I recently read Fast Food Nation, and found it quite interesting on several levels. The book makes a lot of obvious points about overmarketing, health risks, worker safety in meatpacking plants, etc. One (slightly) less obvious point that came across very strongly to me was what the book revealed about the dangers of laissez-faire capitalism. We see example after example of how the big companies like IBP, ConAgra and ADM thrive on government subsidies and purchasing programs. Time after time, they practically buy laws that raise barriers to entry or otherwise adversely affect smaller competitors. And yet, every time there’s any hint of any regulation to address the dangers these companies pose to their workers, to consumers, or to the environment, all of a sudden they act like the free market will cure all ills and they’re its defenders. The level of hypocrisy they exhibit on this point is incredible, even to one relatively jaded about such things.

I guess some people would say I’m not a capitalist, and if we’re to make useful distinctions among such beliefs I think I’d even agree. I don’t believe in capital as the central concept in a successful economy. I believe in competition, which might make me a “competitionist”. I think competition is what drives people to innovate, to work harder, to be more responsive to customers (and other stakeholders). I also think that maintaining a competitive environment requires the presence of an impartial referee. Sorry, but the players can’t be trusted to run the game themselves. To the extent that the government acts as a player in the market (except as necessary e.g. to support the military) or as a biased referee (see above) I think that’s bad government. However, I have absolutely no objection to the government setting and strictly enforcing rules that benefit society – which is most often best served by maintaining a market environment in which new entrants can compete on the basis of merit instead of being stifled by the government or stomped on by entrenched trusts and cartels. Yes, it’s natural that companies should seek advantage through mergers and cooperation. It’s also natural that food rots. That doesn’t mean we should just accept the results instead of intervening to create a better overall outcome.