The Public Sector And Private Fortunes

The best way to understand the right-wing social vision – and what is wrong with it – is to start with a very simple “thought experiment”. Imagine a millionaire is marooned on a desert island – kind of like Mr. Howell on “Gilligan’s Island”, for a corny example. What is his fortune worth?

The answer is absolutely nothing. In fact, his fortune is less than worthless. It is meaningless.

“Wealth” has no tangible reality outside of the social system that creates and regulates its social conventions and symbols. In fact, “wealth” is based on an entire infrastructure of legal concepts. These are things like “property rights”, “contract rights”, “legal tender”, “negotiable instruments”, “corporations” and the “stocks” and “bonds” those “fictitious persons” issue. On a desert island, your trunk full of cash and your stocks and bonds are so much toilet paper – and they aren’t even very good for that.

So when cheap-labor conservatives say that “government plays no role in the private economy”, I just laugh. In fact, government has created a vast web of infrastructure, conventions and institutions that make our advanced industrial society possible. The next time a cheap-labor conservative claims “government programs never work”, lay this “laundry list” on him. It’s long and you can shorten it, but not too much. You want a list just starting to get tedious. You want your reader just at the point – but not much past it – of saying “alright already, I get the point”.

For examples of basic legal infrastructure, try these:

  • The Judicial System

  • Land Records
  • Corporation laws
  • US Patent Office
  • The Banking System
  • Negotiable Instruments
  • Stable Currency
  • Property and Contract Rights

How about physical infrastructure – all the way back to the days of George Washington.

  • Erie Canal

  • Transcontinental Railroad
  • Hoover Dam
  • Tennessee Valley Authority
  • Roads
  • Sewer, Water and Power Grids
  • Interstate Highways
  • Air Traffic Control
  • Communication and Weather Satellites
  • Government subsidized research and development into aeronautics, jet propulsion, radar, transistors, semi-conductors, and don’t forget the internet.

What kind of fortunes have been made in this country, thanks to this short and far from complete list of public sector infrastructure? So should anyone be offended that we also provide other infrastructure and services like:

  • Homestead Act

  • National Parksp>
  • Food and Drug Administration
  • Anti-trust laws
  • Child labor laws
  • Eight Hour Work Day
  • National Labor Relations Act
  • Farm Subsidies [Debatable, but Republicans don’t dare oppose them.]
  • Fair Labor Standards Act
  • Works Projects Administration [WPA built rural schools, parks, the Blue Ridge Parkway, etc.]
  • Social Security
  • GI Bill of Rights
  • FHA Mortgages
  • Federal Assistance to Higher Education
  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • Job Corps
  • Head Start
  • Medicare

If our government provides infrastructure and services that benefit our wealthy elites, does any sane and sensible person really have a problem providing infrastructure and services that benefit regular people?

The cheap-labor conservatives have a problem with it. They think infrastructure and services for anybody but them is “big government tyranny”.

The truth is that if you live “paycheck to paycheck”, the cheap-labor conservatives would provide you absolutely no infrastructure or services of any kind. No safety net. No unemployment insurance. No family or medical leave. No standards of workplace safety. No right to organize. No minimum wage. No regulation of working hours. No overtime. No Social Security or Medicare. Some extremists even defend child labor, and would eliminate universal public education. Not only do destitute people work cheap, so do ignorant and illiterate people.

And of course they are complete hypocrites.

Consider the business corporation – a fictitious “person” made possible by laws enabling them. Legislatures decided – in the late nineteenth century – that making it easy for wealthy investors to form large-scale organizations was in the “public interest”. Without them we would have no steel industry, oil industry, automobile industry, aerospace industry or shipping industry. [In fact, syndicating the risks of shipping were the origin of business corporations – and they were promoted by government from the beginning.] We would also have no air pollution, no “sweatshops”, and little need for labor unions.

In fact, without corporations, we wouldn’t need a lot of the infrastructure, services and regulations necessary to protect us from them. Hey, you could try this approach. “Alright all you cheap-labor conservatives, you’re right. None of that legal protection from corporations is ‘principled’. So let’s just get rid of corporations. We didn’t have to create them, and we don’t have to keep them – especially if they’re going to kick us around.”

Needless to say, cheap-labor conservatives are big fans of industrial capitalism, and the legal basis for them, the business corporation. But they don’t like unions – or any of the rest of the protection from them. Apparently it is okay if rich people organize themselves into huge economic bargaining units called “corporations” – but it is “tyranny” if you do virtually the same thing by forming a union. It’s legitimate for the government to empower the wealthy to get even wealthier, but “tyranny” to empower you to hold your own against them.

See how understanding cheap-labor conservatives is all so very simple? Government infrastructure and services are for them, not you. Their infrastructure and services are “natural”, but your infrastructure and services are “unnatural interference”. In other words, they get what they want, you take what they give you – and they never give you very much. Because what they want isn’t “wealth”. What they want is power – over you. They want the power to maintain their position in the social hierarchy government infrastructure and services have helped create. Maintaining their position means maintaining your position. They want you bargaining with them on their terms, and that means they want you broke, ignorant and scared – and they don’t want “big government” helping you out.

That, my friends, is what cheap-labor conservatives are all about.

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