Some years ago, in an enumeration of the sins of modern society, the Canon of Westminster Abbey listed, “Commerce & industry without morality.” Certainly, meeting the needs of the marketplace can constitute a moral exercise if exercised properly, and capitalism – loosely defined as the favoring of private enterprise over state-owned business ventures – has proven itself to be the most efficient method of furnishing and distributing goods and services to consumers.
At the point, however, where entrepreneurs prioritize greed over need, our social contract demands that our government intercede on behalf of citizens. “Buyer beware” is an insufficient credo when dealing with the distribution of unsafe products or the spread of immoral business practices. Society, as a whole, must be wary of charlatans and snake-oil salesmen if for no other reason than showing a louse a profit may place your well-being at the very bottom of the business priorities.
We accept as common wisdom that the individual’s right to throw a fist ends where another individual’s nose begins. Why is the same not held true for consumer products? In the absence of governmental regulation, these behaviors will undoubtedly follow:
- The greedy will overcharge the consumer.
- The selfish will neglect the common welfare.
- The unscrupulous will deceive the naïve.
- The unprincipled will exploit the ill-informed.
- The powerful will overwhelm the weak.
- Industrialists will poison our bodies for profit.
History suggests that some who aspire to wealth recognize few limits on expedience in their quest for riches. As Michelle Alexander observed in “The New Jim Crow”, “Most plantation owners supported the institution of black slavery not because of a sadistic desire to harm blacks but instead because they wanted to get rich…” Wanton avarice prompted the abomination of human bondage, the ramifications of which reverberate into the modern era.
The progression from an agricultural to an industrial economy induced some small progress in economic justice for the labor force. However, unbridled capitalism and industrial production has created a host of nuisances that threaten our health and welfare. How many thousands have died building canals, bridges and railroads? How many captains of industry attained wealth beyond the dreams of avarice while stepping over the carcasses of workers?
Industrial waste in the Cuyahoga river caught fire no less than thirteen times between 1888 and 1952. The fire in 1969 finally prompted legislative remedies in the Clean Water Act. Flash forward to 2016 and recall the still unresolved catastrophe with non-potable water in Flint, Michigan.
In 1994, captains of the tobacco industry raised their hands at the Waxman hearings and swore, “I believe that nicotine is not addictive.” Worse, to retard burning, cigarettes also contain chemical additives that would not pass EPA muster for dumping in a landfill.
Today, oil barons refuse to affirm the incontrovertible evidence that the rampant burning of fossil fuels contributes to climate change which threatens rising seas, more violent storms and decreased biodiversity. Our ice cover is melting which threatens the water table, and fracking has poisoned What becomes of our species when the food chain is broken? How many more days will their wealth ultimately purchase when they can no longer breathe the air?
Governmental regulations are required simply because tycoons tend to ask if goods, services or processes will generate a profit long before they worry about adverse outcomes for the consumer. For evidence, we need look no further than the overuse of antibiotics in industrial farming and the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria. It would appear we have learned little since Victor Hugo famously penned, “The paradise of the rich is made from the hell of the poor.”
Reworked from a letter to the editor at The Prince George’s Sentinel on March 14, 2017.