the very least, that it is at its best and most efficient.  They would have you believe that an unregulated market would be the best option for the most people, or at least, that's the line they sell you, while they are fully aware that it would be what's best for those who already have wealth.  They would have you believe that an unregulated market would result in more competition, not less, in better products, not lower-quality ones, and in lower prices, not higher.

I have huge problems with the concept of an unregulated market, especially after working with the people who would control that market for most of my adult life.  The one thing that people must bear in mind is that business is only about profit.  That's its aim.  Whatever concepts people add to it to make it more bearable, profit is the only goal that ultimately matters, because without profit, business won't exist.  Sure, there are not-for-profit businesses that exist for charitable/humanitarian/philanthropic purposes, but no one expects the people who sell most goods and services to do it for free.  I don't.  However, I have several problems with the market that make it worrisome for me to dispense with regulation entirely.

First, the current philosophy of capitalism involves paying labor as little as possible.  The idea that "capitalism is the greatest engine for freedom" couldn't be more false.  The market built itself on the exploitation of labor, and it continues to exploit it.  The slave trade thrived for centuries to support capitalism, and was itself the worst example of unbridled capitalism.  When people argue over the causes of the US Civil War, there is a crowd that says it's about states' rights, and there's a crowd that says it's about slavery.  They're both right, but they both miss the truth.  It was really the fact that slavery was the backbone of capitalism in the South that caused the South to secede.  As country after country abolished the slave trade, capitalists in the South saw that the United States was going to abolish it soon, and they wanted to preserve the institution as long as possible to preserve plantation profits.  Preservation of profit not only prolonged the enslavement of millions of people, but also resulted in the lost of hundreds of thousands of American lives, all over capitalism.

Secondly, there is no interest in the greater good built into the idea of making profit.  Business only has interest in profit, so the only important consideration in business becomes how to maximize profits and preserve cash flow.  There's no interest in making life better for the maximum number of people, nor is there consideration for future generations.  Some people involved in business might consider these concepts, but there's no guarantee.  Of course, the concept of "the greater good" itself is problematic; who determines what constitutes "the greater good"?  What is "good"?  We would have to agree on a definition in order to work toward that end.  I think a decent example of a standard would be what medical professionals use in patient care: Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.  At its base, the hierarchy has survival needs, then moves on to things people need for emotional well-being and intellectual growth.  I think society becomes better when more of these needs are met by the greatest number of people.   Will everyone agree on this standard?  I would say "probably not" if I wasn't sure that the answer was "definitely not."

Next, the marketing of goods and services relies on manipulation and the presentation of the least amount of information to the public.   The market is best served by an ignorant population, not an informed one.  Ignorance breeds poor decision-making, however, and leads to poor representation in politics.  It leads to all kinds of disaster, as well.  Take, for example, the introduction of a species to a an area foreign to it to rid crops of a pest.  That species has no natural predators, so they infest the area, and their numbers get out so out of control, they become pests themselves, leading to ecological disaster.  Arguably, the levees keeping New Orleans from flooding broke because of bad decision-making regarding their maintenance, and anyone who watched the news in 2005 knows that result.  Ignorance led to unjustifiable war in the Middle East.  Can we blame the market on these things?  Well, the introduction of species to foreign environments had a direct capitalist cause, but the examples illustrate what happens when ignorance reigns, rather than what happens when the market is in control.  Still, the market wants ignorance, because it's easier to sell products that either do nothing or cause harm to a few--or even many--if the population remains ignorant, and ignorant politicians are a by-product of a culture of ignorance fostered by the market.

Finally, capitalism leads to a greater quality of life for the few, not the many.  The ultimate result of an unregulated market would resemble the medieval feudal system in Europe; most of the wealth will remain in the hands of a few, and the rest of the people will work for scraps.  Right now, people are kept far too busy and too poor to do anything substantial about the disparity of wealth that exists globally, and the market will work hard to preserve the status quo.  They will be entertained with junk food for the brain on the Internet, television, and radio.  Take a look at the news in the United States, for example: there's rarely anything of substance in a news broadcast.  How does news of a murder many states away affect life where you live?  It doesn't.  It doesn't inform you.  It only serves to shock you and keep you watching.  Look for in-depth investigation into anything on the news; you'll be hard-pressed to find it.  Very few journalists engage in it.  Why?  The news is a for-profit industry, and it's easier to provide superficial stories than it is to infiltrate organizations and businesses to provide investigative reporting.  The responsibility is to the bottom line and to the shareholder, not to the consumer.

If we are going to have a market, it should be a well-regulated one, tempered with information and consideration for what's best for the maximum number of people, not one that fosters ignorance, has no responsibility to labor or the consumer, and not one that influences politics.  The market should not decide how much freedom we have.  The market should not be the sole arbiter of what direction science should take.  The market should not be the determining factor in what makes the news.  If capitalism is going to survive, we need to regulate the hell out of it.

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