Business Trends that Impoverish our People are not “Competitive”

There is a narrow ideological segment of the American political spectrum that obsessively pushes “competition” as the sole standard by which to measure the quality of our economic landscape. The problem here is that the word is too often used to promote the idea that to be “competitive” we need to drastically reduce wages and roll back rights most Americans take for granted. This vision of competition is not conservatism; it’s feudalism.

The idea that ordinary people should have less opportunity, less access to prosperity, less personal freedom and fewer labor rights, is not American; it is not in line with the Constitutional order of American democracy. It is the privileging of arbitrary power over the basic rights of real people. This vision of prosperity bound to regressive institutions does not appeal to independents who demand of their public servants both principle and pragmatism.

There are better ways to sow prosperity, foster dynamic capital flows and enrich our democracy. One approach might be to make sure that no institution accumulates undue power over institutions others rely on for the protection of their democratic freedoms and wellbeing. Read wellbeing here as access to opportunity or capacity for thriving, but that component of what makes citizenship work cannot be ignored in responsible economic policy.

Competition, to the mind of a committed non-ideologue means just that: the ability of a given entity to compete and to perform. Layoffs, cutting salaries, overseas outsourcing, planned obsolescence and an aversion to innovation, are all seen as cheating, not as “being competitive”. Policy makers interested in shaping a market landscape where the basic functional framework of society is optimized for producing democracy, fairness, innovation and prosperity, should aim for strategies that can do all of these things persistently.

The long term view is not in competition with the self-interest model; it is just a smarter way to secure oneself against the perils of a competitive environment. There is a false assumption that pervades the political narrative regarding independent voters, which is that by connective fibers running through the word “independent”, all independents have an aversion to organizational solutions, and therefore are avowed libertarians, which is too often interpreted as meaning “suspicious of government”.

Facile commentary from think-tanks, newspapers and partisans, finds this view convenient, and often uses it to shelter incomplete analysis that cannot make sense of the unknowable, i.e. what all those inexplicably non-aligned voters are thinking. We have to be honest about how we approach measuring anything, of course, or our resulting measurements cannot be trusted. So, let’s first agree that there is no one ideological view that independents as a political faction embrace. Independents helped George W. Bush win in 2004, while handing Barack Obama a landslide victory just four years later.

Polling independents is only useful if we know which viewpoint is most likely to drive a given voter to vote next time. Second, let’s admit that independent voting status does not automatically mean one is a devout libertarian. Nor is it true that all libertarians agree on policy specifics. Nor is it true that the logical response to suspicion of government is anarchism.

Independents want reason in government; they want rational behavior and tend to be suspicious of organizations whose raison d’etre is to concentrate power in a more or less rigid ideological framework. Attempts to define independents as being specifically one way or another tend to collapse, having little solid footing to stand on.

Some view all labor organizing as anathema to “capitalist democracy” and corrosive of fundamental freedoms; others view successes won by the labor movement as the crowning achievement of American democracy, and capitalist free enterprise as merely one aspect of a far more complex human picture. But it is hard to find an independent voter of any serious intellect at all who would say they prefer a world in which people are subject to the imposed will of powerful institutions that do not share their interests. 

In the ten years running 1998-2008, there was a decided shift in US policy toward assisting major corporations in adjusting to a wider competitive marketplace by putting major institutional interests ahead of the individual rights and socio-economic standing of individuals and communities. The thinking was: we can stave off the potentially corrosive effects of global competition for capital, by skewing policy in favor of institutions that want or need assistance with their bottom line.

Obviously, it’s too complex an effort to devote to all enterprises, so this thinking privileged the largest, and incentivized massive consolidation, whether in banking, airlines, hospitals, media, construction, insurance or agribusiness. With that consolidation, we saw the disadvantaging of smaller entities of all kinds, and the rolling back of wealth gains for individuals and families.

One statistic often cited is that median household income fell by $2,000 between 2001 and 2008, when adjusted for inflation. It’s hard to escape the obvious conclusion that public policy tilting the economic table in favor of larger entities, rewarding consolidation and discouraging negotiated labor contracts, led to the undermining of working people’s influence in the landscape of the American economy.

The notion that all independents have a libertarian streak is partly responsible for obscuring this analysis, as it leads policy makers of all persuasions to fear running afoul of a key voting block they need to stay in office. But there is no way to justify the claim that this negative trend line in terms of the influence of ordinary people over their economic destiny is somehow acceptable to rational independent voters who want the system to work optimally.

The wrong view of what is virtuous about “competition”, or rather about how to classify what virtuous competition is, undermines the prosperity and personal liberty of individuals and families and erodes communities. We need to see a smarter interpretation of what it means to be competitive: we need to measure our progress by what we can build, not by what we take apart.

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Originally published February 18, 2011, at IndependentsOfPrinciple.com

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