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The free market can’t solve all our problems

Over the past several weeks, the United States has been having a long-overdue conversation about policing, including calls for police divestment. As one Dallas police chief expressed back in 2016: 

“We’re asking cops to do too much in this country. We are. We’re just asking us to do too much. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding? Let the cop handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding? Let’s give it to the cops. Here in Dallas, we got a loose dog problem–let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, give it to the cops… That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”

In the same way that we have been asking too much of the police, we’ve been asking too much of the free market. This has become abundantly clear during the COVID crisis, as Governor Herbert and Lt. Gov Cox have handed the reins of pandemic response to the private sector. Meanwhile, Utah’s case count is rising and hospitals are warning that they will soon be overrun. Efforts by private companies that Utah leaders tapped to handle the public health response have fallen flat, while other private businesses have sat back, uneasy about making a political statement by requiring masks. 

The truth is, private businesses should never have been put in charge of the public health response to a pandemic. A private business has one purpose: to make money. That’s it. And it’s a good purpose! But in Utah, we keep insisting that the private sector should take care of every aspect of our lives. During this crisis, the time is ripe to take stock of what we’re asking of the private sector, and recognize how much this overreliance on the free market is failing all of us.

Making sure people have healthcare? That’s up to businesses.
Parental leave & childcare? Businesses. 
Ensure people are paid a living wage? Businesses.
Responsibly protect the environment? Businesses. 
Decide whether people should wear masks during a global pandemic?
Apparently that’s businesses’ job now, too.

After years and years of effective efforts to weaken the public sector both statewide and nationally, we have a society that dumps all its responsibilities onto the private sector. Then, when the free market inevitably fails to solve our problems (despite numerous tax breaks), we throw up our hands and say there’s no better alternative. Our system doesn’t work and it isn’t fair to anybody. 

If we want a strong private sector that doesn’t exploit people, we need a strong public sector that does its job. A private business cannot be reasonably asked to look out for people’s needs when it is focused on shareholder dividends. But the public sector, with the purpose of protecting the common welfare, can. 

Capitalism has become toxic because we’ve been expecting it to solve problems it was never going to be able to solve. Let the free market do the thing it is good at: making money. But all the other things we’ve been expecting businesses to take care of, we must take on ourselves. Protecting ourselves from being exploited or mishandled by the free market is going to make us all more free in the end.

Lauren is the Better Utah’s policy director.

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