This article is related to Anthony Biglan’s new book Rebooting Capitalism: Forging a Society that Works For Everyone.
Evolution has taken us where we didn’t want to go. Thanks to relentless and very effective advocacy for free-market thinking, every sector of society has been corrupted by the belief that individual and corporate pursuit of wealth will necessarily result in a benefit to society. Each of the industries that I have described in these essays has evolved practices that have been quite beneficial to the companies engaged in these practices, but quite harmful to society as a whole. Indeed in the case of climate change, we face unprecedented and catastrophic harm to humanity and most of the other species on the planet.
We must evolve a form of capitalism that minimizes harm and maximizes benefit. It is true that the pursuit of profit in the marketplace often selects innovations and efficiencies that are of great benefit. But as the evolution of the industries I have discussed shows, it can also do great harm.
The answer is not the total abandonment of capitalism. No plausible alternative has yet to be proposed. Rather the answer is to use the much more accurate framework of evolutionary theory to evolve a form of capitalism that only allows truly beneficial practices to be selected. In essence, we need to change the consequences that select practices so that only those practices that minimize harm and promote wellbeing survive.
As these essays have shown, companies will engage in whatever legal practices they can to preserve profitable practices, frequently with no regard to their impact on general wellbeing. And in the current era, these companies have enormous influence over lawmaking. In industry after industry, the laws are favorable to the industry. Gunmakers are shielded from liability for any of the features of their products that contribute to gun-related deaths. The RICCO statute that made it illegal for the tobacco companies to collude in obscuring the impact of their product on cancer and heart disease has no criminal or financial penalties for the companies or their executives, despite the millions of people killed by their product. The pharmaceutical industry pays fines for marketing opioids that result in hundreds of thousands of overdose deaths, but the fines are far less than the profits they make in marketing the opioids. The food industry markets foods that result in record levels of childhood obesity and then fight to prevent taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages. The financial industry steadily erodes laws that have prevented depressions and severe recessions and when its investment instruments cause a severe recession, they influence the government to bail them out and make sure that they continue to be minimally regulated. The fossil fuel industry creates a network of astroturf, advocacy, and pseudo-science organizations to prevent laws that would increase the price of their products.
In each of these industries, public health and citizen’s groups have arisen that are working to publicize the harm of the product and prevent further harm. But what is striking is how little these organizations have come together to address the generic features of the problem. In every case, measurable harm is occurring and the profits of the industry are the fundamental cause of both the harm and the efforts of the industry to prevent anything that would impinge on those profits.
Groups opposing the industry fight their battles in the context of widespread beliefs that government regulation is harmful and that the rights of those who are marketing the product and those being harmed by the product are in jeopardy. They get into arguments with the industry over whether the harm is real and are disadvantaged by these default assumptions.
The problem needs to be addressed not at the level of whether a particular industry may be doing harm, but at the level of how our society ensures the wellbeing of its members.
Here are a set of straightforward principles that are applicable to any industry:
- The harms and benefits of any industry can and should be assessed routinely. Economists are well able to assess the economic benefit of an industry’s practices to the companies, their investors, the consumers, and the public at large. At the same time, economists and the public health community are quite capable of assessing the harms of products to consumers, employees, investors, and the public at large.
- Whether the practices of an industry should be altered via regulation should be a function of our weighing the risks and benefits of the practices. Policies that required the routine analysis of risks and benefits would make it unnecessary to fight these battles one industry at a time.
- When the harm of a product outweighs its benefits, the remedies for addressing the harm must ensure that the cost to the industry is greater than its profits. Otherwise, the penalties will simply be the cost of doing business and harmful marketing will continue.
Of course, precisely where you set the bar in weighing harms and benefits will have to be worked out in a democratic process.
I realize that it will seem wildly unrealistic, to believe that policies such as these could be adopted. Currently, that is the case. However, in Rebooting Capitalism: How Behavioral Science Can Forge a Society that Works for Everyone, I lay out a strategic plan for how we can get there. The book provides a detailed roadmap for how this evolution can be accomplished. Every major sector of society has been corrupted by the singular focus on self-aggrandizing values. In business, healthcare, higher education, criminal justice, the media, and our political system, fundamental reform is needed. We must replace the values and beliefs promoted by free-market ideology, with a set of prosocial values that make the wellbeing of the society as a whole the ultimate criterion for individual, corporate, and governmental practices.
Rebooting Capitalism provides a detailed description of how we can create a movement to reform every sector of society. It begins by providing you with the psychological tools you need to cope with the current crisis and contribute to the changes that are needed. It then analyzes each of the major sectors of society in terms of how we can measure its impact on wellbeing, replace self-aggrandizing values with prosocial, nurturing values, and select practices that advance the wellbeing of every person. Go to ValuestoAction.com and join us on this vital journey!
Read the Full “Cultural Evolution of Social Pathologies” Series by Anthony Biglan:
1. Introduction by David Sloan Wilson