When the “scrawny boy from Austria” delivered his peroration against faint-hearted “economic girlie men,” it was an unusually seductive, even witty, appeal to a notion of free enterprise that is not just flexible but musclebound, not just robust but smackdown and not just strong but hypersteroidal. But the American free enterprise system, particularly since the Depression, has always rested on an assumption that the marketplace would be bounded by notions of fairness, reasonableness, rationality as well as efficiency. Recently, libertarian clichés and Republican oversimplifications seem to have left many people with the impression that commerce should be utterly unbounded by any kind of regulation whatsoever. This kind of thinking is littered with references to survival of the fittest, dogs eating dogs and snarling consumption of large quantities of red meat still bloody enough to spatter impressively.
But the government’s role used to mean insuring that the market was free of transactions posing great risks to life, limb or cultural capital. In such ideal circumstances, parties might bargain as wisely or foolishly as they please as long as they are capable actors, the terms are reasonable rather than unconscionable and no undue force, either public or private, is brought to bear. Where such circumstances did not exist, it was understood that public willingness to participate in the market would be affected and that participants could not be pacified by monetary damages alone but might rather be motivated by pain, fear, vengeance or fury.
Two things have happened in the years it has taken to convert Arnold Schwarzenegger into a political philosopher. One is that the pricing of risk has overtaken all other categories of analysis. From the high-flying executives at Enron to the mercenary soldiers of Executive Outcomes, every jot of daily life, from the highest ideal to the most basic principle, seems to have its price tag. Our political discourse is configured much more by models of hasta la vista baby commercialism than guided by civil libertarian or humanitarian ethics. The second thing that has happened is that the notion of the state as a monopoly of power has been under attack by antigovernment ideologues, who think the only function of government is policing a narrow range of business interests. This has resulted in broad suspicion of the judiciary as well as Congress, and an increased tendency to reduce the executive function to that of a military-minded CEO. But the degree to which this theoretical decentralization of government power also results in an unchecked aggregation of corporate power is ironic.
I guess I bother to go through this rather academic rendition because I worry that the notion of free enterprise driving the he-man model of capitalism is dangerously flawed. Let me give a bottom-line example of what’s bothering me. A few months ago, National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation did a program about a Dutch physician working for Médecins Sans Frontières who was kidnapped and held for nearly two years in southern Russia. The Dutch government paid the ransom, but then sued Médecins Sans Frontières for reimbursement of about $1 million. The questions asked during the radio discussion were revealing: Did the Netherlands violate a presumably public policy principle of “not negotiating with terrorists”? Or was it simply lending Médecins Sans Frontières money under stress of a deadline, with the implicit assumption that it would be repaid? And what do corporations, if not governments, do when their employees are kidnapped?