Opinion

More government oversight? Capitalist, regulate thyself.

Solutions to the abuses of capitalism are sought in new programs and corrective legislation – why not in the hearts of men? 

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Though they may not be ready to embrace socialism by name, many Americans are experiencing a general shakiness in their faith in capitalism. In the midst of congressional debates over healthcare, cap and trade, and new financial regulations, they’re rightly asking: Does the profit motive provide appropriate solutions to all problems? Does the criterion of “winning or losing” apply to all socioeconomic circumstances?

The questions apply to other areas not dominating the headlines, such as the justice system. If healthcare shouldn’t be denied on financial grounds, isn’t it equally objectionable that “justice” improves with high-powered (and expensive) legal representation? Life savings can evaporate in legal fees as easily as in hospital fees.

Even further from the headlines, is our culture of “free” expression – the speech, images, and music dominating media – the best imaginable? Considering their importance for cultural wellbeing and upliftment, we might question our “whatever sells” approach. In his recent documentary, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” Michael Moore distinguishes between democracy and “evil” capitalism, but they are related practices. Our culture reflects people’s choices, voting with their purchases.

Mr. Moore’s ire for Wall Street greed is understandable. But be wary whenever someone nominates another abstract enemy – the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on illiteracy, the war on terrorism (and countless other “isms”)… the war on capitalism? Sincere citizens want to correct these problems, but there is often an insidious self-deception in the way we frame the issue, as though we confront an independent entity completely removed from our choices and actions as individuals or societies. How often does victory in such “wars” have something of the futile elusiveness of shadow-boxing?

Capitalism and democracy are not about getting the best of anything – sometimes they come close, but that’s not the criterion. They tend to give us only what the majority wants – that’s it. It puts the onus on us. Therefore, we should be equally distrustful of blaming capitalism or overcrediting it. Such either/or thinking runs into the ditch of polarized, name-calling politics: Who’s to blame, lenders or borrowers? Do we have to choose?

Sports competition is often a metaphor for capitalism. Coaches with a “winning is everything” attitude are admired. But one thing should be clear by now: Winning should not be the only criterion. It is estimated that the top 20 financial corporations in this country control 70 percent of US financial assets, up from 12 percent in 1990. Projected to its logical conclusion, do we eventually arrive at a champion? Then what?

The same faith in competition rules the courts. In an adversarial system, the lawyer’s objective is winning, not truth per se. Regulations to rein in abuses create new hurdles in the contest. Loopholes will always be found by those intent on doing so. Nothing overrides intent, which is why faith in new laws or systems must be tempered. With pure motive, the old rules, or no rules at all, would probably work just fine. Without pure motive, does the system really matter?

Our founding fathers understood that freedom without virtue is an alluring illusion. Our contemporary ideas on freedom need critical examination. A man driven by greed may be free to pursue his desires, but that “base camp” definition of freedom does not preclude enslavement to baser desires. Pundits or artists may freely peddle their sensational impulses, but if responsibility is missing, freedom is deformed. Freedom is nothing without right choices. If we are enslaved by a foreign tyrant or by our own self-destructive appetites, what is the difference?

There will always be a debate over how much government oversight is required. President Reagan famously declared that “government is the problem” – another enemy. But nonintrusive government is earned – or lost – by an exact formula: “...when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have” said Henry David Thoreau. Real freedom is a hard-won spiritual condition, not the law of the jungle.

Solutions are sought in theories, philosophies, systems of government, new programs, corrective legislation, and then more legislation correcting the corrections … anywhere but in the hearts of men, and anything but genuine self-government that preempts legislation. 

There is no shortage of prominent figures designating enemies, always with one glaring omission. But as long as we’re making lists, we might want to take counsel of a bit of wisdom from Walt Kelly’s comic strip character, Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” 

David Arzouman is an artist, composer, writer, and educator developing a new art school in Tokyo.

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