An Open Letter to a Free-Market Advocate
The concept of a "free market" is a seductive idea that has captured the attention of many bright people. Unfortunately, that theory overlooks the realities of complex systems.
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by Eric Armstrong
Free-market advocate Russell Nelson (the "angry economist") wrote to me, saying:
As long as the political process dominates the economic process (as it does), then the economic process will have a strong interest in dominating the political process. There are two steps necessary for recovering our nation from the morass it has fallen into:
- People must realize that their control of markets through their purchases is infinitely more sublime, active, concentrated, and inescapable than through the political process. People must give up trying to control economics through politics.
- Once politicians have no influence over the market process, they will have nothing to sell to market entities. They won't like that, and they'll continue to try to gain power. People will need to resist that.
Essentially, we need a "freedom of markets" amendment to the Constitution.
Ah. A free market advocate. I used to belong to that camp, so I'm familiar with the core beliefs. Unfortunately, that concept neglects the time lag built into the system. Nor does it take into account the ability of well-financed campaigns to manipulate public opinion to its own benefit, the incredible difficulty of educating the public even with respect to its own health in the absence of such funding, and the enormous harm that comes to mankind in the meantime.
I became rather less enamored of giant corporations, and less trusting of their benevolence, when I began to research the ingredients in the food supply that are causing America's epidemic levels of obesity, cancer, and coronary artery disease. The two most prominent ingredients are high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated soybean oil, neither of which were in the food supply 30 years ago.
Those ingredients are highly profitable, so they continue to be used. Meanwhile, the medical industry and the diet industries profit from the harm they cause. Yes, there are multiple causes for disease and obesity, but the two I mentioned play a significant role. They account in large measure for the increasing percentages of the population that have these problems.
The problem here is that there is no incentive built into the economic system that will solve the real problem. The problems mostly go away by using more costly, healthier ingredients in everything we eat (and I do mean everything--if you begin reading food labels you'll be in for a shock). People become healthier, medical costs go down, and diets become unnecessary.
But food companies have no incentive to do that, absent massive education. But it will take a truly massive educational campaign to counteract the advertising generated by multiple conglomerates who are pedaling adulterated foods, and profiting from it. Who will pay for it?
Drug companies and the medical industry have every incentive to treat disease, none to prevent it. So they're not going to engage in the eductation we need. HMOs and insurance companies have done some. They even have some incentive. But they profit more from people's fear of disease and by denying treatment. (They do try to educate to some extent, but they are often sadly misinformed by medical educations that were sponsored by drug companies.)
It's not the drug companies, HMOs, and insurance companies are consciously implicit in the process. It's just that nowhere in our economic system is there any incentive to address the real problem--nor would "free markets" address the fundamental issue.
Now, that litany is merely where I started. During 5 months of research for a forthcoming book, I became even more alarmed by impact of these corporations on the environment and the global economy. I don't expect you to find these arguments convincing, because it's only when one sees the system as a whole that the relationships become clear. That's the thrust of the book.
(For Russel's response, go here.)
About Eric Armstrong
Eric Armstrong is computer systems designer, writer, and philosopher. He is currently working on a book that uses the principles of General Systems Theory to explain how America's epidemic of obesity and disease stems from profitable, but unhealthy, ingredients in the food supply; how the corporate financial system (and our own retirement plans) are complicit in the problem; how the American political system allows it to happen; and how our problems with the environment, a dwindling standard of living, and even our problems with the global economy all stem from the same constellation of systemic interactions. At www.treelight.com/health, he focuses on nutrition and fitness. At www.citizensAdvisory.org, his forming non-profit is working to get the money out of politics. At www.artima.com/weblogs, he writes about software, web technology, and development tools.
About Citizens' Advisory
Corporate money has hijacked the ballot box. The Citizens' Advisory aims to take it back. Our goal is to put people in charge of the political process. The voting-advice system recommended by the Citizens Advisory lets people choose advisors they trust. Done right, that system will enable multi-party coalitions in cyberspace. The system appeals to voters because it's convenient. It appeals to social activists and their organizations because it levels the political playing the field and empowers them with a stronger political voice.
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