Unchecked capitalism can easily undermine freedom, democracy

As this disappointing presidential campaign season makes clear, America is confused about the differences between democracy and capitalism.

We don't understand anymore the distinction between freedom in politics and freedom in commerce. Or that free politics must always trump the rapaciousness of commerce.

Through the Bill of Rights, the Constitution guarantees us unlimited political freedom, with one caveat: In the democratic struggle between opposing points of view, the minority position is protected from the tyranny of the majority. When that protection goes, democracy dies.

In unregulated capitalism, winners destroy or consume their competitors. There is no check on power. Money equals freedom, for those who have it.

Only democracy can guide commerce in ways that aid a country and prevent economic gladiatorial spectacles. Democracies understand that just as political minorities must be protected, so must the less-well-off be protected from the competitive killer instinct of commerce.

Free trade is not fair trade. A government of the people and for the people cannot survive when much of its population is economically unprotected and is both prey and fodder for individuals and corporations who make profits by seeing labor as a cost, rather than a social good, and extravagant consumption as a virtue rather than a waste.

When democracy is burdened by poverty, it often falls prey to tyranny, and fair commerce suffers. Commerce exists in the context of government. If the government isn't free, commerce isn't, either. When commerce impoverishes democracy by confusing power with money and freedom with power, then you see what's happening in the world today.

As America stumbles into a recession — caused by reckless overspending on an unnecessary war, grossly unequal tax burdens in which powerful corporations and individuals have bribed the government to give them an unfair advantage in commerce, and unsupportable national and personal debt — democracy is threatened by those who impinge on freedom of dissent, in order to increase their power without public regulation.

We've seen this time and time again in our country. Commerce, like politics, is polarized into two camps — commerce that serves consumers and society, and commerce that, by controlling politics and gaining public subsidy, serves the few, leaving democracy to flounder in gross financial inequality that undermines political freedom.

Such times historically have been characterized by anti-labor witch hunts, persecutions of dissenting Americans, kangaroo trials in Congress and racial, gender and class struggles undercut by economic and social inequality.

World markets are responding now to an American economy that's out of alignment with its political ideals. Riches for some people and the loss of prosperity for most eventually destroys a country's middle class and its consumer base.

It also shreds the notions of fairness and equality embedded in the Bill of Rights, and threatens constitutional democracy with economic upheaval exploited by those who wield their power ruthlessly.

V.B. Price is an Albuquerque free-lance writer, author, editor and commentator.
January 26, 2008