Wednesday, April 7, 2010

“Priests & Levites”1—modern day parallels?

At my father’s funeral, a speaker (giving the biography) said:
“Travers didn’t separate temporal and spiritual matters. Often times we hear people excusing themselves, ‘Well, that’s business, and this is church. You don’t mix the two.’ They do mix, and Travers kept them together all the time wherever he went, and in the work that he has done.”
Perhaps that is why I see the separation of “church and business” as one of the great failings of our corporate times where many of the values taught in churches and other spiritual centers seem lost in our collectivized rush to prosperity in an increasingly business-dominated world.

Have we, by relying so much on the collective hierarchy of corporate systems, lost our sense of individual responsibility, accountability, and compassion for those that the system casts to the side of the road? Why is it that respectable, honorable men and women can countenance—even engage in—disreputable, dishonorable acts when working for legal fictions2 or when shielded as mere investors? Why do so many of us hide our head in the sand of maximized profit and deregulation while our “priests and Levites” promenade the byways of so called “free-markets”? “Free-markets” that have surreptitiously reverted to Adam Smith’s despised mercantile system of amassed wealth, power, and privilege!3 Déjà vu, anyone?!

Adam Smith4 believed that self-interest, when properly channeled in the competitive marketplace, could promote virtues of order, trust, self-command, prudence, probity, and even benevolence; that a properly channeled self-interest would redound to the public good. This required that a monopoly of physical power reside with the state—that the state monitor the considerable ironies and negatives that the natural tendencies of competitive markets exacerbated.

Our newspapers, magazines, newscasts, blogs, and websites are filled with stories of the wounded and dying because of increasingly unregulated tendencies. Consider:

▪ Companies continuing to operate unsafe mines5 after numerous citations and huge fines.
▪ Businesses justifying subsistence wages and sweatshop conditions.
▪ Companies polluting air, water, land, and living beings.6
▪ CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies engaging in bribery and fraud.7
▪ Companies knowingly manufacturing and marketing hazardous goods: addiction-enhanced cigarettes, fatal pharmaceuticals, toxic toys, contaminated foods, defective autos, bogus cures, etc.
▪ Financial schemes plundering to the right and to the left.
▪ Multinationals buying up global competitors or destroying them via rumor-mongering.
▪ Big-business falsifying earnings and liabilities.
▪ Etc., etc., etc. 8

The list is endless, as are the witnesses8 that cry in continual litany against our blindness and deafness. Why do we keep defending corrupted systems that pose as advocates of “competitive free-markets” while violating both the tenets of such free-markets and the professed virtues of owners, managers, shareholders, employees, and citizens at large? Why do we sustain these imposters that malign and weaken, with our consent and complicity, the very institution meant to monitor their adherence to the rule of law and human decency? Instead, we champion a corrupted system that has brought death, disease, injury, pollution, fraud, bribery, and a myriad sins into a marketplace that now survives, not on competition, but on favors? And we? Instead of identifying the brigands that plunder for profit, we demote the “sheriff” by popular (and propagandized) sentiment.

Adam Smith was not anti-government or anti-regulation. He believed that government would grow in size and importance along with the growth of a “channeled” and appropriately regulated competitive free-market as it helped elevate citizens to “universal opulence.” But the very institution designed to protect private property and enforce the rule of law has been co-opted by increasingly unrestrained self-interest and the negatives of wealth combined with power and influence. Large sectors of government now lie wounded at the side of the road along with other citizens while faux, laissez-faire priests and Levites of every stripe take great pains to “not see” or, in the alternative, to justify the wounded and dying. (“Them’s the breaks of the marketplace!”)

There is much good that has come out of the marketplace, but if we persist in blindness by mocking “motes” in government while discounting “beams” in business,9 our democratic values and the very Republic of America herself shall be found amongst the victims at the side of the road.

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1. New Testament Luke 10:25-37: And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live. But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour? And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee. Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves? And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.
2. See Corporate Personality at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_fiction
3. For example: Who else gets Golden parachutes for failing? http://photo.newsweek.com/content/photo/2008/9/photos-ceos-golden-parachutes-from-failed-firms.html
4. Review lectures 7-10 of “Thinking about Capitalism” taught by Jerry Z. Muller, PhD; The Catholic University of America (© 2008, “The Teaching Company®, The Great Courses®)
5. Mining, e.g.: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mining_accident ; http://www.cbc.ca/world/story/2010/04/06/virginia-mine-explosion.html ;
6. Polluters, e.g.: http://www.portfolio.com/news-markets/national-news/portfolio/2008/02/19/10-Worst-Corporate-Polluters ; http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0933679.html ;
7. Corporate Fraud: http://securities.stanford.edu/news-archive/2004/20040306_Headline01_Staff.htm ; http://articles.sfgate.com/2002-07-14/business/17553322_1_scandals-regulation-stock ; http://www.trinity.edu/rjensen/FraudAmericanHistory.htm ; http://www.itexaminer.com/the-history-of-corporate-fraud-is-banal.aspx ; Bribery: http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1977526,00.html ; http://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/172/30078.html ; Smuggling: http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2010/04/13/tobacco-smuggling-lawsuit-settled.html ;
8. The list grows every day. For past examples see: http://www.corpwatch.org/ ; http://www.corp-ethics.com/ ; http://www.multinationalmonitor.org/hyper/list.html ; http://www.corporations.org/ ; http://www.stopcorporateabuse.org/ ;
9. New Testament Matthew 7:3 “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” Of course there are problems with the present state of government excesses and abuses, but the real threat to liberty and democractic values is in the corrupted state of wealth, power, influence, and excess of modern business, which also accounts for much of government corruption.
 
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