This post was written for the Commonweal Institute Progressive Op-Ed Program. I am a Fellow with the Commonweal Institute.
Do we really want government making decisions? I hear the same question repeated a number of different ways: "Do we really want government making decisions about our health care?" "Do we really want government deciding how banks should be run?" "Do we want government making decisions on whether drug companies can release new products?" "Do we want government telling businesses what they can and can't do?"
The immediate, emotional reaction is, "Of course not!" But what happens when these questions are examined more closely?
Health care reform is in the news so let's look at decision-making in health care first. Currently insurance companies make decisions about our health care - not government, not doctors, and certainly not us. They make these decisions based on whether a procedure or drug will be expensive. But "companies" don't make decisions, people do - not to maximize benefits to the patient but for their own financial gain.
What about decision-making around how banks do business? Since the 1980s more and more banking rules have been relaxed at the behest of a few who stood to make fortunes. Credit card interest rates reached as high as 30%. Huge bets were made on credit default swaps, bad mortgages and other banking products. Deregulation led first to the "Savings and Loan Crisis" and then the recent financial crisis and resulting bailouts. The decisions in these companies were made by a few for personal gain at the expense of the stability of the entire economy.
What about drug companies? There are complaints that the government "holds back" drug companies from releasing new products. But the recent deaths caused by Vioxx, Baycol and other drugs showed that the government was on the right track by requiring sufficient testing and reporting. The pressure to sell these and other unsafe drugs came from a few people who stood to gain fortunes.
What about "burdensome" government regulation of business in general? We all remember what happened when regulations were lifted on companies like Enron. Employees lost their retirement savings. Investors were tricked out of millions. People and businesses were scammed into paying very high prices for electricity. Again, these problems happened because a few people stood to make fortunes so they got government to deregulate rules protecting the rest of us but that stood in their way.
With these and other examples in mind, let's look at what the purpose of our government is supposed to be. According to our Constitution government is literally, "We, the People," banded together to "promote the general welfare" which means we watch out for and take care of each other. The Constitution's promise to "secure the blessings of liberty" means that we will enjoy the stability of the rule of law instead of being subjected to the whims of the rich and powerful.
Before deciding whether or not government should make decisions let's look at the alternative. Not enough consideration is given to the real question: if We, the People don't make decisions, then who does? As we saw in the examples above, the "corporate" decisions that were made in the absence of government rules always favored a few wealthy people. Sometimes, as in the case of Enron, they even destroyed their own corporations while collecting large sums for themselves.
History shows that in the absence of a strong government decisions will always be made by those with the most money and power. In today's society this means that people in the biggest corporations will be making the decisions, always for their own benefit and at the expense of the rest of us.
Unfortunate things always happen when the interests of a few people are placed ahead of the rules. In a functioning, democratic society, government is about establishing and enforcing rules that are set up to protect all of us on the basis of one-person-one-vote and not one-dollar-one-vote. Today's alternative to government decision-making is the biggest corporations making decisions instead.
Royalty, dynasty, inheritance, corporatocracy, whatever you want to call it, there are always a few people who have gathered most of the wealth and power to themselves, and then set up systems designed to keep it that way. The United States government was designed to enable We, the People to make the decisions rather than just the wealthy and the powerful.
So when you hear people ask if we really want government making the decisions, they are really asking if you want to have your own say over your own affairs, instead of some rich CEO. The answer should be "Heck, Yes!
This article was produced as part of Commonweal Institute's Progressive Op-Ed Program