Ronald Reagan famously asserted that government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem. This view has now become Republican dogma, to the point that they obstruct government at every turn to prove their claim.
We know from experience about unfettered capitalism. During the era of the robber barons, many railroads and steel companies had corporate armies and goon squads, and used Pinkerton's "detectives" to break strikes and crack skulls. In the 20th Century, General Motors maintained The Black Legion that tortured and killed union organizers and firebombed their homes, while Ford had its own thugs, led by the infamous Harry Bennett who personally opened fire on hunger marchers.
Jay Gould captured the zeitgeist: "I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half."
Employers have shown throughout history they will collude on depressing wages and jeopardize employees' health in the name of profits, like the Montana asbestos mining company that carefully monitored the health of its miners so it could fire them before they became a medical expense.
Companies like Massey Energy routinely ignored safety regulations, which led to the death of 29 miners. Even after that disaster, Massey compelled miners to turn off their air quality monitors for half of their shift so that they would not register the true level of coal dust.
The press carries stories daily about toxic dumping, dangerous products and medical devices, corporate accounting fraud, tax evasion, banks laundering money, bid rigging, insider trading, overbilling, interest-rate manipulation, predatory lending and perjury, about Enron, World Com, Tyco, Countrywide, AIG, UBS, Tom Petters, Royal Bank of Scotland, Bernie Madoff, and more.
Mining companies still strip the land and leave behind abandoned mines (approximately 1,200 just in southwest Pennsylvania and West Virginia), leaking highly acidic mine drainage into the local watersheds.
Companies like Allan's Waste Water admitted in court that they illegally dumped toxic waste and sewer sludge across six counties in Pennsylvania from 2003-2009, into streams at night, and onto roads during rain, for example. That is what half the businesses in the country would do if there were no penalties. Allan's made millions of dollars every year and probably railed against the EPA the whole time.
All governments have their flaws and all are influenced by special interests, but who would rather be ruled by Fortune 500 corporations or Forbes' 400 richest Americans; who believes that hedge fund managers and corporate executives, whose everyday business practices involve deceiving customers, shafting the workers, and destroying the land, would better protect their interests?
Among the Fortune 500 are cigarette companies who deliberately engineer their product to be addictive, and knowingly kill 450,000 Americans every year for profit. Research has shown that one person will die for every million cigarettes they sell. They make about one penny per cigarette, which means they value your life at $10,000.
The Fortune 500 also includes petroleum companies and Koch Industries, who spend vast sums to lobby for the right to poison your air and water. But it's all for a good cause: so they can make more money.
Has anyone ever boarded an airplane and wished that the government did not regulate airline safety so carefully?
Without government, there would be no interstate highway system, no Internet, no GPS system, no communications satellites, no rural electrification, no social safety net, and no national defense. There would be no public schools, streets, water, or sewer, and without government regulation of the food and pharmaceutical industries, people would die in droves from contamination.
Without government law enforcement, there would be more murder and mayhem, more land swindles and Ponzi schemes, but no property rights, real or intellectual.
The New Robber Barons, the "Masters of the Universe," now use lobbyists and money instead of guns and clubs. It was the finance industry, invoking Reagan's deregulation theology, which gutted Glass-Steagall and other firewalls that kept Wall Street from blowing up the economy for 60 years. With those regulations out of the way, the banksters proceeded to loot their firms to pay themselves vast sums, a practice that two Nobel economists, Paul Romer and George Akerlof, predicted in 1993. In the process, they left behind millions of foreclosures, bankruptcies and homeless people.
The corporatist lobby is still at it. The recently spent close to a billion dollars fighting bills to regulate banks and health insurance, their usual reaction to any measures that might restrict such free-booting.
So much for Reagan's calumnies about government, which should always be evaluated in light of Margaret Thatcher's assessment of him: "Poor dear; there's nothing between his ears."
(A version of this piece appeared in the Mankato, MN Free Press)