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You’re a Citizen a Buyer and a Seller: Can You Handle It?

Consumers’ want the lowest prices on the most and best products. Sellers want the highest prices while giving up the least amount of product. There appears to be no confusion about these statements. However, there is confusion about your role when you are trying to deal with the fact that you are a citizen, and in a Democracy you are also expected to act in the public interest.

When you listen to voters on the Right you may think that they have entirely abandoned the role as citizens in favor ofthe idea that their world should be controlled by the sellers, the corporations, and the job creators; the people who take risks and need to be free from regulation even by meaningful competition.

On the Left you hear voters take a position that it is only the buyer that really counts, and that the world should be ruled by what you need regardless of cost. In this scenario the buyer actually owns the store, and can control the businesses’ prices, products, environmental, production, social, advertising and international immigration and trade policies all the way up the chain of production.

Listening to the political dialogue as an economist the market sounds like the arrogant versus the entitled, screaming so loudly that there is no room for the citizen to speak. The noise is so deafening that few hear the unemployed, the underemployed, the gavel in the bankruptcy court, the click of the chaining up the closed manufacturing plant, and the ripping sound of copper tubing being torn out of a foreclosed house.

On the Right the ”free” market is treated as the province of “ small” business owners, some of whom are billionaires, who are even encouraged, Ayn Rand style, to go on strike and not produce in protest of taxes and regulation. At the most extreme they find the “free” market so pure after the fall of communism that any intrusion violates the commandment “thou shall have no other Gods before me.” Thus, regulators are communists and socialists.
On the left the dictatorial buyer emerges from the gated community “Master Of The Universe” with a smug knowledge that it would cost nothing to make the entire world a gated community. And, of course, this must be obvious or you haven’t read the Mother Earth News lately. If you can’t afford the Magazine or the attitude, you are the “exploited.” This is not socialist, it is ”Visionary Capitalism”; that place where visionaries see the world by only looking at the parts that affirm them and forget the rest.

Where is the citizen? The citizen is the one who recognizes that the free market is not a place where you’re free to do what you want. It is a place where you are free to stay or leave but you must compete against others who do what you do. The citizen recognizes that resources that are used must be paid for, and there’s no free lunch. And beyond competition regulating the market by exerting control over the how, what, and where things are produced is a collective act, the citizen recognizes that special interests are “ things” to listen to, but must be placed in the context of the common good and not allowed to dictate or interfere with outcomes that serve the whole society.

So with the current volume of screaming sellers and yelping buyers , where can the citizen emerge in the cacophony?

The citizen should be heard in Congress, in the Executive Branch, even in the Supreme Court. These bodies are supposed to represent us as citizens and our common bonds: the Constitution and the rule of law. Because we hear “nothing” most of the time and occasionally a smattering of phrases like; “get government off your back, no more taxes, it’s your money, Government is broken, my business experience can fix it, government is your enemy, I’ll bring leadership, jobs and hope back, The End Is near, the Enemy Is Somebody Who Doesn’t Look like Me, I speak for the frogs,  More Jobs Less Government, I’m so Confused (held in its teeth by an honest dog),” many citizens have come to vote blindly to the sound of chaos or noise. Those who influence citizens to mistake noise for knowledge are making it easy to ignore the common good. Being a discriminating citizen is not easy.

Much of the time, even in good faith, our representatives have been unwilling to do anything for the common good. The lobbyists for the companies and corporations, nonprofits, visionaries for ”you name the cause”, unions and “those who have the “truth” channel this ambiguous environment into laws and (de)regulations that limit the forces of competition among the companies and corporations and create (under)unfunded, misunderstood and sometimes destructive/wasteful laws or expenditures for the whole society. Ironically, they are not destructive to a “special” part of society.
Here we have failed as citizens.

The possibility of this failure was recognized early on by Madison and Jefferson. They recognized the Enlightenment brought on new problems of leadership as the aristocracy disappeared. Gary Wills in his Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life forcefully reminded us that Montesquieu had defined “a Republic as a self-regulating political entity whose wellspring was the identification of one’s own good with the common good, calling this identity civic virtue. Forming such character requires the context of practices where the coincidence of personal concern and the common welfare can be experienced.”

It is ironic that the name of the Supreme Court decision that perpetuates the cacophony of noise in the political process by interest groups on both sides turns out to be called “Citizens United.” What we need are voters who are Citizens who are United for the common good unwilling to give up that role to pursue being a righteous buyers or sellers advocate. Citizens as voters are arbitrators not advocates.

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