With the meteoric rise of influence among some new members of Congress, there has been a lot of chatter on-line and in the mainstream media about those who claim the mantle of “democratic socialist.” However, the substantive part of the debate quickly devolves into partisan rancor focused on one simple question: are you a democratic socialist or a capitalist? Such either/or questions provide fertile ground for societal divisions in a country already rife with its share of divisiveness.
As has become all-to-common in America today, these debates drive us into our respective corners, thereby adding to the divisions that already exist among us and prompting an either/or allegiance that is neither helpful nor necessary. Many, myself included, reject this dichotomy as a false choice. I’ve never considered myself an incrementalist, but I believe that a wholesale rejection of capitalism will not solve the most pressing economic issues of our day—income inequality, the lack of upward mobility, the disempowerment felt by so many, gender salary imbalance and the role of corporate money in politics and government.
One important principle often taught in economic courses is called the tragedy of the commons which presents an economic problem in which every individual tries to reap the greatest benefit from a given, shared resource. As the demand for the resource overwhelms the supply, every individual who consumes an additional unit directly harms others who can no longer enjoy the benefits. Generally, the resource in question is easily available to all and the “tragedy of the commons” occurs when individuals neglect society’s well-being in the pursuit of personal gain.
When I was Director of Communication for the United Church of Christ, part of my portfolio included directing the UCC’s Office of Communication, Inc. (OC, Inc.), a nationally known advocate for media justice. There, I was introduced to “the public interest” as it referred to broadcasting—a guardrail against media giants eroding the rights of citizens in their consumption of the airwaves—established by law as a public trust.
Public interest law advocates for fairness for the average or less represented Americans and seeks to uncover threats to public health and well-being. Such law encourages a fair, sustainable economy that fosters responsive, democratic government.
Something is missing in the current debate—which will only intensify as we approach the 2020 election—about capitalism vs. socialism. Where is the guardrail of the public interest in this equation? If the concept I originally encountered in efforts at media justice was broadened from a narrow focus on the airwaves to the broader society, it would mitigate the either/or notion espoused on both the right and left, and allow the populace to more easily find common ground.
The idea of the public trust is relevant because the airwaves are a common commodity, belonging to us all. The same can be said for clean air and water, economic justice or approaches to climate change. Legislation has been applied in the past to safeguard the public—seat belt rules, no smoking regulations—and when we realize how elements of contemporary life resist isolation into discreet sectors, it makes sense to employ the same principle to almost all we do.
If we apply the public interest as a check on capitalism, the question about who falls on which side of this invented divide would lose its meaning. We need not be either capitalist or socialist—we can be advocates for a capitalism that is constrained by regulatory policies that promote the greater good.