DRUGS have ravaged one young generation after another in Punjab. A political war continues about who is responsible. The Economist has an interesting view, albeit in the context of the growing drug problem in the US. Fentanyl is a new synthetic and industrial opioid. It is significantly more potent than heroin, whose raw material comes from poppy grown by farmers in Afghanistan and Southeast Asia, whose fields have been targeted by the US-led ‘war on drugs’ for eradication. “Drugs of fentanyl’s ilk currently kill around 70,000 Americans a year, more than (those who) died in the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan combined,” says The Economist. And it asks, “Why has fentanyl thus far spared Europe when it caused such devastation in America? Given the drug’s origins — it was synthesised in Belgium in 1959 as a legal painkiller — it might have been expected to be discovered by junkies there first. But it took American no-holds-barred capitalism to help turn it into a phenomenon.” This admission is surprising because The Economist is a staunch champion of free markets and capitalism.
Karl Marx said religion was the opiate of the masses. Ideologies can be opiates too. The Economist and its ilk have often said that communism was an opiate of the masses, replacing religion. The American version of capitalism is an opiate too. It is heretical in a society ruled by religion to question God; it is heretical to doubt the morality of the ‘invisible hand’ in free-market capitalism.
Govts must learn to govern the economy for the benefit of all citizens. The private sector is not a panacea for various problems.
In the ideological struggle between the US and Soviet Union during the Cold War, then US President Ronald Reagan declared “government is the problem, not the solution” to counter communism and socialism in Europe, where governments took responsibility for public welfare. In the American version of ‘no-holds-barred’ capitalism, the business of business is business. Government regulation of business curbs its animal spirits and innovative ways of making profits. Thus, the ease of doing business, unregulated by the government, replaced the ease of living of citizens as the measure of good government policy. Indian economic policies have not been spared by this global ideological drug. In 2021, the Indian Government allowed the private sector to engage in the production of poppy for opium/heroin, which had been a government monopoly. Six protesting farmers were killed in police firing in Madhya Pradesh’s Mandsaur in 2017.
Philosopher Michael Sandel, the author of What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, conducted a seminar on the ‘Challenges of Global Capitalism’ in Aspen, Colorado, in July 2002. The role of the media in shaping public opinion was a hot topic. Many participants expressed their anguish at the ‘dumbing-down’ of discourse on mainstream media. How would citizens be engaged with the deeper issues of their societies if all they saw and read in the media was designed only to entertain them? Did the media not have a responsibility, as a pillar of democracy, to engage and educate citizens about these issues?
The CEO of the largest media business in the US and the world at that time explained why the media must focus on the demands of its readers and viewers. He said the media as good business must give its customers what they wanted. If they wanted more entertainment, the media must give them good entertainment. If the media did not give its customers what they wanted, it would go out of business. A participant in the Aspen seminar said society could not allow business leaders to get away with the justification that they were giving people what they wanted. “Many people want hard drugs,” she said. “There is a lot of money to be made by supplying hard drugs to these customers. Could a business that supplied hard drugs be defended on the principle that it was giving people what they wanted? Just as sellers of drugs are declared criminals, all business leaders must be held responsible,” she insisted.
The Economist explains: “From the 1990s, doctors in the US prescribed painkillers willy-nilly, incentivised by unscrupulous pharmaceutical firms. By 2015, some 227 million prescriptions for opioids were made out every year in the US, roughly one for every adult. A cohort of patients hooked on pills soon discovered they were available illicitly when prescriptions ran out. Europe, by contrast, broadly resisted, in part thanks to universal medical care. Unlike Americans, those with ailments could get the procedures they needed to alleviate pain, instead of turning to painkillers for a quick fix.”
Governments must learn to govern the economy for the benefit of all citizens. The private sector is not a panacea for various problems. A government has to provide all citizens with healthcare and education regardless of their ability to pay. It must regulate the profit-seeking urges of private businesses.
Science and technology are powerful instruments which can be used to improve the performance of complex systems — the human body, food systems, environmental systems, financial systems and information systems. Artificial intelligence and synthetic biology are exciting new frontiers of science and technology. Marvellous potential gains to society from their use in health, education, energy, financial and security systems are being described to encourage their faster development and deployment. Great dangers lurk in leaving such powerful instruments in the control of companies in any sector whose mission is to improve profits for their investors — dangers greater than those already manifest from ineffective regulation of for-profit companies using pre-AI technologies in the health, agriculture, financial, security, media and entertainment sectors.
Capitalism corrupts democracy. Drugs and guns produced and sold by US companies are killing tens of thousands of American citizens. The US government, no matter which party rules, seem helpless to control them. US capitalism is not unregulated: its pharmaceutical, health and financial sectors are heavily regulated. However, US firms have great power to influence regulations. Companies can spend large amounts of money, legally, to lobby for their interests, and fund think tanks and universities to produce ideas that support their ideology.
Politics and the Congress are controlled by money power — no-holds barred capitalism. Citizens want to be listened to when policies that will affect their lives and livelihoods are made. This is what farmers and their families camped for on the outskirts of Delhi during the Covid-19 pandemic. It was not too much to ask for. It was their right.
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