Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- May 13, 2015


Ernest Partridge

May 13, 2015


Yesterday I paid about thirty dollars at the local service station and bought ten gallons of gas..

At least I believe I did.

But why not suspect that the manager of the gas station cheated me? Might he not have rigged the pump to show more gallons than I actually got? How would I know that he had not done so?

Well, actually I do know that I wasn't cheated. And why? Because of a label attached to the gas pump. That label tells me that The State of California has examined and validated the accuracy of the pump. And the station manager knows full well that if he nonetheless attempts to override that inspection and thus to cheat his customers, he might be spending considerable time in the state slammer.

Most ordinary citizens would call this threat of sanction as a legitimate function of government, as so-called "Consumer Protection."

Conversely, libertarians, and their fellow-travelers in the right wing of the Republican Party, might regard this as "big government regulation of the free market." No need for that inspection, they tell me. “The invisible hand of the free market” will see to it that I am not cheated.

Thus we arrive at the huge divide in American politics today: government as protector versus government as oppressor. Both views, as gross oversimplifications, are false. Those inclined to regard the government as protector, let's call them "liberals," recognize that governments can at times be fraudulent, wasteful and abusive. Their remedy: improve the government.

On the other hand, those who regard the government as an oppressor, call them "libertarians," will nonetheless concede that there are at least three indispensable functions of government, namely the protections of individual life, liberty and property. However, all other functions are illegitimate restrictions on individual "liberty" and thus should be eliminated.

So which is it? Is Government a protector or an oppressor? Is Government good or is it evil?

What a silly question! It's like asking, "is fire good or is fire bad"?

The only sensible answer to both questions is: "sometimes good and sometimes bad." Or simply, "it depends."

The founders of our Republic were well aware of this: When government is good, it is fulfilling the functions enumerated in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States: “to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,...”

And when government is bad, the Declaration of Independence provides a remedy: “To secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That, whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”

Governments are never perfect – no human institution is. The libertarian’s answer: reduce government to the essential function of protecting life, liberty and property – nothing more. Taxation to support any other governmental activity – education, unemployment insurance, scientific research, infrastructure investment, national parks and forests, etc. – amounts to an illegitimate “taking” of property, or simply put, “theft.”

The liberal’s remedy for governmental imperfections: improve it or, if necessary, replace it.

One of the foundational principles of libertarianism was articulated by John Stuart Mill: “over himself, over his own mind body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” (“On Liberty”). According to this principle, it is no business of government to interfere with one’s choice of religion (or no religion), with what one might read, with who one chooses to marry, or with a woman’s right to control her own body. I have little dispute with this aspect of libertarianism.

But the libertarians also endorse the “like liberty principle:” This is “the right to live your life as you choose so long as you don’t infringe on the equal rights of others.” (David Boaz, Libertarianism, a Primer, 59). Similarly, William Bayes:

Where do my rights end? Where yours begin. I may do anything I wish with my own life, liberty and property without your consent; but I may do nothing with your life, liberty and property without your consent.... (“What is Property?”, The Freeman, July 1970, p. 348. My emphasis, EP).

Again, a commendable principle. However, while libertarians endorse the “like liberty principle” in the abstract, they fail to do so in their economic policies. For if the libertarians scrupulously followed the like liberty principle, they would cease to be libertarians. The economic “liberty” that they promote, along with the Republican Right, exacts “liberty costs” in others.

For example:

  • Food and Drugs. “Free” of government regulation, corporations are free to manufacture, and merchants are free to sell, contaminated and spoiled food, and harmful or ineffective drugs – as they did prior to the establishment of the federal Food and Drug Administration.

  • Air and water pollution. Absent environmental protection laws, the general public is poisoned by toxic substances are “freely” tossed into our waterways and released into our common atmosphere. The remedy? The Environmental Protection Agency.

  • Work safety (e.g. mines). Before “big government” constrained the “liberty” of mine owners and mill workers with work safety regulation, mine workers died young with black lung disease and textile mills employed children in sweat shops.

  • Consumer protection. Without government regulation, the individual has no recourse when injured by a faulty product. Example: the exploding gas tanks in the Ford Pintos.

  • Investment protection. With the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, investment bankers are now “at liberty” to gamble with your money. Your savings are still protected by the New Deal FDIC. But for how long?

  • Free Markets (yes, I said “free markets’). The libertarians will not tell you this, but “the free market” can only function under government regulation, without which fraud, monopolization, and bribery proliferate. As history once again teaches us an unregulated market contains the seeds of its own destruction. Furthermore, the “totally free” market is a myth, as I explain here.

Summing up: “liberty” and “freedom” for “the one-percent” is obtained at the cost of the liberty and freedom of the general public. As Robert Kuttner observes:

A young person from a poor family who does not need to incur crippling debt to attend university is a freer person. A low-income mother who cannot afford to pay the doctor attains a new degree of freedom when she and her children are covered by Medicaid. A worker who might be compelled to choose between his job and his physical safety becomes freer if government health and safety regulations are enforced. The employee of a big-box store who can take paid family leave when a child gets sick is freer than one whose entire life is at the whim of the boss; likewise a worker with a union contract that provides protection from arbitrary dismissal or theft of wages.

The need for “big government regulation” was not decided in academic seminar rooms or derived from dogmatic “first principles.” These protections did not appear “spontaneously” (“as if by an invisible hand”) out of the aggregate activities of “utility maximizing” individuals. They were imposed by law (i.e., government) and enforce by sanctions (government again), following the demand of the general public – i.e., the victims of previously unregulated “free” activity of individuals and corporations. History provides the proof, for history has shown us, time and again, that when privileged individuals and corporations are unconstrained (i.e. “free”) there are victims: unconsenting and innocent individuals whose liberties are sacrificed.

But aren’t governments always corrupted by waste, fraud and abuse?

No argument here. As noted above, governments, like all human institutions are imperfect. At worst, governments are tyrannical, in which case the only recourse might be revolution. But following a revolution, the tyranny must be replaced by a new government, hopefully benign but nonetheless necessary.

Consider an analogy: no community is completely free of crime or without accidental fires, which means that the police and fire departments are never completely effective. So what is the rational response? Abolition of police and fire department? Of course not! The rational response is to improve these services. Even the most doctrinaire libertarian would agree, according to the principle that governments legitimately protect life, liberty and property. Libertarians are minimalists, not anarchists.

Even so, the minimal government of the libertarians, and this includes perhaps most of the Republican members of Congress and state legislatures, exacts unjust “liberty costs” on the general public.

Their libertarian “liberty” is the liberty of the burglar in the town without locks on the doors and with no police department.

To be fair, libertarians advise door locks and approve of police protection – of those basic rights to life, liberty and property. They are not pro-burglary. That’s the theory. But to our sorrow, we are discovering today that in practice, the so-called “night watchman” minimal government promoted by today’s Republicans does not protect the freedoms of the poor, the workers, children, among others – arguably, most ordinary citizens.

In theory, the libertarians tell us, if a business is unscrupulous, the customers will shun it and the business will fail. It is all nicely automatic -- "by the invisible hand" -- no need for government regulation and enforcement. This may be true of barber shops and restaurants in a small town. But it is not true when the negative effects of the business activities are delayed or the causes are less than certain. Examples: the effects of tainted food, harmful drugs, and tobacco use. Neither does the unregulated free market prevent so-called “negative externalities” – harms to innocent and unconsenting “third parties.”

How do we know all this? Again, not merely “in theory.” We are instructed by history.

In addition, the libertarians assure us, harmful business practices will be deterred by law suits. Not so, when purchased legislators enact so-called “tort reform” that reduces maximum allowable damages to “the cost of doing business.” And this is just one of many reasons why “torts and courts” deterrence fails, as I explain at some length in my “With Liberty for Some” (Section IV).

Why do we have regulations? Because we have tried minimal government and have found out that it doesn't work. Without rule of law and effective enforcement thereof, we got drugs that were harmful or ineffective, tainted meat, financial fraud, dangerous consumer products, polluted air and water, and now climate change.

And yet, notwithstanding the historically proven necessity of government regulation, the incessant anti-government message of “the one-percent” and their clients in Congress, state legislatures and the media, has enjoyed spectacular success. Pew Research reports that public trust in government [is] at historic lows.”  The Gallup organization confirms this finding, adding that confidence the Supreme Court and the Presidency ranks behind the military, small business, the police, and organized religion. Congress, at seven percent approval, is at the bottom of the list of seventeen institutions.

The libertarians and their GOP disciples, it seems, are striving to fire “the night watchmen” and leave the public at the unregulated mercies of the corporate and financial oligarchy.

If they succeed, that would be good news for the one-percent and bad news for the rest of us.

All this despite the plain fact that the foundational ideology of the one-percent -- libertarian theory and neo-classical economics, "trickle down," anti-regulation, market fundamentalism and all that -- fails the reality test.

And so, when the right-wing politicians and corporate media talk of "liberty” and “freedom,” remember this: Your "liberty" and “freedom” are not what they are talking about.

And that's not just "theory," that's history.

Copyright 2015 by Ernest Partridge


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .