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Ethics vs. Economics
Environmentalism is sometimes a tiresome subject. We weary of hearing constant reminders of how we are fouling our own nest. But if we are in danger of tuning out the warnings, let us stop to consider a simple formula.
Doing the Right Thing will always be better for everybody than Making a Lot of Money.
While Doing the Right Thing is open to interpretation and debate as to exactly what it entails, Making a Lot of Money is straightforwardly identifiable.
Making a Lot of Money isn't by itself a bad thing, as some left-wing economic philosophers would have one believe. Just as "Money is the root of all evil," is a misquotation (The entire line begins "The love of money...") the notion that wealth is universally corrupting is an oversimplification and distortion of cause and effect relationships.
A lot of the people who get wealthy are pretty corrupt in the first place; they cut corners and exploit unfair advantages, and Make a Lot of Money. After they've made it, their ethics and personalities are often exposed, contributing to the mythology that making the money, not their innate behavior patterns, was the evil.
That's why I never begrudge the rich sports personality, rock star or movie icon their wealth. What they produce is ephemeral; our adulation of them often a little silly; but generally they got their riches in an environmentally and socially benign manner.
Having a Lot of Money can certainly be corrupting. One loses economic and emotional contact with the rest of society and is prone to commit all sorts of antisocial acts simply by dint of not knowing what one is doing to other people. Also Money is Power, and the corrupting effect of power is amply documented and commented upon.
But I want to refocus upon the area, any area, where Making a Lot of Money and Doing the Right Thing are in conflict. Here the ethical choices are simple and clear. Even if Doing the Right Thing is fuzzily defined and open to interpretation, choosing to ignore it in favor of Making a Lot of Money is a crime.
Spin-doctors and public relations firms stay in business, and get rich themselves, by playing up the uncertainties and alternative interpretations of Doing the Right Thing. Their fees come from the people who want to Make a Lot of Money.
We have in this country laws which are supposed to make it clear whose money is supporting which political candidate or ballot initiative. These laws don't work very well, because there are too many loopholes and ways to evade them. The general citizenry's only defense is a pesky free press whose job it is to ferret out the evasions and publicize the offenders.
Sometimes the offending party is so big and so rich that it can afford to buy enough spin and PR that it actually offsets the published news of its miscreancy. Look at the tobacco industry, which for at least two generations managed to emotionally contradict scientific and medical research simply by spending enough money to do so. We flat had to wear them down, inch by inch and study by study, until the weight of evidence became so overwhelming that they could no longer stem the avalanche.
When I was a kid the tobacco ads quoted doctors and made actual health claims about the beneficial effects of smoking. After the initial Surgeon General's Report, they shifted more toward rugged individualism and self-expression, then tried to emphasize safety...as in, "my cigarettes are not as dangerous as yours...."
The last line of defense seems to be an appeal for the rights of the individual... i.e., "if somebody wants to commit slow suicide it's their privilege." At no time did the industry publicly acknowledge the underlying fact: that nicotine is addictive - thereby giving the lie to all the crap about individual self-expression and personal freedom.
Tobacco users are enslaved. Period.
But the tobacco companies' money - and the clever and judicious expenditure of it - kept them from having to acknowledge that fact for over 50 years.
For those 50 years the people who were interested in Making a Lot of Money successfully confused most of the populace about the definition and wisdom of Doing the Right Thing.
Stop and consider. What might have been the negative economic effects if, upon publication of the first strong evidence of smoking's hazards - say in the 1950's - all cigarette advertising had ceased and strong measures been taken to keep anybody under the age of 21 from getting their hands on the things?
A few already very rich people would not have gotten much richer, and the Federal Government might have had to provide alternative crop options for a couple of thousand tobacco farmers. The positive economic effect of the savings in public health care, alone, would have offset any resulting tax burden by many billions of dollars.
Doing the Right Thing may indeed be difficult to define, from case to case, but the society will always suffer far less from erring on the side of caution; especially when the alternative is only that somebody will get to Make a Lot of Money.