Democrats & Liberals Archives

Delegated Authority

People don’t want government making choices for them, right?

No, not for the most part. We let the government make a great number of choices for us through out the day. Why? Because we’ve got our own jobs to do. We don’t have time to do many of the things we want this government to do, however much we need them done.

The debate is not between government and non-government. The question is who governs what: public or private interests.

In the end, it's who can maintain the best real world standards and performance for the business in question. Note I said real world. Fact is, there are always people with a theory about who does what best. I need not name them.

Privatize everything, they say, market forces will maintain the standards. In theory, perhaps that works, because in theory the threat of business downturn would warn people away from making harmful decisions. In practice, though, the private interests can discourage or even rollback protections in the interest of looking after the bottom line. I should know. I live in Houston. Refineries seem to blow up almost every year, and then we see the blackened wreckage on the TV.

Texas City once saw thousands die in the explosion of the Grandcamp, a freighter carrying thousands of tons of Ammonium Nitrate. I read a book about the disaster, and let me tell you, if there had been electronic newsgathering in those days, it would be like 9/11. We'd never get the images out of our head.

Businesses cut corners. People get sloppy. But most importantly, businessmen often have conflicts of interest concerning public safety. They must serve two masters there, the other one usually being the company's interests, or at least what they perceive is such. Sometimes, though, their interests don't even go that far beyond their own.

The Market fundamentalists out there forget that the market depends on how things act in the real world. They can push around their abstract numbers and think that the treatment of employees and customers doesn't matter, but in the end, human factors inevitably do matter in a system based on people's behavior.

When I go to a restaurant to get a burger and fries, It's not my job to cook the meal, ring up the cash register or to make sure the employees have done their job. It's also not my job to make sure the meat is good, that the restaurant isn't contaminated or infested with something. I have to hope other people do their jobs.

The market makes sure certain things get done right, that I will admit, and that I will say we should take advantage of. If a burger tastes lousy, I go to another restaurant, I don't call my representative or councilperson. I get what I pay for, in that respect. Other things, though, are too important to leave voluntary. The slaughterhouses can't be allowed to deliver bad beef to restaurants. The restaurants can't be allowed to let mice and roaches root around, or let equipment and premises get contaminated with germs. There's no redeeming value in being permissive about those things. I shouldn't have to gamble with my immune system when I bite into a burger.

The costs of letting things be done slipshod in those respects would be intolerable. It would free those businesses from certain economic pressures, true enough, but those would be cold comfort to those whose insides would bleed out from E. Coli, or who suffer the fevers of Listeria or the GI disruption of Salmonella. These diseases disrupt not only the systems of folks bodies, but the businesses and families these folks belong to.

Can private business be counted upon to do this themselves? Not really. The market is often a numbers game, and in that numbers game, uncomfortable truths can be neglected. There are folks in business who would take advantage of the lack of regulation to compete harder, and the market would reinforce their risk so long as it never became too much of a scandal. Recent controversies such as Enron show to what lengths people will go to keep things quiet.

We need people do their jobs in a way that allows us to do ours. Unfortunately, people don't always allow the system to naturally arrange that. Malefactors in business don't always let investors and employees know they're taking a gamble or cooking up a scheme that could wreck the company, or compromise its finances at the least. Polluters don't advertise the fact they're dumping, drug companies the fact they're trying to keep word on their medicine's side-effects mum.

We need government to do the job of looking over these folk's shoulders, to make sure their pursuit of wealth and power does not intrude on our lives and wellbeing in a way we can't handle.

We live in a society where the consequences of such behavior have been amplified with technology's power, where infrastructure and modern knowledge allow new kinds of problems to develop that were unthinkable, unheard of in the time of the founding fathers. We are no longer a mostly agrarian, mostly rural nation. We have become much more urbanized, much more capable of stepping on each other's toes and poking each other in the eyes.

Government in America has grown and changed to adjust to that reality. Perhaps corrections should be made in certain areas at certain times, but the call to arms of deregulation can only be taken so far before the unthought of consequences start overwhelming the desired benefits.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at August 17, 2005 10:05 AM