Commentary: Enron, Tyco, WorldCom... and the U.S. government?
By James K. Galbraith
WHAT IS THE REAL NATURE of American capitalism today? Is it a grand national adventure, as politicians and textbooks aver, in which markets provide the framework for benign competition, from which emerges the greatest good for the greatest number? Or is it the domain of class struggle, even a “global class war,” as the title of Jeff Faux’s new book would have it, in which the “party of Davos” outmaneuvers the remnants of the organized working class?
The doctrines of the “law and economics” movement, now ascendant in our courts, hold that if people are rational, if markets can be “contested,” if memory is good and information adequate, then firms will adhere on their own to norms of honorable conduct. Any public presence in the economy undermines this. Even insurance—whether deposit insurance or Social Security—is perverse, for it encourages irresponsible risktaking. Banks will lend to bad clients, workers will “live for today,” companies will speculate with their pension funds; the movement has even argued that seat belts foster reckless driving. Insurance, in other words, creates a “moral hazard” for which “market discipline” is the cure; all works for the best when thought and planning do not interfere. It’s a strange vision, and if we weren’t governed by people like John Roberts and Sam Alito, who pretend to believe it, it would scarcely be worth our attention.
The idea of class struggle goes back a long way; perhaps it really is “the history of all hitherto existing society,” as Marx and Engels famously declared. But if the world is ruled by a monied elite, then to what extent do middle-class working Americans compose part of the global proletariat? The honest answer can only be: not much. The political decline of the left surely flows in part from rhetoric that no longer matches experience; for the most part, American voters do not live on the Malthusian margin. Dollars command the world’s goods, rupees do not; membership in the dollar economy makes every working American, to some degree, complicit in the capitalist class.
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