Real Markets and Real Democracy

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We have the human right and the means to put in place rules and institutions that support real markets and real democracy by decentralizing decision power and rooting it in living communities of place that have an inherent interest in human and natural well-being. Healthy markets are necessarily governed by appropriate democratically determined market rules that assure the conditions of efficient market function, and protect the rights and freedoms of persons from predatory corporations.

Nor need we accept the idea that our economic institutions serve best when they operate by the moral philosophy of the psychopath. The great religious prophets were right—we all have more when we care for one another, share resources, and act with mindful consideration of the needs of others. So were Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson, who taught us about the economic and political benefits of real market economies populated with locally rooted human-scale enterprises.

Without romanticizing the decades following World War II, it is useful to recall that there was a time in our not so distant past when market rules protected the public interest, as we then understood it. Banks were mostly local and strictly regulated. Many insurance companies, hospitals, and financial institutions were organized on a nonprofit cooperative model devoted to serving the interests of their policyholders, patients, depositors and borrowers. Anti-trust protected the public from many of the abuses of corporate monopoly power. Our middle class was the envy of the world.

Cities and towns had vibrant Main Street economies served by local independent businesses. Most manufacturing was domestic, much of our food production was local, and we had a positive trade balance. Few families needed more than one car and per capita energy use was modest by current standards. There was substantial non-market household production and a single wage was sufficient to support a family.

This was all undone as Wall Street interests mobilized in the 1970s to free corporations from public accountability in the name of market freedom. Step-by-step the Wall Street economy impoverished the Main Street economy to build the power and fortunes of an elite club of financiers and corporate CEOs. [See Main Street Markets vs. Wall Street Capitalism]

Incremental changes to this system will not get us where we need to go. It is time to move beyond the extractive casino economy with a top to bottom redesign of the rules and institutions governing economic life consistent with the ethical principles articulated in the Earth Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We call it the Living Economy Challenge.