Wednesday, September 29, 2010

How to listen to the Tea Party message--II

Our society, I pointed out in an earlier blog, has become so complex that individual citizens cannot understand, let alone manage large parts of it. Do you really understand the causes of the present economic crisis? Are you confident that you understand how that crisis could have been avoided or could have been remedied once it occurred?

The need for government regulation and protection is intensified by the system under which we produce most goods. Many of actions of the government have to do with different kinds of consumer protection. We must be alerted to unhealthy spinach or salmonella in eggs. The most careful consumers have no way of testing the food they buy in the grocery store. We need the government to inform  and protect us.

The same is true of many different consumer products. Automobiles today are immensely complicated machines. There are a lot fewer backyard mechanics than there used to be. Someone must warn us if a car has a serious defect.

And so it goes with any consumer product you can imagine, from cosmetics, to baby  pajamas, to food supplements, to the design of computer keyboards and screens. Wood stoves and kerosene heaters may give off carbon monoxide gas that kills people every winter because the gas is odorless. Building codes protect us against unsafe wiring and plumbing and unreliable construction. The hazards of asbestos are not perceptible to ordinary citizens.

Most, if not all consumer products are produced by private companies competing with others in a capitalist marketplace. Their efforts are driven by the search for greater profit; they try to undersell their competitors in order to increase their market share. In many cases that involves cutting corners, producing products that are not as safe as they might be, and ignoring safety hazards if they can save money by doing so.

The growth of government regulation and armies of bureaucrats who monitor the regulated products is conditioned by the growth of capitalist enterprises producing consumer goods. Competition between capitalist firms exerts a pressure on each firm to be less careful of consumer safety than they ought to, and in most cases, would like to be. Similarly, the pressure of competition often produces unsafe working conditions and only government inspections can force employers to remedy safety hazards in the workplace .

Here, once again, the Tea Party brings to the fore a serious problem. Being great advocates of individual liberty, Tea Party members oppose government regulation and cheer on the free untrammeled market and private competition. Most Americans would agree with this advocacy of capitalist economics.

But the Tea Party position reminds us that the capitalist production process carries a steep price of ubiquitous government monitoring, supervision, regulation.

People are bitterly resentful of the government mandate for all of us to carry health insurance. Do you also want to repeal the laws that demand of every driver that they have liability insurance? Should we abolish the rules of the road, laws against DUI?

Do you really want to stop the government from forcing recalls of dangerous baby cribs or tainted food? How many deaths from salmonella are you willing to allow to enhance your personal freedom?

The never ending, often fierce competition between capitalist enterprises would leave the consumer completely defenseless were it not for government agencies to look out for us, to insure us against the ups and down of the capitalist financial markets, to protect us against bank failures, and to keep an eye on high-flying speculators, not to mention very large agribusinesses whose products may make us deathly ill, or car companies whose products may kill us.

But, of course, all these regulations limit freedoms of individual citizens. While, on the one hand, capitalist economic systems appear to enhance individual freedom, they are, in practice, only workable if they are severely regulated. But these regulations, as the Tea Party reminds us,  restrict  individual freedom.