Robert Reich on the Meaning of a Decent Society

Taken from Robert Reich’s Blog.

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Some conservatives say “decency” has nothing to do with it [the government’s role, say, in setting the minimum wage. Who has the right to decide what’s decent? We should let the “market” decide what people are paid.

This is one of the oldest conservative canards in existence, based on the false claim that there’s something called a “market” that exists separate from society. But there’s no “market” in a state of nature, just survival of the fittest.

A society necessarily determines how the “market” is to be organized. Standards of morality and decency play a large role in those decisions.

We set minimum standards for worker safety and consumer protection. We decide young children shouldn’t be in the labor force.

We do our best to prevent certain things from being bought and sold — such as slaves, dangerous narcotics, babies, votes, sex with children, machine guns, nuclear material.

We decide citizens shouldn’t have to buy certain things that should instead be available to everyone free of charge (paid in effect by all of us through our taxes) – such as clean drinking water, K-12 schools, safe bridges, protection from violence, public parks.

Opinions may differ about what decency requires, and we hash it out in a democracy. We might decide certain minimum standards are too costly or inefficient, or can’t be enforced, or impose unwarranted constraints on our freedoms.

Different societies come up with different answers. Handguns are banned in most other advanced nations, for example. Workers have more protections than they do in the United States. Minimum wages are higher. Taxes on the wealthy are higher. Healthcare is more universally available.

Every society must necessarily decide for itself what decency requires. That’s the very meaning of a “society.”

Don’t fall for the mindless assertion that “markets” know best. Markets are human creations, requiring human beings to decide how they are structured and maintained.

The questions we face – whether to raise the minimum wage, restrict the availability of guns, expand healthcare coverage, and countless other decisions – inevitably require us to define what we mean by a decent society.

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