MEMBERS ONLY: The Deadly Toll Of Free Market Madness

by Justin Rosario

One of the conceits behind Trump’s presidency is that he’ll do away with all those pesky regulations that are keeping Corporate America shackled and unleash “innovation” leading to “jobs” and this will “make America great again.” 

“This will be the largest ever cut by far in terms of regulations,” Trump said. “If you have a regulation you want, number one we’re not going to approve it because it’s already been approved probably in 17 different forms. But if we do, the only way you have a chance is we have to knock out two regulations for every new regulation. So if there’s a new regulation, they have to knock out two. But it goes way beyond that.”  

This is standard conservative free market rhetoric and it’s gibberish. Complaints about the regulatory state are a red herring used to weaken the case for a strong federal (or even state) government. By dressing up the objection in the now-tattered rags of “freedom” and “prosperity,” conservative operatives have been able to convince millions of Americans that allowing corporations to pour coal dust into their drinking water is not only a good idea, but something they should be fighting for. It really is one of the greatest con jobs in human history.

But we know what an unregulated world looks like. We’ve seen it, lived through it and decided that, no, this will not do. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration explicitly exists because of the abuses of the unregulated “free” market. From individual greed to institutional callousness, we as a people have discovered that without the power of our government to look after us, we are dangerously vulnerable.

Back in ye olden days, when the markets were “free” and before the evils of regulation, there was a wonderful practice known as “adulteration.” Adulterated foods had all kinds of fun things added to make them more profitable. Lead, formaldehyde, borax and other toxic substances were used to keep unrefrigerated meat “fresh” until it could be sold. When bread was sold by the pound, cement powder was added to make it weigh more. It was literal and intentional food poisoning. 

Curiously, the free market did absolutely nothing to stop this:

During the 18th and 19th centuries, as the United States shifted from an agricultural to an industrial economy and urbanization disconnected people from food production, the debasement of food for profit became rampant. Milk was often watered down and colored with chalk or plaster—substances which were also added to bulk up flour. Lead was added to wine and beer, and coffee, tea and spices were routinely mixed with dirt, sand or other leaves. Although a number of laws forbade harmful substances from being added to food, they were tough to enforce since there were no dependable tests to prove the existence of pollutants.

People took ill on a constant basis. Some died. Children were poisoned. Yet, the almighty “invisible hand” of the free market did nothing. Even after it became possible to accurately and (relatively) quickly test the purity of foods, adulteration went unchecked because the average person did not have the resources or expertise to do it themselves. Libertarians would say “caveat emptor” but, let’s be honest, libertarians are dicks that would be dead within a month if you shipped them all off to an island to create a free market utopia.

A free market solution would be to have a profit-motivated third party verify the safety of the food but we’ve seen where that leads as well. In the lead up to the 2008 financial collapse, the supposedly independent credit rating agencies turned a blind eye to the dangerously unstable products they were asked to sign off on. They did this because they made a lot of money from the companies that were trying to sell these financial time bombs to the public. Not only did they lie to the public about the junk products being pushed, they gave them the high ratings the banks demanded:

High ratings were critical in allowing the investment banks to sell them at all. For instance, many money market funds are only allowed to invest in debt that fits the highest ratings categories.

“We conclude the failures of credit-rating agencies were essential cogs in the wheel of financial destruction,” according to the report submitted by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission in January 2011. “The three credit-rating agencies were key enablers of the financial meltdown. The mortgage-related securities at the heart of the crisis could not have been marketed and sold without their seal of approval.”

Clearly, a third party with a profit motive cannot be trusted when their livelihood depends on the companies they’re supposed to be ruling on. We’ve already established that the seller will not avoid deliberately poisoning the consumer and we’ve also established that the average consumer can’t protect themselves adequately. The “invisible hand” doesn’t function because it’s not invisible, it simply doesn’t exist.

That leaves the wicked government and its burdensome regulations. Our government is the only organization with the resources to ensure our food is safe, the power to enforce the law, freedom from a profit motive and that can be held accountable by the public it’s meant to serve. It’s not hard to see why corporations resent the hell out it. Our government is supposed to fulfill our desire to be shielded from the depredations of the rich.

But even today, with the ability to test, discover and track deliberately tainted food to its source, we’re still seeing adulteration:

The police arrested three men on Tuesday accused of selling powdered milk contaminated with melamine, the toxic chemical blamed last year for killing six children and sickening over 300,000 in one of the country’s worst food safety scandals. The three men, who worked for Jinqiao Dairy Company in Shaanxi Province, were accused of producing and selling toxic food, according to Xinhua, the state news agency. Investigators said the milk powder was confiscated in November, before it could reach stores.

That was in 2009. They knew it would make children sick and possibly kill them. They also knew it could be traced back to them and they did it anyway. Greed on an individual level is difficult enough to deal with, but if you really want to have a nervous breakdown, look at the horror show institutional greed had turned the honey industry into:

A third or more of all the honey consumed in the U.S. is likely to have been smuggled in from China and may be tainted with illegal antibiotics and heavy metals. A Food Safety News investigation has documented that millions of pounds of honey banned as unsafe in dozens of countries are being imported and sold here in record quantities.

That was in 2011 and that was with our government doing what it can to keep us safe. And we’re supposed to rely on corporations not to try and kill us if we get rid of regulations and regulatory bodies? 

John Maynard Keynes, the world renowned economist, once said, “Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.” Adulteration is the proof in the pudding (in the form of lead) that shows he was correct. When there is a profit motive, people and institutions are unable to restrain their worst impulses. The only solution known to be effective is for our government to intercede on our behalf.

“But wait!” you say. “What about class action lawsuits?” Sure, those were useful to compensate victims after the fact. A nice payday is a cold comfort, though, when you’ve buried your baby because their milk was toxic. Oh, and the conservatives on the Supreme Court have been hard at work weakening or simply eliminating class action lawsuits because why should corporations have to answer for their misdeeds?

Regardless of what Republicans say and corporations pay conservatives talking heads to repeat, deregulation is not going to bring back jobs or “unlock innovation.” When Ronald Reagan said “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'”, what he actually meant was that they were the nine most terrifying words in the English language to Corporate America. The government is our collective will made manifest and that will has declared that we are not to be the victims of corporate greed. Thus, the only way for the rich to pad their bottom line at our expense has been to dismantle and corrupt our government, stripping us of the power to fight back. 

But that only works for as long as we allow it. Sooner or later, enough of the voters will snap out of their fugue state and remember that we don’t exist to generate profit for the rich; that our lives have meaning beyond our worth to a corporation. 

Until then, keep your fingers crossed that your baby’s milk is safe. The rich have money to make and they can’t concern themselves with every little detail like not murdering children. This is America, after all, land of the free market.