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When The Perfect Is The Enemy Of The Good

The political theme running through the October Bulletin made this issue particularly interesting. Once again, I have occasion to marvel at how intelligent people, some with impressive academic qualifications and professional affiliations, can hold opposite views on fundamental issues of public policy. Take the role of government in the economy: Diana Furchtgott-Roth ’79 noted that “… we’re all better off when the government stays out of our hair and leaves us to the competitive marketplace.”

My conclusion is different: The competitive marketplace, while extraordinarily successful as a generator of wealth, suffers from deficiencies for which corrective government policies can play useful roles. Free markets suffer from periodic recessions, with attendant high unemployment. The current Great Recession, however, reflects the failures of supervision and regulation to prevent catastrophic excesses in the financial sector of the competitive marketplace. Free markets fail to address so-called externalities, for example, the pollution of air and water, environmental degradation, and the effect of fossil fuels on global warming, which means that the level and structure of market prices do not fully reflect societal costs. They sometimes afford efficiencies that can lead to the market dominance of one or a few corporations, impairing the functioning of competitive markets. And they can lead to inequalities of income so large as to threaten economic and social stability. Government has also been called upon to protect investors against fraud and market manipulation; labor against hazardous working conditions and excessive hours; competitors against predatory tactics, intimidation, and coercion; and consumers against adulterated or unsafe products.

The Bulletin quotes several Swarthmore faculty members on problems they see with Obamacare. Let us not forget that more than 30 million Americans who previously lacked health insurance will now be covered. At long last, the United States will have joined every other industrial nation in providing near-universal health care to its citizens. Those who call attention to deficiencies should be careful not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Gerald Pollack ’51
Old Greenwich, Conn.

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