11.28.2010

In the spirit of debate

I have the pleasure of knowing several people on friendly terms with whom I constantly disagree on matters of politics and economics... and it’s awesome. Unlike media pundits or politicians, we’re able to have and enjoy civil debates, usually via Facebook (or sometimes in World of Warcraft between raiding dungeons. That’s right, I’m a Kingslayer.) At best our discussions will lead at least one of us (preferably all of us) towards enlightenment of some sort, but I think the main purpose of our deliberation is to amuse ourselves and perhaps tickle our egos.


I’d like to address a common theme that pops up on every Facebook thread we create. We have a fundamental disagreement on what role government has in society. This differential dictates most of our stances on kitchen-table policies, some of which we agree on and others we don’t. I think it’s safe to assume that it’s at the heart of a lot of other people’s disagreements as well.

The common conservative/libertarian stance on government - which I disagree with - is that a proper government's only responsibility is to protect the rights of the individual, by banning the initiation of force, thus making all relations between men peaceful, i.e., free from the threat of violence and fraud.

I actually admire this political stance as I think it requires an enormous amount of faith in the positive nature of humanity and our collective ability to naturally progress - a very modernist assumption. After all, it assumes that individual actions will lead to positive societal gains with minimal collaborative direction. Sure, it takes enormous collaborative effort to maintain our free-trade systems - but business is hardly democratic. Furthermore, free-trade economic models rely on individuals to make logical decisions which I think is a seriously flawed assumption.

What’s ironic is that I also find myself to be extremely optimistic about humanity - but I still find that government ought to play a bigger role in our societal progression.

I would argue that the only serious default alternative to government authority would be corporations. With numbers of employees and economic output comparable to the populations and GDP of nations - it is not unusual for people to compare systems of government with other major power structures such as corporations. Also keep in mind that after 8 hours of sleep there are 112 hours in a week - almost half of which are dedicated to most people’s employer (more so for those who allow their employment to dictate the direction of their lives outside of work - scheduling around it, planning their career, budgeting or worrying about money, etc...)

To some, there’s nothing wrong with this. After all, corporations demonstrate extreme innovation, efficiency and growth. Corporations provide us with enough food to feed the entire world. Corporations are at the forefront of technological development. Corporations drive the economic systems that are bringing billions out of poverty. Oh, and corporations can be fun! Right?

Yea, kinda. They’re also accomplishing all of the above within a highly regulatory atmosphere governed by a strong federal government. You could argue that’s just indicative of how much further along we’d be without government at the steering wheel. But I think it more accurately demonstrates how important it is to have a strong, central (also democratic!) government as a sort of counter-weight. Wasn’t it government that built railroads and later our illustrious highway system that enabled large corporations to transport its goods and facilitate a freer flow of labor? Wasn’t it government that (until only recently) created a formal education system that skyrocketed our public intellect past competitors? What about public investment in water supply lines and sewage treatment that eradicated polio in the early 20th century?

Our government is not without its flaws, of course! Inefficiencies [PDF warning) and corruption flourish. But, do we need an efficient government? What does that even mean?

I like to compare the alternative again. Considering how active and present corporations are in the administration of land, labor and capital - and how much they influence our own lives in general - I feel it’s fair to compare it to systems of government. Such a comparison, as done by Wikileaks, is pretty illuminating when you compare the civic freedoms of each constructs’ populations. Within a corporation:

  1. The right to vote does not exist except for share holders (analogous to land owners) and even there voting power is in proportion to ownership.
  2. All power issues from a central committee.
  3. There is no balancing division of power. There is no fourth estate. There are no juries and innocence is not presumed.
  4. Failure to submit to any order may result in instant exile.
  5. There is no freedom of speech.
  6. There is no right of association. Even romance between men and women is often forbidden without approval.
  7. The economy is centrally planned.
  8. There is pervasive surveillance of movement and electronic communication.
  9. The society is heavily regulated, to the degree many employees are told when, where and how many times a day they can go to the toilet.
  10. There is little transparency and something like the Freedom of Information Act is unimaginable.
  11. Internal opposition groups, such as unions, are blackbanned, surveilled and/or marginalized whenever and wherever possible.

With a stronger corporate presence in our lives (and/or with a more impotent government) the list above becomes even truer and our civic progress over the last few hundred years is reduced to null. It’s tragic that conservative and libertarian idealists who fly the flag of “freedom” when demanding the reduction of government power unwittingly replace one regime of alleged authoritarian control with another. (To be fair, it’s equally authoritarian for ultra-progressives to desire public policy that dictates our consumption habits.)

I hate to group people and generalize, but I can’t help but wonder if the difference between good policy and no policy totally escapes libertarians. Our government makes bad decisions often, but that doesn’t mean its authority to make decisions should be gimped. Likewise, I wouldn’t want to limit the liberties of free enterprise simply because of a few of their own mistakes.

While Wikileaks seeks to undermine this coercive corporate (and government) power through the illumanating force of the free-press, I’ve argued that balancing the power between strong governments and strong corporations, and limiting the destructive marriage of the two is the best way to balance the rights and liberties of individuals with the needs of communities in progress.

Unfortunately this balance can only be found or maintained by constructive conversations between those who favor progressive government intervention and those who would limit government influence in favor of the free market’s ability to improve our material standards.

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