Democracy and capitalism work when the truly wise participate

There are those who argue that democracy has run its course, that the checks and balances upon which it is dependent no longer work and we now have too many checks and very little balance.

Winston Churchill is reported to have said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried. He also said: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

It is a system highly dependent on the quality of the people selected to administer it. To work, it requires people of character, integrity, prudence, and sound judgment who are committed to identifying and promoting the “common good.”

The “common good” is not what is best for any class, sector, or interest, but the general welfare of all those governed, from the rich to the poor. It envisions a fair distribution of resources so that no one is denied the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The pursuit of those laudable goals requires certain fundamental opportunities. One cannot pursue happiness without an adequate education, reliable health care, a feeling of security, and the availability of productive work.

Taxes are the vehicle by which we all at least in theory contribute to the common good. They provide the funds to assure that basic constitutional rights are protected. It seems sensible that those with more should contribute a greater share toward the general welfare – you have more, you give more.
The system starts to break down when those with more are reluctant to give to those they view as less deserving. They resist and they have the resources to influence elected officials and even determine who they should be. Money serves to corrupt the system.

Capitalism is an economic system based on man’s basic desire to acquire money and things. In its basest form, the desire to acquire is called “greed,” a fundamentally selfish impulse that is at the heart of the capitalist system, and, more importantly, at the center of our fundamentally flawed human nature.

The genius of capitalism is that it is based on a correct understanding of human nature. If we can harness the desire to acquire, we will have the most efficient engine to generate goods and services and produce wealth.

It works! But how do you control it? Government is the vehicle by which our Founding Fathers expected to restrain capitalism and thereby control its destructive impulses. Taxes and regulations became the means used to restrain the excesses that are built into the system. Think of capitalism as a nuclear power plant and government as the force that keeps it from running out of control and melting down.

Perhaps our founders underestimated the power of money and overestimated the strength and will of those who would be chosen by the people to control the system. Perhaps they thought of “checks and balances” too narrowly, that it is not simply a matter of one branch of government acting to check and balance the power of the remaining two.

An equally important but less apparent check and balance is the one between the government and capitalism. Government is supposed to restrain runaway capitalism so that the common good will not be lost in a headlong rush to accumulate and keep wealth.

However, there is no vaccine to protect those charged with restraining capitalism from the virus that generates the power and drives the system. These restrainers are also susceptible to the same desires to acquire power and money.

Insight, honesty, self-restraint, and sacrifice are necessary to understand and control the destructive impulses that are so obviously a part of what it means to be a human being. There seems to be precious little of that left in public life.

The restrainers have become the restrained. A Congress that is more adversarial than deliberative, more rancorous than responsible, and more inclined to conflict than compromise seems incapable of controlling the excesses of capitalism.

In a democracy, the people, through their elected officials, define the common good. Inevitably, capitalism will work to distort that definition. The combination of capitalism and democracy has proven to be the most effective means of putting society on a path to achieve the common good. For it to continue working will require smart people of good will in business and government who understand both their respective roles and the flaws common to all human institutions. They must have the strength and the will to restrain impulses that undermine the general welfare.

Regrettably, it seems there are fewer truly wise leaders around today. And it’s troubling to ask: Would such persons run for office and, if so, could they be elected?

James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.