What corporations are for

[From Mike Acree (2000.04.13.1625 PDT)]

Bill Powers (2000.04.13.0419 MDT)--

Another very helpful post. I especially appreciate the kind of background
level you're getting to here.

What is the alternative to a legal system
with law enforcement? It is for everyone to wear a gun.

If I said that the only alternative to the government's monopoly on the
Postal Service was for us all to deliver our own mail, or that we should
have a government monopoly of the computer business so we didn't all have to
make our own computers, you would think that was too ridiculous for words.
So why are you saying that about the business of security? It's possible to
argue that competition works for some goods and services and not others, but
not that there's simply no such thing.

It sometimes seems to me that there are no
limits to human selfishness, in some people. I remember a conversation at
the newspaper where I worked, at a time when there was a lot of flooding
around Chicago, in the autumn. I remarked that where I lived, people were
having to spend a lot of time clearing leaves out of storm drain gratings,
because basements were getting flooded as sewers backed up. Two of my
colleages told me that I had it all wrong; if you clear the drains in front
of your house, they said, the water will just fill up the storm drains and
flood your basement; let someone else downstream clear the leaves out, and
that will relieve the flooding where you are. Of course by my friends'
reasoning, that will flood _their_ basements, but the response to that was
to congratulate themselves on their cleverness.

We all know people who seem to care for nothing but themselves--Al Gore
comes to mind, giving $218 to charity in 1997, I think it was, despite his
lavish financial support from Buddhist nuns; or my liberal friends who
refuse even to walk through poor neighborhoods with me because of all the
panhandlers they will encounter. I don't admire them for that, but neither
do I perceive their greed per se as especially dangerous.

It's hard for me to know what conclusions to draw from observations of
people's behavior in emergency situations. On the one hand, I was extremely
impressed with the generosity of people in the Bay Area in response to the
'89 earthquake and the '91 Oakland fire--going to hospitals to see what they
could do to help, donating rooms and everything else. On the other hand,
there's all those Republicans in their suits and ties trampling each other
to death to get into a Who concert in Cincinnati some years ago.

To me, the question is not just how I can survive, or what is good for me,
but how our whole society must be organized so that anyone in it, including
me of course, can live as good a life as possible. I simply can't accept
that I can live a good life when others can't; that bothers the hell out of
me, largely because my position in life is due primarily to good luck
rather than diligence, moral superiority, or hard work. And anyway, if I'm
living well while others aren't, then others will always be wanting to take
away what I have so they can live better, too.

Amen.

many
people besides me are as concerned for the shape of the society they live
in as for their own personal well-being. In fact, for many people the
concerns are essentially the same: the quality of my life, they think,
depends on how I feel about the kind of world I live in. I would put it
this way: my system concepts are as much a part of me as my concept of
myself as an individual. So the way I would go about seeing to it that my
boat floats higher would be to try to arrange for everyone's boat to float
higher, which of course would include mine. But if mine were the only one
to rise, I'd begin to ask what went wrong.

Amen again.

the liberal wants the government to forbid people to do things that
seem to work against the most desirable form of society -- the form in
which most people could live as well as possible. . . .

Government represents an
attempt by those concerned with the whole system to impose the same
constraints, by force if necessary, on people who are concerned only about
their personal well-being.

It's interesting, once again, that the author of Chapter 17 was not taken in
by this "It's for the good of society" argument, and specifically warned us
against it. He would have pointed out that it's still a selfish imposition
of _your_ values, that it's _your_ concept of the ideal society that you
want to force on others. Conservatives don't differ; they merely have a
different conception of the ideal society that they want to impose. The
basic evil for liberals is greed; for conservatives, sex. To them,
homosexuality, prostitution, and pornography are social evils destroying the
fabric of society, to be eradicated by force. Libertarians, whatever their
moral views, aren't into forcing them on others; they see both liberals and
conservatives as arrogant and inhumane in their determination to force
others into compliance with their particular view of the good.

We've been down this road before, and I believe this is your cue to argue
that my refusal to impose my morality on others by force is just a disguised
way of imposing my morality on others by force. Just as my refusal to rob
you is merely a subtler form of robbery.

What is interesting is that despite all the complaints from those who are
concerned only about their own welfare, and despite their considerable
economic power and their strong representation in government, we have a
government that does impose constraints on those people. Somehow the
weak-minded, namby-pamby, bleeding-heart liberals have prevailed! This,
considering the restraints under which liberals work and the relative lack
of restraints at work on the other side, is somewhat astonishing. Why have
not the business interests in the country risen up and taken over the
interfering government at the point of a gun, and abolished it? In part
this may be because these business interests do not trust each other enough
to form an effective alliance, but I think the real reason is simply they
they are not strong enough. The government, the product of liberal
do-gooder peaceniks if you listen to some people, has far more support than
the other side, and would simply crush such an uprising. The government is
clearly the most successful organization in this country, by any criterion
that businesses use to measure success. At least, the most successful
not-for-profit organization.

I don't think it's very mysterious that businesspeople or conservatives
support government. It's an invaluable instrument for all those who aspire
to control others. Sun Microsystems could never chop Microsoft up into Baby
Bills in a free market, but they can get the government to do it, even
though only 8% of Americans approve. Conservatives couldn't wage a war on
drugs, as I've argued, but they can get the government to do it. The only
people to whom government doesn't appeal are those without an overweening
desire to control others. As I suggested earlier, even the Mafia depends on
the government for its existence.

For the liberal concerned with peace and the general welfare, a government
that imposes its will by force is a serious contradiction. This is not part
of the picture of the good society. But the problem is the same kind as the
one faced by any person when confronted by a mugger or a rapist. Lacking
any magical formula that can divert the attack without violence, the only
solution, even for the preacher of nonviolence, is (when possible) to use
whatever force is required to fend off and capture the attacker. Thus for
the liberal, the government with its ability to force some standards of
decency on otherwise selfish people represents a stop-gap measure, to be
used until finally someone can come up with a better alternative. Of course
the use of force would cease immediately if businesses cleaned up their
acts voluntarily. But one may as well expect a mugger to do the same.

Your analogy implies that government uses force only in retaliation. If it
did, I would have no objection to it. But Microsoft didn't use physical
force against anyone, nor was it charged with that. Neither does your
average prostitute. It's the government that's the mugger in these cases.

they
waste their substance in futile competition, like gas stations having a
price war.

You're a rare consumer if you complain about price wars!

A business that is forced to put guards on its
sawblades is not put at a disadvantage relative to other businesses that
also are required to put guards on their sawblades.

Exactly the same result, of course, could have occurred voluntarily, but if
there were no government authority to enforce the safety measures, sooner
or later some company would try to save money by selling its sawblade
guards, and immediately all the competitors would have to follow suit if
they didn't want to lose market share. All it takes is one cynical,
uncaring, selfish entrepreneur to force all the competitors to behave as if
they were the same way, even if they are really perfectly decent people.
This is a fundamental instability that always occurs when businesses try to
regulate themselves.

This is the other side of government regulations. Some people will always
howl about them. But sometimes, maybe even often, they really offer an
excuse for those businessmen who really do care about others to do the
right thing without losing their share of the market. Charitably, we can
suppose that the majority of businessmen really feel that way and, perhaps
secretly, welcome the "interference" even while putting on a public face of
disapproval, like kids being kept from fighting by an adult. Often at least
one kid feels relief at not having to get (or cause) hurt, although it's
not socially possible to say so.

You're quite right that this is a side of government regulation. I've
always assumed (though I don't know) that the airlines lobbied for
prohibiting smoking; a law would keep it from being economic suicide for one
of them to do it. I don't know how it would ultimately have turned out
without the regulation. But at least no one would be legally prohibited
from starting up an airline catering to smokers.

Safety regulations, like the chainsaw guards, are interesting because people
also disagree about what is protective. Some motorcyclists say they feel
less safe with helmets because of reduced peripheral vision. Auto seatbelts
save lives of drivers and passengers, on balance; but pedestrian vehicle
deaths have gone up, evidently because drivers are lulled into a false sense
of security. Airbags have killed roughly as many children under 10 as
accidents with firearms, and parents were not only forced to pay for them,
but were punished for disconnecting them. I'd rather people got to use
their own judgment about such things. At least they won't have anyone to
blame but themselves if they judge wrong.

I would suggest that the first order of business ought to be removing all
the specific grounds for legitimate complaints about laws and regulations.
This is something we can do little by little, case by case. This would go a
long way toward reducing the tensions between the sides in this conflict.
While people complain in general terms, their reasons for complaint are
always specific. Remove the specific grievances, and the general conflict
should become less.

When we have achieved this happy result, it will be time to re-evaluate, to
see what else we really need to do -- if anything. By that time, the social
relationships involved may have changed greatly, so new directions of
change open up. But let us change what we can change, and leave speculation
about what to do next until the immediate job is done.

I love the sound of this, and really regret that I don't think it would
work. The reason is that each of these questionable laws has some group of
people, often small, that it benefits. They are strongly motivated to
preserve the law, whereas the costs to the rest of us are diffuse and hardly
noticed. Tobacco subsidies are a good example. I would guess that at least
80% of the population opposes them, given that only 25% are smokers, and
most of those are conservatives. But tobacco farmers are highly organized,
and have a powerful Senator representing them. For all the rest of us it's
a marginal issue.

I don't think that means the only alternative to piecemeal change is violent
revolution. Realistic alternatives will require a little more imagination.
But that's a story for another time.

Best,
Mike