Given today's extreme partisanship, serious citizens need to remind ourselves that all political discourse is a mixture of sense and nonsense. It isn't easy to sort out which ideas make sense and which don't, but it is a good idea to try.
Neither Democrats nor Republicans have a monopoly on wisdom or virtue. Both parties expound doctrines that are correct up to a point but are incorrect when pushed beyond that point.
Traditional Republican dogma (before Donald Trump's tariffs) has emphasized the importance of free markets to maximize economic efficiency and living standards. Democratic dogma emphasizes the need for government regulations to protect the general public from dangerous goods, services, and scams, and to protect the environment.
Market economies in which people are free to exchange goods and services for mutually agreed prices are clearly better than highly centralized economies where government decides how much of everything will be produced and what its price will be. The Chinese economy, stagnant when it was rigidly controlled by the ruling Communist Party, began its amazing progress only after Deng Xiaoping introduced market reforms in 1982. The centrally controlled economy of the Soviet Union was horribly inefficient and living standards were correspondingly low.
But pushed too far, praise for a market economy runs into awkward problems. In a purely market economy goods may be produced by processes which impose costs on the general public rather than being passed along to the people who buy those goods. Such "externalized" costs include air and water pollution, noise, destruction of vital ecosystems, and degradation of the world climate. An unregulated economy cannot do anything about these side effects.
Some governmental regulation of the economy is therefore necessary and desirable. A market economy requires a framework of laws enacted and enforced by government, and it is vital to get that legal framework right. This by itself is a type of regulation. Contract law enables people to exchange goods or services, including the services of labor, by entering into enforceable agreements. These agreements include loaning and borrowing money. Who would loan us money to buy a house if there was no way to enforce our agreement to repay it?
Corporation law regulates the terms on which large enterprises can be created and operate, enabling the large scale production which allows for a high standard of living.
Monopolies, usually undesirable, work best for utility companies providing electricity or land line telephone service to local areas. Operating competing sets of wires would greatly increase their average costs and therefore costs to consumers. So government regulation, usually through public utility commissions, is used to keep prices reasonable.
If nobody sets limits on pollution that can be dumped into the air or water, the consequences can be very unfortunate. Only government can enact rules "internalizing the externalities," forcing producers to pay for damage they inflict on the environment.
But regulation, too, causes problems when pushed too far. Unwise regulation can prevent the development of small-scale businesses, which can't afford the legal and accounting talent necessary to cope with the red tape. Also, regulatory agencies, which are supposed to protect the public from producers, sometimes can be "captured" by the producers and used to protect themselves from potential competitors.
Governing complex societies is inherently complicated, and we should beware of pushing plausible and largely correct political dogmas — be they Democratic or Republican — beyond the limits where they make sense. To this end we should remind ourselves frequently of what I have modestly named "deLespinasse's Law": All political discourse is a mixture of sense and nonsense.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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