I’m also a liberal, in the sense that I’m not averse to a role
for government in society. Yet history has convinced me that representative
government can’t adequately protect the interests of ordinary citizens.
Even less can it protect the interests of future generations, ecosystems,
and nonhuman species. The reason is that most — though not all — of
the time, government puts the interests of private corporations first. This
is a systemic problem of a capitalist democracy, not just a matter of electing
If you identify with the preceding sentiments, then you might be
confused and demoralized, as I have been lately. If capitalism
as we know
it is deeply flawed, and government is no savior, where lies
hope? This strikes
one of the great dilemmas of our time. For years the Right
has been saying — nay,
shouting — that government is flawed and that only
privatization, deregulation, and tax cuts can save us. For
just as long, the Left has been insisting that
markets are flawed and that only government can save us.
The trouble is that both sides are half-right and half-wrong.
They’re both right that markets
and state are flawed, and both wrong that salvation lies
in either sphere. But if that’s the case, what are
we to do? Is there, perhaps, a missing set of institutions
that can help us? ... read
the whole chapter
The notion that government should protect the commons goes back a long way.
Sometimes this duty is considered so basic it’s taken for granted.
At other times, it’s given a name: the public trust. Several states
actually put this duty in writing. Pennsylvania’s constitution, for
example, declares: “Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are
the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come.
As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain
them for the benefit of all the people.” Note that in this constitutional
dictum, serving as trustee of natural resources isn’t an option for
the state, it’s an affirmative duty.
Yet here as elsewhere, rhetoric and reality differ. Political institutions
don’t function in a vacuum; they function in a world in which power
is linked to property. This was true when fifty-five white male property
owners wrote our Constitution, and it’s no less true today.
America has been engaged in two experiments simultaneously: one is called
democracy, the other, capitalism. It would be nice if these experiments ran
separately, but they don’t. They go on in the same bottle, and each
affects the other. After two hundred years, we can draw some conclusions
about how they interact. One is that capitalism distorts democracy more than
the other way around.
The reason capitalism distorts democracy is simple. Democracy is an open
system, and economic power can easily infect it. By contrast, capitalism
is a gated system; its bastions aren’t easily accessed by the masses.
Capital’s primacy thus isn’t an accident, nor the fault of George
W. Bush. It’s what happens when capitalism inhabits democracy.
This isn’t to say the United States government can’t, at times,
restrain corporations. It has a number of tools at its disposal, and has
used them in the past with some success. But the measures it can take are
woefully inadequate to the task of safeguarding the planet for our children.
Let’s see why. ....
Three points are worth making here.
- First, ownership isn’t the same thing as trusteeship. Owners of
property — even government owners — have wide latitude to
do whatever they want with it; a trustee does not. Trustees are bound
terms of their trust and by centuries-old principles of trusteeship,
foremost among which is “undivided loyalty” to beneficiaries.
- Second, in a capitalist democracy, the state is a dispenser of many
valuable prizes. Whoever amasses the most political power wins
the most valuable prizes.
The rewards include property rights, friendly regulators, subsidies,
tax breaks, and free or cheap use of the commons. The notion that
common good” is sadly naive.
- Third, while free marketers are fond of saying that capitalism is
a precondition for democracy, what they neglect to add is that capitalism
also distorts democracy.
Like gravity, its tug is constant. The bigger the concentrations
of capital, the stronger the tug.
We face a disheartening quandary here. Profit-maximizing corporations dominate
our economy. Their programming makes them enclose and diminish common wealth.
The only obvious counterweight is government, yet government is dominated
by these same corporations.
One possible way out of this dilemma is to reprogram corporations — that
is, to make them driven by something other than profit. This, however, is
like asking elephants to dance — they’re just not built to do
it. Corporations are built to make money, and the truth is, as a society
we want them to make money. We’ll look at this further in the next
Another possible way out is to liberate government from corporations, not
just momentarily, but long-lastingly. This is easier said than done. Corporations
have decimated their old adversary, organized labor, and turned the media
into their mouthpiece. Occasionally a breakthrough is made in campaign financing — for
example, corporations are now barred from giving so-called soft money to
political parties — but corporate money soon finds other channels to
flow through. The return on such investments is simply too high to stop them.
Does this mean there’s no hope? I don’t think so. The window
of opportunity is small, but not nonexistent. Throughout American history,
anticorporate forces have come to power once or twice per century. In the
nineteenth century, we had the eras of Jackson and Lincoln; in the twentieth
century, those of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt. Twenty-first century equivalents
will, I’m sure, arise. It may take a calamity of some sort — another
war, a depression, or an ecological disaster — to trigger the next
anticorporate ascendancy, but sooner or later it will come. Our job is to
be ready when it comes. ... read
the whole chapter