I am not the first, and may not even be the one millionth, person to point out that a lot of voters approach politics as something about halfway between a sports fandom and a religion. In every election, there are massive numbers of people who treat the process not as a contest of competing interests to rationally shape the direction of the body politic, but as the latest opportunity to affirm a more or less inherent tendency: God hates queers, God wants us to bomb Iran, God doesn’t want us to pay taxes on our inheritances. Even the more cynical, who think of politics as a joke, often seem to be laughing at different bits than the rest of us.
This propensity to treat politics as a rooting interest rather than a process of thoughtful selection manifests itself in different ways, from electing any old corrupt tale-teller as long as he invokes the right enemies list to thinking that terrorists aren’t terrorists because they commit acts of terror, but because of who they commit them against. But every so often, it shows up in such a blatant, obvious, frustratingly stupid way that it makes you want to give up the whole idea of democracy as a lost art form and install it in a museum somewhere in between exhibits of steamboats and automatic writing. This year’s gold standard of maddeningly short-sighted partisanship comes from an innocuous source: an Ezra Klein bit in the Washington Post about the general indifference of the public to new food labeling laws. The money shot is buried at the end:
I did find one customer who had noticed the calorie labels: Dick Nigon of Sterling, Va. He and his wife, Lea, had stopped by McDonald’s after seeing an exhibit at the Renwick Gallery. Dick had ordered for the couple, noticed the calorie labels and liked them.
“I like that you have the information before you order,” he told me, when I asked about the labels. “It’s better than some kind of government health mandate in Obamacare.”
I told him that the calorie labels were, in fact, a government health mandate in Obamacare.
“Well that changes things a bit,” he responded. “I thought this was more of a voluntary sort of thing. Now I’m not quite sure how I feel about it.”
Simply on its face, this is a head-poundingly perfect example of politics-as-fandom, and prima facie evidence of why we never seem to get anywhere: a good idea instantly ceases to be a good idea when it comes from someone you don’t like. Say, what a fine idea! What? Obama came up with it? Well, now I don’t know what to think! The merits of the idea are instantly forgotten, even by the person who began by pointing them out, because there’s no way anything could be worthwhile if it came from that big-government commie usurper from Kenya.
But if we look a little deeper, we find an element of paradox, a key to the way the free-market movement conservative argument contains the seed of its own destruction. Our Mr. Nigon originally finds the listing of nutritional information to be a positive development, because he believes it was McDonalds‘ idea. He thinks the company did it of their own accord, an act of free will to give their customers the information they need to make a reasonable and informed decision about what and how much they choose to eat. When he finds out that the program was coercive — that it is the result of a government regulation that forces a private company to disclose information about its products — its virtues disappear, and it becomes just another meddlesome imposition by nanny-state bureaucrats.
This is entirely in keeping, not only with the Objectivist extremes of the economic right, but with the mainstream Republican school of unrestricted free market doctrine. The government has no business using your tax dollars to enforce a particular strain of forced morality on private industry; instead, left to its own devices, companies will voluntarily disclose this information to their consumers, allowing them to make a rational decision based on their own desires combined with their best interests. The result will be a economy buoyed by free choice instead of federal interference, where the best products rise to the top thanks to clear-headed decisions by informed customers. McDonald’s doesn’t need Obama forcing them to disclose nutritional information; McDonald’s will choose to disclose nutritional information if an inquiring public demands it.
It’s a beautiful, rational, perfectly inarguable idea; the only problem is, it never, ever works that way. McDonald’s has had 72 years to disclose the nutritional value of its foods to the public, and has never done so voluntarily. No cigarette company ever chose to reveal to the public the myriad poisons contained in its products. No liquor manufacturer, auto maker or airline has ever decided on its own initiative to make public the health risks of its booze, the safety concerns involving its cars, or the inspection results of its planes. The entire history of corporate behavior is an endless and unvaried attempt to conceal such information from the public. The reason for this is simple: it is not in the interest of corporations to ease the public mind, or, indeed, to even recognize that the public mind needs easing. Corporations have one goal only , and that is to turn as much of a profit as is possible; since this is more easily accomplished by cutting corners, underpaying labor and ignoring costly safety measures, such considerations have been, and always will be, brushed aside, ignored or concealed. Even in those rare instances where a profit can be had by marketing a product based on its safety, this is done in a highly selective way. The only circumstance under which any corporation will ever disclose private information — whether it’s about their finances, their profits, their safety records, or even basic information about their products — is when they are required to do so by the government. This is so universal and invariable that it might as well be a law of physics.
Unfortunately, this runs counter to the libertarian myth of the free market. The fantasy that both consumers and businesses are entirely rational and independent actors, exchanging information freely in an unfettered trace-space, runs counter to the reality that every inch of progress in the corporate world, from working conditions to product safety to financial disclosure to quality standards , has come about because of a prevailing external force, whether it’s been consumer watchdog groups, government regulations, or labor unions. The utopian vision of an informed and compulsion-free market space is simply a myth; it runs utterly contrary to the way corporations have actually behaved in the absence of regulation and oversight.
What’s more, recent experience has proven beyond question that when already-extant regulations are removed, corporations, far from edging closer to the free marketplace ideologues love to champion, inevitably return to their old habits of corruption, market manipulation, price-fixing, misinformation, monopoly power, artificial scarcity, and gouging. This has happened (and recently, too) in the energy industry, the financial services industry, the telecommunications industry, the airline industry, and the automotive industry. It is not a possibility; it is a certainty. Some industries — including, but by no means restricted to, sports and entertainment — have even sought, with varying degrees of success, to have protections from the sort of regulation and risk that comes from competing in an actual free market embodied in the law of the land. Corporate corruption, protection from disclosure, avoidance of public responsibility, evasion of health and safety standards, market manipulation, obfuscation of policy — these are not bugs. They are features.
And yet, at the most profound and basic level, these are the very things sought after by Republican policymakers. Tom Frank and others have done a wonderful job in establishing that whatever they preach during election season — an end to abortion, a clean-up of Hollywood, a crackdown on crime, a renewed repression of homosexuality — what they practice is always the further enrichment of the ownership class. Lower taxes, less regulation. Less power for the government, and less money to utilize that power. More ‘freedom’ for corporations to operate without oversight, and less recourse for workers seeking better conditions, stronger guarantees, more money. Even for the moralizing Tea Party ideologues, these are always and ever the priorities.
It’s enough to make you wonder if the entire party platform is a lie. Dick Nigon, that poor sap, is like millions of others: he votes Republican because he wants the government off his back, and because he sincerely believes that, absent the iron claw of the state, the invisible hand of the market will voluntarily make the world a better place. But it never does, and it never will. The two must always struggle, and that struggle is what makes for a better world: the private sector will always strive to enrich itself by making products that improve our daily life and that people will voluntarily want to buy. But the public sector must always ensure that, in doing so, they do not endanger the public, exploit the environment, damage their own workers. It is a necessary conflict, and it is bewildering that those who correctly surmise that, in the absence of private industry, the government will not innovate and improve to enrich the public, do not also admit that, in the absence of the public sector, corporations will lie, cheat, exploit, and conceal.
Democrats are not immune to internal conflicts. Because we have a two-party system — because we have intentionally hobbled with an electoral process that allows us one choice or another — our votes are forever compromised. Liberals find themselves having to tolerate developments within their own party that, to put it mildly, they find hugely distasteful. But at least the fundamental premise of the Democratic party — that of a strong public sector where civil and social improvements and government oversight of private industry are funded by a progressive tax rate — is not fundamentally a lie. The premise of the Republican party — that government is nothing more than a rotting excretion on the body politic, and that private industry, left completely to its own devices, will self-regulate into doing the right thing — has been more thoroughly discredited in the real world than phrenology, orniscopy, or communism. If politics is a religion, the Republicans are the Millerites, forever botching their end-of-the-world predictions and then asking for one more chance to get it right; if politics is sports, the Republicans are the Chicago Cubs, endlessly pleading their constituency to wait ’til next year, when everything will finally change.