Private gain pillages the public good

Private gain must no longer be allowed to elbow out the public good | Aeon Ideas – by Dirk Philipsen – Apr 2020

This country has been operating on the richly arrogant and simplistic idea that “market forces” can manage our economy and society better (more efficiently) than “government”. For our healthcare, this has been a total disaster.

Adam Smith had an elegant idea when addressing the notorious difficulty that humans face in trying to be smart, efficient and moral. In TheWealth of Nations (1776), he maintained that the baker bakes bread not out of benevolence, but out of self-interest.

No doubt, public benefits can result when people pursue what comes easiest: self-interest.

And yet:the logic of private interest – the notion that we should just ‘let the market handle it’ – has serious limitations.  

Particularly in the United States, the lack of an effective health and social policy in response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak has brought the contradictions into high relief.

Around the world, the free market rewards competing, positioning and elbowing, so these have become the most desirable qualifications people can have.

And this is why so many “successful” individuals (as defined by wealth) are sociopaths.

Empathy, solidarity or concern for the public good are relegated to the family, houses of worship or activism.

Meanwhile, the market and private gain don’t account for social stability, health or happiness. As a result, from Cape Town to Washington, the market system has depleted and ravaged the public sphere – public health, public education, public access to a healthy environment – in favour of private gain.

Simply put, a market system driven by private interests never has protected and never will protect public health, essential kinds of freedom and communal wellbeing.

Many have pointed out the immorality of our system of greed and self-centred gain, its inefficiency, its cruelty, its shortsightedness and its danger to planet and people.

But, above all, the logic of self-interest is superficial in that it fails to recognise the obvious:

every private accomplishment is possible only on the basis of a thriving commons – a stable society and a healthy environment.

This is what bothers me when people claim not to need government. They drive on the roads, don’t they? They can call 911 if they have an emergency, can’t they?

They can walk down the street without fearing that any bigger, stronger human can just attack them and take their “stuff”, thanks to our legal system and law enforcement. Both are criminally flawed nowadays, but life would become a brutal physical struggle against everyone else if there were no control at all.

Commenting on how we track performance in modern economies – counting

  • output not outcome,
  • quantity not quality,
  • prices not possibilities

– the US senator Robert F Kennedy said in 1968 that we measure ‘everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile’

From dust bowls in the 1930s to the escalating climate crisis today, from online misinformation to a failing public health infrastructure, it is the insatiable private that often despoils the common goods necessary for our collective survival and prosperity.

The privately controlled corporate market has, in the precise words of the late economics writer Jonathan Rowe, ‘a fatal character flaw – namely, an incapacity to stop growing. No matter how much it grew yesterday it must continue to do so tomorrow, and then some; or else the machinery will collapse.’

I’d never thought about this, but it’s also true of living things: if a plant isn’t growing, it’s dying – it can’t just stay the same.

To top off the items we rarely discuss: without massive public assistance, late-stage extractive capitalism, turbocharged by private interest and greed, would long be dead.

Every time the private system works itself into a crisis, public funds bail it out – in the current crisis, to the tune of trillions of dollars. As others have noted, for more than a century, it’s a clever machine that privatises gains and socialises costs.

This happens in healthcare when research done with taxpayer funds at universities and the NIH is leveraged to become the basis for some pharmaceutical corporation’s new miracle drug.

When private companies are back up and running, they don’t hold themselves accountable to the public who rescued them.

Now is the time to assert the obvious: without a strong public, there can be no private.

  • My health depends on public health.
  • My freedom depends on social freedom.
  • The economy is embedded in a healthy society with functional public services, not the other way around.

This moment of pain and collapse can serve as a wakeup call; a realisation that the public is our greatest good, not the private. Look outside the window to see: without a vibrant and stable public, life can quickly get poor, nasty, brutish and short.

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