Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Goodspeak Only, Please

After John Mackey, the chief executive of Whole Foods, ignited an outcry by proposing ideas for reforming health insurance that (unsurprisingly) didn't exactly appeal to Whole Foods' primary customer base, a lively debate has been raging. Part of this debate trumpets the idea that CEOs should keep their non-populist opinions to themselves.

"Corporate executives have a lot of social and political power in the United States, in a way that goes above and beyond the social and political power that stems directly from their wealth. The opinions of businessmen on political issues are taken very seriously by the press and by politicians on both sides of the aisle. Once upon a time perhaps union leaders exercised the same kind of sway, but these days all Republicans, most of the media, and some Democrats feel comfortable writing labor off as just an “interest group” while Warren Buffet and Bill Gates and Jack Welch are treated as all-purpose sages. One could easily imagine a world in which CEOs were reluctant to play the role of freelance political pundit out of fear of alienating their customer base. And it seems to me that that might very well be a nice world to live in."
Matthew Yglesias
This may very well be true. But, from where I stand, I think that one could just as easily imagine a world in which CEOs didn't bother to play the role of freelance political pundit because we didn't give their opinions any more weight than any other random person we didn't know and presumably, didn't know very much about us. This, it seems to me, would be an even better world to live in.

In the end, this is my main disagreement with many self-styled liberals and progressives - their opinion that the common person is simply incapable (rather than unmotivated or unincentivized) to act in what they understand their own best interests to be. CEOs like Buffet, Gates, Welch and Mackey need to be muzzled by activist citizens because the non-activist citizens just can't be expected to take the opinions of such luminaries with a grain of salt, or understand that their proclamations may be self-serving, rather than recipes for sweeping social improvement. This assumption of constituent passivity among the greater masses leads to the quite logical conclusion that the world needs to be made safe for passivity - which, in turn, provides an incentive for that same passivity - after all, understanding exactly why what's good for Jack Welch may not be good for me takes time and effort than I could otherwise spend doing other, more desirable activities. So if people who, if I listened to them, might lead me astray are made to shut up, I don't have to put the time into evaluating the wisdom (or applicability) of their statements vis-a-vis my own position. Knowing that everyone who is allowed to speak is on my side, all I have to do to lead a happy, healthy life is listen and obey, rather than do the intellectual heavy lifting that critical thinking demands.

That's double-plus good all around.


JohnMcG said...

And I think the perception of this attitude is behind a lot of the resistance to health care, and why the "death panel" talk has some salience.

People, rightly or wrongly, think that the folks running things don't believe the rest of us are capable of making good decisions, and need smart people like them to do it for us. Add in that it seems like those smart people have contempt for their values, and people aren't too excited about handing them control over health care decisions. They might decide that my love for my grandmother is silly sentimentality that I fail to recognize as such, and I need them to show me reality.

Yes, this isn't in the specifics of the proposals, but that spirit is behind some of it, and it has not gone unnotices.

JohnMcG said...

And BTW, did Macket's op-ed change that many minds? Did anyone say, "I was for health care refrom, but then I read Mackey's op-ed, and now I'm not so sure."

No, it had the same effect most op-eds do, conservatives cheered it; progressives jeered it.

It seems those in favor of health care refrom would have been well advised to absorb the minor hit of Mackey's op-ed rather than being perceived as needing to silence those who disagree.

Aaron said...

Personally, John, the death panel talk makes no sense to me, no matter how you slice it. I have a hard time believing that a for-profit insurer, whose very business model rests on taking in more in premiums than it pays out in benefits is going to be more willing to spend a quarter-million dollars for Grandmother to live another year. Let's face it, private insurance companies don't allow average policyholders complete control over their health care decisions.

The idea that an organization that's legally responsible to shareholders will do a better job for the public then an organization that's responsible to the public? I don't know that I find people who claim to sincerely believe that to be credible. Which is why I see this as being more about partisan hostility/overall direction of the country than it is about health care.