April 19, 2012

capitalism, morality, and evangelical tribalism

It has been an interesting few weeks.  We had some great guests stay with us the last few weekends, and then this most recent Friday had to retreat to our shelter as a tornado came within a half mile of our humble home.  We were lucky, but one of our good friends had damage to her home and fence.  Luckily, she and her family are safe, but it was one of those afternoons that will get your attention.

I have had an on-again, off-again conversation with some evangelical conservative friends of late.  One of them works in a student ministry, and the other used to be a pastor--though that very fact both scares me and makes me very glad that he is no longer in that position.

Anyway, the conversation has been predictable in many ways.  Both tend to recycle right wing talking points, and many times, I think, without even knowing.  Both are convinced that government programs are inherently inefficient, and that a good many people who receive government assistance should not.  Both of those viewpoints, I think, reflect this idea of "tribalism" where they see things purely through a lens of  "with us" or "against us."  Conservatives have been very effective at using that belief, I think, in convincing conservatives (and many liberals) that the media is biased against conservatives, or most recently, that any program that Obama supports is probably a bad idea.  Fred Clark has written on this lately, and his last one suggests that this tribalism comes from a deep insecurity.

I am going to keep thinking about this idea.

But back to my conversation.  Beyond the rather reflexive "government is bad" from both, I also see what I believe to be a false sense of what the unregulated market will produce.  Both express a belief that people--as families, or as individuals, or as sexual beings--should act in a certain moral way.   But at the same time, they suggest that an unregulated market is best.  E.J. Dionne writes about this phenomenon, noting that most two-income couples are two-income by necessity.  But those who want one parent at home with the kids seem to also want the market unregulated.

As I pointed out (we will see if they respond), the market doesn't care about morality.  The market cares about profit, and if that profit comes by child labor, or selling crack or prostitution--that is fine.  The market only cares if the worker dies if he or she can't be replaced.  Same for the consumer.

And as I also pointed out to my friends, they tacitly accept this because they both want the government to ban certain things they don't like--drugs, abortion, and gay marriage.  The free market, however, doesn't care about either of those.

Why the market is to be trusted in some areas, but not others puzzles me.  But to be fair, so does the belief that somehow the market will magically address social or moral issues.  Not sure why anyone would think it cares.  Those things are only addressed when people make political and personal choices, and ask what are often hard questions.


Smitty said...

somehow the market will magically address social or moral issues

That hits the nail on the head for me. That's the disconnect they have. Not only is the right thing to do (from their perspective), but that the market can also act as another moral force. Facepalm.

You said it: the market and business is not designed to address social and moral issues. Let's say I make a widget. My widget, say, is manufactured by a process that poisons the air. If consumers don't want my widget because of that, I don't sell my widget, I go out of business. That's the perfect world of business in their mind. Unregulated economies. Businesses that do bad...well, people just won't buy those widgets anymore, amirite?


I know my widget is bad for the air, so I lobby the government to loosen air quality standards so now...magically...I'm not poisoning the air any more!

Is that moral? Is that as "immoral" as my insistence that they do follow stricter air quality standards?

Or should we not even focus on that Should we just recognize that businesses whole goal is to sell more widgets, not act in a socially-responsible fashion. Working conditions in Chinese factories that make iShit are terrifying. But I buy the living fuck out of iShit, and Apple doesn't give a shit, except that I keep buying iShit. You se where I'm going.

Streak said...

Or, what if the poison is released into the air, but the people have no idea. It isn't in your best interest to tell them, and if there are no regulations, who would know?

Smitty said...


Look no further than the J&J "recall" a few years ago of Children's Tylenol.

An infant who took children's Tylenol for pain after a booster shot got sick and died. It was traced to the Tylenol. Turns out, an entire batch and shipment...thousands of bottles...of the Tylenol was contaminated.

Did J & J issue a recall?

Not at first. See, first, they hired a firm to go to stores and purchase entire stocks of every store's Tylenol.

Well, they didn't get to all the stores before parents bought some. They just bought what was left, leaving some parents to purchase tainted bottles.

They didn't issue the recall until after some kids died, because they realized they failed to buy all the contaminated bottles first.

They engaged in a "stealth recall" to clear-up their mistake so they'd never have to admit it first. Only after they failed and killed some kids did they issue the recall.

But unregulated markets work best and for our advantage, right??

Streak said...

Right, a great example. And that is something that directly connects to the consumer. I am thinking about all the issues in production that are out of sight to the end user, but might be incredibly destructive or unhealthy to workers or the environment. The market doesn't give a shit about those--unless we make it.

steves said...

The total free market folks would argue that a fear of lawsuits and bad publicity would force companies from acting dangerously. I am sure this works to some degree. Most companies have in house counsel and risk management people to tell them what is ok and what isn't.

The problem is that most people lack the resources to sue, especially if they are seriously injured and unable to work because of an injury. Lawyers don't usually work for free and lawsuits costs a shit ton of money. Another related problem is that most of the people that favor no regulation also favor tort reform and limiting people's access to courts.

That being said, why can't we take the middle ground? Some regulations are dumb and serve no beneficial purpose. They either don't do what they are supposed to do or do so inefficiently.

As for Apple, you raise a good issue. At what point do people say enough? Most people seem to have pretty selective outrage. I have gotten crap from people for buying a "foreign" car (that was actually made in Ohio) from people that buy shoes, clothes, electronics, and appliances that were all made elsewhere.