Commentary & Opinion
4:45 pm
Tue January 28, 2014

Stephen Gottlieb: The Chemical Contamination in West Virginia

Before moving to Albany thirty-five years ago, we lived in Morgantown, West Virginia – a university town and a mining town. We knew people in both worlds. Our daughter was only seven, but after we moved she got letters from a little friend there who was the son of a miner. Miners lived all around.

Morgantown was very special, but the chemical leak and contamination in Charlestown reveals the naiveté of many in West Virginia and elsewhere in the U.S., who believe that whatever is good for the companies is good for us, that the companies are looking out for our welfare.

Actually, over the last forty years, the big companies have been appropriating more and more of what we produce for the benefit of top executives and leaving less for the rest of us – more of the wages, benefits, and environment and leaving less for the rest of us. To continue to believe that plowing tax breaks and freedom from regulation into corporate coffers will benefit the rest of us is to believe in tooth fairies and fairy godmothers.

Government exists to tear the anti-social consequences off monopoly capitalism and return the benefits that should exist in Main Street capitalism, the capitalism of people who know their neighbors of all kinds, and care, Main Street capitalism where monopoly control does not allow management to extract uneconomic benefits, a Main Street capitalism that respects the importance of public service, public investment, and public welfare, the capitalism of the Founders of this country who insisted that everyone owed a duty of public service.

We have been defrauded by people trying to tell us that regulation is un-American, when in fact regulation was deeply ingrained in the Founders’ thought. When they wrote about freedom, they wrote about political freedom, and the ability to make a living, not the freedom to extract other people’s earnings. The Founders were terrified by British capitalism because they understood that workers could be reduced almost to the level of slaves and that wage slavery would ripple through the economy and the politics of the young country.

It is often difficult to see the strengths of what the Founders said because we necessarily see it through their willingness to live with slavery – although most of the states were already moving toward its elimination. Gouverneur Morris, in the Constitutional Convention, described the danger of British wage slavery if it spread to America. For the Founders, freedom to work was freedom to clear land, farm, or start a business, not the freedom to extract as much as possible from everyone else.

But if we listen to all the apologists for giving the rulers of corporate America all the breaks they want, we will make slaves of ourselves – it will be called something else, and there will be some legal differences, if anyone pays attention, but it will be the equivalent of serfdom, of the peasants bound to the land and to their bosses in much of the so-called Third World. We need to wake up or we will be them.

The easiest way to understand what unchecked capitalism is doing to America is to play Monopoly, where the victor drives everyone else into bankruptcy.

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran. 

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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