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Unrestricted Capitalism A Poor Second to a Blended Economy

My last commentary addressed the risk to democracy of unrestricted capitalism that leaves too many too desperate to see the benefits of cooperation. Democracy works poorly when the few holding the levers of power can convince the rest of us that they deserve the benefits and we deserve the scraps. Unrestricted capitalism mimics the game of monopoly, bankrupting all but the wealthy winner. It creates desperate people who’ll pin their hopes on demagogues’ empty promises, or celebrate their emperor’s new clothes.

We used to celebrate a blended economy in which public and private institutions each contributed whatever would work best. That was before those so wealthy as to need nothing convinced the rest of us that anything and everything government did for ordinary folk was “socialism,” as if a drop of government support destroyed the country and the difference and effectiveness of government programs was irrelevant. We used to be smarter than that.

Something very crucial is lost when we expect private companies to take care of everything. It’s naïve to believe that business will take care of everything. Companies do what they can profit from, so most of our needs are excluded from what they care about. And they hide a lot of the damage they do while making us sign documents that protect them and leave us to fend for ourselves if anything goes wrong, knowing the courts will back them up. The game is stacked and the public interest locked out of the marketplace.

We once believed government should serve the public interest, to do what business wasn’t motivated or good at doing. We understood it’s often cheaper to provide everyone with public services and utilities, and share the benefits of a well-educated, healthy and productive public. We once understood that regulation prevents a lot more suffering and expense than individual consumers can do for themselves and that it’s a waste to hospitalize people to treat what was preventable. We used to care that people have decent pay for decent jobs and we liked it that way. We celebrated public agencies that did their jobs well, not for ideological reasons, but because we expected government to help where it could. We expected government to serve and unleash everyone’s strengths – not just the wealthy.

The systemic poison goes deeper – money corrupted the sense of responsibility of too many public officials. If capitalism is poorly suited to serving our needs and public officials have been so corrupted by capitalism that they fail to protect the water supply as in Hoosick Falls, or are willing to poison the population to save money, as in Flint, Michigan, then we have to fight back.

When the people who control the money also control the media and convince Americans that the capitalists are the solution instead of the problem, that we should all pay tribute to our oppressors, that they are entitled to larger and larger shares of the pie and workers smaller and smaller, then the disparity between the few and the many grows like a cancer, and the muscle of ordinary people in their own government shrinks.

The result is an America where smart capital leaves for other countries because we’ve disabled our own population with a disparity of wealth that leaves little opportunity at home, and poisons the possibility of self-government. We need to relearn the benefits of a blended economy and give ourselves better alternatives.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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