Monday, June 11, 2012

Government is not the Enemy

It is a source of considerable amusement to me that people spend so much time worrying about government tyranny. Some of these people are Libertarians of course, who want government to limit itself to enforcing the contracts they impose on those they exploit. But others of them are leftists who can theoretically be expected to know better.

(This and unlabeled images from Wikimedia Commons)

Some skepticism regarding government is of course warranted. Throughout human history, the State has been perhaps the greatest perpetrator of tyranny among our species. But this has been so largely in the service of class; Marx touched upon this when he labeled the State as part of a "superstructure" resting upon the more important economic structure of society. With some notable exceptions, State tyranny has been a tool of economic elites, employed against the mass populace.

The development of democratic political institutions has been a mitigating factor in this process. To the extent that the mass populace can control the apparatus of the State, they can prevent those mechanisms from being employed to their detriment. The system, very obviously, is imperfect. Throughout history democratic forms of the State have been more of an arena for struggle between the clases than a reliable defender of the 99%. The history of the American Labor movement, and its repression by the State acting at the behest of elites is ample proof of this.

Democratic political institutions are only effective to the extent that the mass populace avails itself of them.

This is paticularly problematic in early 21st century America. The defining characterisitic of the American mass populace is that it's inattentive and apathetic. The average American cannot tell you who their congressman is. They cannot tell you the name of even a single Justice on the Supreme Court, or who the Speaker of the House is, or how a bill becomes a law.

Many on the Left attempt to excuse this ignorance by blaming the media. Public affairs coverage in the media is notoriously poor; its superficiality is exceeded only by its scarcity. But apologists for the mass populace are confusing cause and effect in this case. Media providers are profit maximizing businesses; they respond to consumer demand. Public affairs programs get rotten ratings because the modal American viewer would rather watch anything than the news.

(image from MTV. Karma is going to be a bitch for this one.)

Nevertheless, the basic mechanisms of democratic governance remain in place, despite the American people's reluctance to use them effectively. The defining characterisitic of politicians is that they are "single-minded seekers of reelection", determined above all else to stay in office. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, that determination makes them almost frantically responsive to demand. Your elected representatives do NOT ignore you. To the contrary, they are desperate to hear what you want and to provide it. The problem is that politicians function in a sensory deprivation tank of popular demand. They hear little or nothing in the way of coherent demand from their constituents.

And so, like an individual trapped in an ACTUAL sensory deprivation tank, they respond desperately to the input they do receive... from lobbyists.

Lobbyists represent corporations, a far more sinister and unccountable concentration of power than government. The defining characteristic of business is that they are profit maximizers. They will undertake breathtakingly anti-social acts in pursuit of that maximization. 

Executives of the Ford Company were warned by engineers of the design flaw that turned the Pinto into a mobile crematorium when struck in the rear. The business decision was made to not recall the Pinto, because it was anticipated that the costs of the recall would exceed the costs of paying liability claims from the families of the customers they consigned to die by fire.

(image from

Executives of Proctor and Gamble were warned by their medical testers that their Rely Tampon was making some of its users sick.  The Centers for Disease Control later warned P&G that 70% of the cases of Toxic Shock Syndrome it had recorded involved women using the Rely Tampon. P&G's response was to deny the connection, delay action and continue to market a product that made its customers deathly ill, or killed them outright.

Executives of the A. H. Robbins Co. were warned that their recently acquired product the Dalkon Shield had been inadequately tested. Even after a rash of deaths and illnesses forced the product's withdrawal in the United States, it continued to market the product overseas. Executives at Lehman Brothers intentionally falsified its financial records in order to defraud its shareholders. And don't get me started on the cigarette companies...

It is not my intention to villify the private sector here. Business executives are not sociopathic monsters, they're just people. But people aren't all that bright; they will compulsively make the same kinds of mistakes, in the same situations, over, and over, and over again. People are not good long-term thinkers, they don't usually see the bigger picture all that clearly. Evolution has designed them to act in the moment, in response to immediate stimuli.

But that gap in our perceptual apparatus means that we cannot expect the good intentions or human kindness of business executives to protect us. Business executives are trying to make a buck. They must face short-term, immediate, in-their-face consequences to force them to consider society's larger interests. Those consequences must be provided by the power of the State. No other social organization has the power to compel corporations to consider the common good.

The State CAN tyrannize, but only to the extent the citizens of the State permit it to do so. The State CAN protect us from the otherwise unacountable power of corporations. But only to the extent it is compelled to do so by its citizens, using the political mechanisms available to them in an informed and consistent manner.

30 years of conservative propaganda notwithstanding, GOVERNMENT IS NOT THE ENEMY! It's OUR government, it will do what WE tell it to.

And, it's the only weapon we have to protect us from the 1%.

(image from The Simpsons wiki)