Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Separation of Business and State

Lately, the separation of Church and State has come under fire from a number of sources both within ("faith-based initiatives") and without (Dobson, anyone?) the current Administration. It seems that having 200+ years of no official state-sanctioned government has created a climate in which people are failing to see the harm of combining government and theology. Combine that with the religious right and their seemingly effective cries of victimization and persecution (everyone loves the underdog). "Children aren't free to pray in school!" "The liberal Democrats hate your God!" ad nauseam. This has incredibly serious implications for Democracy, which I shouldn't need to point out.

There's another Sacred Wall that should exist, for many of the same reasons -- preservation of meaningful Democracy and affirmation of deeply held normative values (equality, autonomy, freedom, etc.), to name but two. This is the wall between business and the State. Given the most prevalent model of doing business within a capitalist economy (thanks Milt!), the State is one of the only constraints that business recognizes. Law and regulation are often recognized as the only external checks on running business -- and business, ever mindful of the bottom line, realizes this and continually pushes for less regulation. This is typically justified by an appeal to an ethic that seems like Utilitarianism-- business will lead with its Invisible Hand toward a better life for us all, and the fewer restraints, the quicker we'll reach our goals. A rising tide raises all boats; that sort of thing.

So business lobbies government, at great expense and frequently with great success, to relax regulations and pass business-friendly laws. Now government and business are so incestuous that we begin to think that good businesspersons necessarily make good public servants, even though the goals of a businessperson and the goals of a public servant are frequently (and for good reason) sharply at odds. The interests of the public are not always in lock-step with the interests of business, particularly with regard to long-term goals. Why does this even merit a mention?

Citizens are NOT always consumers, and (unfortunately) vice versa. We claim membership in a democracy, a free society, where we MUST (by definition) be able to vote and make reasoned and informed choices regarding our leadership. Given the current state of newsmedia ownership by corporate giants, making an informed choice becomes more difficult. The newsmedia, the Fourth Estate, should be treated as if it were a part of government (in the sense that it enables the people to provide the ultimate check on government via the provision of information, not in the sense that government should use it as a mouthpiece), and NOT as a business. News should NOT be a business. We must be able to vote with more than the dollar. As citizens of a democracy, we are required to perform certain civic duties (like voting) in order to sustain our favored way of life. Otherwise, we're just a nation of Wal-Mart shoppers and we're fooling ourselves with all of this democracy-talk. We're not making the world safe for democracy, we're making the world safe for people to make money.

Currently, the Administration and Congress (both sides) is loaded with businesspeople -- people who are more concerned with free enterprise and profit than with what constitutes genuine action in the public interest. Money talks, and bullshit walks -- or so the saying goes -- and there's a lot of fecal perambulation going on in DC.

I've argued before and I'll keep arguing until I'm blue in the face that we need to get our priorities straight -- do we truly want Democracy? Do we truly believe in the normative values that undergird our society? If so, business MUST be kept out of politics. In fact, businesses that are based in a democratic society have a duty to uphold those democratic principles first, and not to actively work to erode them. If profit and democracy come into conflict, democracy must win. Business has a duty to stay out of politics, and to accept the constraints that the people choose to place upon it. None of this telling us what's for our own good; that if we just wait long enough, we'll experience the economic benefits of a society based upon capitalism and free enterprise. There's more to life than stuff. There's the act of living itself -- an experience that can't be packaged, commodified, bought, or sold, no matter how hard you try. The whole concept of "selling an experience" confounds me. You can no more sell an experience than you can milk a lizard.

And then there's this Philip Cooney guy. Whose interests was he serving when he altered scientific reports to obscure the impact of data regarding global warming (ie "climate change")? Your interests? As a consumer? As a citizen? As a human? As a "free" and "autonomous" individual?

Robert F. Kennedy for The Huffington Post:
Throughout the Bush administration business lobbyists from polluting industries are now running the agencies charged with protecting Americans from pollution -- not out of a commitment to public service but rather to subvert the very laws they are supposed to enforce, to enrich the president’s corporate paymasters.

1 comment:

Tim said...

A separation of business and state is an important political project, and separatism is a viable political tradition. I've elaborated on this in my essay "The Separation of Business and State", published by the California Law Review. See http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1031253

Feel free to email me for an electronic version. tkuhner@rwu.edu