From liberty to license

Once upon a time conservatives talked about the difference between liberty and license. The value of business wasn’t just profit but its contribution to how all Americans lived. That was before conservatives realized just how much license they could take at others’ expense.

Laws were designed to bring down the frequency of accidents and extent of avoidable injuries. We understood that workers had less ability to protect themselves from industrial accidents than employers did, less knowledge of the alternatives and risks, and couldn’t change their environment or the machines they used.

We adopted pension rules because workers were being promised benefits they’d never see. Now after people have invested their careers they’re told they shouldn’t have relied on the promise. Of course living up to promises to pay huge bonuses are an obligation. But living up to promises to pay pensions to ordinary people is just discretionary.

There was a time when Americans treated an 8-10% profit on investment as perfectly adequate. Now it seems like the sky not only is the limit but we are constantly told it has to be the limit, everyone has a right to as much as they can get.

When banks put charges on accounts that threaten depositors’ solvency, we’re told banks have the right to as much as they can get. There used to be limits on the interest lenders could charge, limits that have biblical origins. For individuals on wages or salary, 20% or 30% is very hard to pay back – the burden of debt grows too fast. In the last three decades government removed most of those limits. Now we’re told lenders are entitled to all the usurious rates they can collect. Sometimes they try to sound socially conscious, claiming that if we don’t let them, they won’t be able to make equally atrocious bargains available to those least able to pay. The hypocrisy should be obvious.

Not content with the enormous changes that have made the careless pursuit of the almighty dollar the ruling goal of corporate America, the Tea Party and its radical financiers and fellow travelers have turned freedom into license to do as much damage as possible. Starve federal agencies so they can’t inspect mines, factories, food producers, and try to protect us. Hurry to drill deeper in the Gulf despite risks to fishermen, fish, the oceanic food chain, and the environment. Keep farmland in ethanol production though there is no net reduction in oil imports, no addition to the miles we can drive on a tank of gas, and a lot less food. Let the sea level rise – though it will destroy or kill those not wealthy enough to move to higher ground. Global warming will tank the markets. But the rich devils will just get into the refugee supply or mercenary army businesses – any way to make a buck.

The shift from market freedom to market license is repeated in field after field – everything that might protect people from catastrophe has become too expensive, and regulation has become a curse. These radicals don’t want to behave as good citizens or let government protect us. Those who do want to be good citizens are driven out of business by those who don’t – the bad drives out the good – that’s Gresham’s law – and the Tea Party prays for it.

Changes to American law are supposed to make all this possible. Unless we stop this excess of greed.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 19, 2011.


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