The question of whether (and how) we should trust industry is a uniquely American debate. It’s also one that history resolved for us, about a century back.
The answer (are you surprised to know?) is, not overly. Given free reign, and a bit of economic power, our own countrymen see no fault in crushing striking employees with private armies, locking child workers in burning buildings, and the list goes on, just to push the profit margin a little higher.
Yet a few short weeks ago, the American right looked at the BP oil spill, and asked not how to heal the damaged land or its inhabitants, but, how Obama could justify his “cruelty” to BP. The free market will demand that BP remedy the damage it’s caused; why get in its way?
Because the free market doesn’t work that way (and hasn’t, here: BP is already backtracking on promised payments). Why do we suddenly think it does, again?
The resurgence of this debate, via the tea parties, can be attributed to the fact that the Progressive Era has become a victim of its own success. Though Glenn Beck et al hope to obscure this background, the Progressive Era, and the sweeping reforms it created, weren’t a primary movement, and didn’t spring ex nihilo from the mind of Woodrow Wilson — the socialist supervillain in Beck’s counterfactual narrative. They were reactions to real problems in the world, caused by unrestrained corporatism (remember The Jungle?). And they worked. You don’t see as many blatant abuses of corporate power these days; well, at least not of the same order (securities fraud is the new filled milk).
Because the Progressive Era worked, we now have the liberty to question whether it was necessary. But you don’t tear down a wall just because you can’t see the barbarians anymore. And you don’t question the thinking that led you to build it in the first place.
In fact it might be time to go back to the origins of the debate. On that note, consider this: the free market is not its own good, and the word “free” doesn’t automatically make the following noun a quintessential American value. The free market is a tool for the vindication of other values — and a good, even a vital one. But we value the free market to the extent that it creates valuable competition and progress, and no farther, and err when we start propping it up for its own sake. No man does (or should) have the “freedom” to sell a defective product and hope to get away with it — whether the product be medicine, or a share in a collateralized debt obligation — and it’s not patriotic to fight for that imagined right.
If we hope to extricate ourselves from our current predicament, we need to take this lesson to heart, end the quasi-religious belief that “The Free Market” is the answer to every question, and stop framing the debate over every regulation as an absolutist choice between “freedom” and “socialism.” That might mean getting past the Republican Party, and what it’s become.