The argument against government regulation of commerce goes something like this. These regulations are cumbersome, confusing, expensive, inefficient, vaguely “unconstitutional,” and, ultimately, counter-productive, because they hurt the very businesses and industries they were established to protect.
The argument in favor of regulation goes something like this. Our understanding of human nature, the laws of economics, the history of mankind, and a quick glance in the mirror tells us everything we need to know. In short, that so-called “self-policing” doctrine being peddled by free market zealots is a howling fraud.
Just consider other applications of “self-policing.” What if it were applied to our roads and highways? What if motorists were told that no more traffic tickets would be issued? Or what if college and professional athletes were told there would be no more tests for steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs? What if there were no more audits of our tax returns?
Even our vaunted “honor system” (where no proctors are present during test-taking) practiced at America’s military academies has been disgraced. West Point, Annapolis, and the Air Force Academy have all experienced embarrassing cheating scandals. And this moral lapse can’t be blamed on the spread of post-Vietnam rot. Way back in 1951, West Point was rocked by a cheating scandal that resulted in 90 cadets being expelled, including 37 members of Army’s celebrated football team.
It’s not a pretty picture. If the prototypical “officer and gentleman” (putatively, the finest, all-purpose human being this country is capable of producing) can’t be trusted not to cheat when the opportunity presents itself, then what can be expected of those money-grubbing, profit-driven businessmen who have one eye on the stock market, and the other eye on a vacation beach house?
One of the best examples of the need for stringent government regulation is the April 5, 2010, explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine (in Montcoal, West Virginia), which killed 29 miners. This non-union mine (unaffiliated with the United Mine Workers) was owned and operated by Massey Energy. The reason we mention its non-union status is because there is no way in hell this could have happened in a union mine.
Although the cause of the explosion was eventually traced back to unsafe, substandard mine conditions (the accumulation of flammable gas, among other things), federal investigators found evidence of something far more disturbing.
In order to thwart possible interference of government safety officials, Massey Energy was keeping two sets of books. One set contained all the beautiful, by-the-numbers stuff any federal safety official would rejoice in seeing during a routine mine inspection, and the other contained the actual, untampered-with data (which, in Massey’s case, was incriminating).
Even though Massey was found guilty of a felony and its CEO could still face jail time, give them credit for something you don’t see done much anymore this side of the Third World or Wall Street. While it’s common for companies to put a positive spin on their safety records, it’s a whole other deal when they resort to the naked criminality displayed here. This was more than self-aggrandizement; this was a Mafia-style play.
Yet, when I use Massey as an argument in favor of government regulations, these free market mavens strongly disagree. While lamenting the loss of 29 lives, and condemning what Massey executives did, they gleefully point out that it was done in spite of voluminous government regulations already on the books, proving that government regulations aren’t the answer.
With all due respect, boys, that’s one shitty argument. Massey refutes the “self-policing” doctrine. The issue isn’t that government regs failed to prevent an explosion; the issue is the lengths to which people will go to make money. If Massey did what they did even with regulations on the books, even with federal safety officials breathing down their necks, just think what they would do if they were “self-policing.”
David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor” 2nd edition), was a former union rep. Dmacaray@earthlink.net