Here’s the Merriam-Webster definition of dystopia: an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives. It’s a good description of the kind of society promoted by the GOP.
Of course, Republicans don’t go into much detail about what will happen if they get their way. They keep their prescription vague and happy sounding, as in this statement by Mitt Romney:
“Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.”
In other words, the more privatization the better.
Romney is part of a highly successful Republican campaign to make the word “public” curdle in the mouths of Americans. Public schools, public sector unions, and public transportation all suffer by association with this word. “Private,” meaning what belongs exclusively to some individual or group, is full of positive connotations, as in private enterprise, private property and private schools. It signifies what is (or should be) outside the reach of the GOP’s favorite whipping boy — government.
Romney wants to turn over to the private sector as many government functions as possible. That means transferring them to corporations, ones that are large enough to carry out such functions as defense, infrastructure creation and maintenance, health insurance and education.
Romney and his fellow conservatives want what we can call a market society, in which goods and services are allocated as far as possible only by voluntary transactions of individuals and groups of individuals (including corporations). Government’s only legitimate role is to promote and protect markets.
Even in its legitimate role, government should be kept as small as possible. It should intervene in the market as little as possible (as in the French phrase “laissez-faire”).
Conservatives offer two sorts of arguments for a market society. The first is that private enterprise is more efficient at just about everything. This argument has been shown to be badly wrong in important areas such as health insurance.
Because of corporate pressure and Republican anti-government demagoguery, the Obama health care plan is built around our private insurance system. This very inefficient system makes us spend nearly twice as much per person as Canada and much of Europe spend on their government-controlled health care systems. Yet Canada and Europe get generally better results.
The moral argument for a market society invokes freedom as a supreme social and political value. Walter Williams, a notable libertarian economist, puts it this way: “Even if free enterprise were not more efficient than other forms of human organization, it is morally superior because it is rooted in voluntary relationships rather than force and coercion [by government], and it respects the sanctity of the individual.”
Williams has taken a partial truth and turned it into an absolute. Most of us would agree that a society in which there was no free enterprise, in which government ran the economy, would stifle individual initiative and liberty.
But this important truth does not imply that we should choose the opposite extreme — a shrunken government subordinated to the perspective and values of private enterprise. Would such a society respect what Williams called “the sanctity of the individual”?
Most working Americans are employees who do not hold top management positions. They are for sale in a labor market. From a business perspective, they are commodities just like buildings, materials and machinery. They are valued just like the other things consumed in the process of production — they have merely use-value.
So, management will try to enhance profits by extracting the maximum value out of employees. They will try to work them as hard as possible for as many hours as possible, at the lowest wage they can get away with paying. As we routinely see in coal mines, management will try to reduce costs at the expense of workplace safety.
As Milton Friedman explained, behaving this way is what a capitalist society requires of corporate executives: “There is one and only one social responsibility of business — to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”
Many private corporations have revenues greater than sovereign nations. Only a vigorous and well-funded government can be an adequate counterveiling power against these huge private institutions. The social responsibility of government in a capitalist economy is to ensure that people are treated as persons, not as things.
Nothing is more fundamental to morality than this principle. Everyone wants to be useful, but no one wants to be “used” — treated like a thing. People who cannot respect this principle are psychopaths. Can a society that subordinates itself entirely to the profit motive respect “the sanctity of the individual”?
Brian Cooney is emeritus professor of philosophy at Centre College.