Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Authoritarianism: The New Democracy?

Robert Reich has a good article at American Prospect on the transformation of China into a communist capitalist nation. Sound funny? Not too long ago "communist capitalist" was considered an oxymoron, as it was believed that democracy and capitalism were inseparable. Reich, contrary to that traditional thinking, points out that China's burgeoning capitalist economy has been extremely successful in large part because it has the ability to squash groups like labor unions and pesky ideas like environmental protection.

According to Reich: "China shows that when it comes to economics, the dividing line among the world's nations is no longer between communism and capitalism. Capitalism has won hands down. The real dividing line is no longer economic. It's political. And that divide is between democracy and authoritarianism. China is a capitalist economy with an authoritarian government."

To reverse that line of thinking, democracy actually can be a challenge to capitalism because it has the ability to force the government to make demands on business that potentially hamper its unbridled expansion: good pay and benefits for workers, care for the environment, safe working conditions, etc.

So how do you survive and thrive as a business in a democracy? Two ways come to mind.

  1. You value your employees and the environment that houses your business by paying living wages, providing quality benefits, ensuring safe working conditions, following environmental guidelines, etc. Positives = You help to strengthen your community as a whole, thereby encouraging sound productivity and continuous innovation. Negatives = Your profits are modest.
  2. You ensure that your business interests are served first in the democracy by forming a lobby and funneling money to politicians. Positives = You reap huge profits and so do the politicians you pay. Negatives = The democracy becomes more private than public, and the workers & environment suffer.

To be sure, there are a good number of businesses that strive for model #1. But as the Republican's K Street Project lobby scandal demonstrates, our democracy has been made to look more like the one in model #2 in recent years. Big Pharmaceutical and Big Energy, just to name two, contributed their way into the legislative process last year by writing (yes, actually writing) major bills that sent taxpayer dollars directly into their pockets in complete disregard for the public good, more than making up financially for their original contributions. How's that for a return on your investment? If democracy (i.e., the public good) would've prevailed, twelve states wouldn't have already declared a public health crisis less than one month into the implementation of the new Medicare prescription drug program that doesn't allow the complex web of insurance companies to actually negotiate for lower drug prices.

The same can be said of the way the Bush administration has handled national security issues. Rather than conducting its operations within the law, the White House chose to side-step the courts and the Bill of Rights in a large-scale secret domestic spying program that easily could've been avoided by simply obtaining special court warrants specifically designed for sensitive surveillance requests under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (for those who are about to say this would take too long, these warrants can be obtained retroactively within 72 hours of a search). Even during a time of war, the NSA spying program initiated by the White House broke the law. Simply put, the Bush administration didn't want to take the time to follow procedures set up to protect the public.

What the lobbying scandals and secret spying demonstrates, beyond anything else, is a blatant disregard for law established by and for the people through democratic processes. Authoritarianism is running rampant through the White House and the top Republican ranks.

It's time to tell the Republican-controlled White House and Congress in Washington who are at the center of these scandals that capitalism and national security can still mix with democracy.

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