“tooth and claw”

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Empirically we all have, in given situations, measures of unreflective selfishness of which we may or may not be the master.

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“tooth and claw”

A classic quote, “Nature, red in tooth and claw” aptly describes the living kingdoms outside of human influence. It likewise characterizes our own ancient human natural history. Courage, cunning, aggression, were likely characteristics of those early individuals, and thus over time had a contributing role in our psychic development. Doubtless other of our current emotions had distinctly useful precursors in that competitive past.

In reality of course that mortal conflict no longer exists. If we lose an argument or are foiled in a business deal today, we’re not physically torn to pieces and eaten by our adversaries. We live thankfully, in a far more forgiving world, and the development of government is a plateau in that ascent. In the west we struggle only between which type of government best serves us and most have come to realize anarchy too closely resembles Tennyson’s old “tooth and claw” condition.

“Free markets rule”, “Government needs to get out of the way”, “Government IS the problem” are current contentions which belong to a marketing category that recognizes the utility of tapping into archaic deeply held human inclinations. Deeply held as, lacking a concurrent existence of government when they were acquired, those characteristics were some of only a few social resources available. That was then, but now during these latest few minutes of our anthropological clock, those sentiments still FEEL correct.

A purpose of modern government it could be argued is to enable, even catalyze, our advancement. A favorite definition of success “…when preparation meets opportunity” was coined by the philosopher Seneca as “luck”, apparently with tongue in his Roman cheek. Acting as individuals, and without governmental intervention, we’re willing to take the personal responsibility to invest our time, dollars and mental effort, sometimes for years, with the expectation our culture will provide the circumstance, the economic climate, for our success. Would that we required no government at all but the fulfillment of that expectation is in fact served by the structure afforded by government. But not JUST government, a functioning government, as Ralph Nadar acolytes advised. And we need that enduring structure to allow our individual accomplishments to be additive.

So the existence of some form and amount of government is useful to our cause, but its methods can be too “helpful”. Beyond the point of usefulness authority becomes intrusive and destructive. It begins to erode the civil vigor it would otherwise cultivate.

How much government then is appropriate, but not oppressive? As Americans we’re indebted to our Founding Fathers for direction here. Their crafting of the Constitution, and in a sense the contemporaneous Bill of Rights, amounted to the creation of what many feel is the gold standard in constitutional freedoms bestowed on a state’s citizens. The crux of civil liberties is the upkeep of that dynamic balance. The government though also has an opposing role in public policy. In the extreme we all favor maximal freedoms to our citizenry. But these freedoms can be provided only to the extent that individual rights are not violated. This second role of government is one of moderation.

This same kind of equilibrium is relevant when we consider another huge class of players, the category of business entities, from mom & pops, LLCs, PAs, and partnerships to massive corporations. Although individual rights are still part of the equation, their presence is less obvious and often in danger of being overwhelmed by the dollars and influence the larger of these entities command. The adversaries, rather than government vs. individual, become corporation vs. individual. More generally the contrast is corporate goals vs. the public good, with our government now as arbiter.

As before, we desire to provide corporate entities the freedom to participate in any enterprise they wish, and with a similar caveat, the maintenance of the public good.

The corporation though, as sophisticated as it may be, has the annoying potential to countermand our better human proclivity to act responsibly toward one another. Members of a corporation, even its creators, can cause the whole to act in ways each would not personally behave. The responsibility of the officers is after all to benefit the shareholders, whether the public good is served or not. The welfare of the corporation in effect becomes justification for the reemergence of those coarse but dormant first referenced instincts. Today we might recognize the resulting motivation as greed. That collection of individuals, the public, may slip from the company’s consideration.

Empirically we all have, in given situations, measures of unreflective selfishness of which we may or may not be the master. Unless that authoritative moderating force exists, the manifestations of those old impulses fall to the detriment of our neighbors. By necessity then that moderating influence has come to exist in the force of law. Even though our society does provide ethical codes and moral standards of behavior, it’s getting caught and prosecuted that focuses the mind.

If an individual or group, in good faith, enters into a transaction with another, it’s a defensible expectation the second also act within the law. And further, to the extent he can’t protect himself by due diligence, the law protect the first if the second does act illegally. The usefulness and practicality of such a legal structure is unmistakable, but needn’t be draconian. It needn’t, for example, suppress the innovation engine, nor its implementation in the legitimate pursuit of profit, but only the excesses of that implementation. This is an essential distinction and one frequently obscured by free-market enthusiasts. Business constraints are meant to inhibit only business excesses, witness; the junk bonds of the 1980s, the Savings & Loan crisis, Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, predatory lenders, colored securities rating agencies, and now hedge fund Ponzi schemes.

Greed, having been wired into our brainstems in antiquity, has persistently proved a challenge to overcome. Experience reveals especially when the stakes are high, it’s more than our match. The consequences of these slips in discretion (especially those instituted by “fiduciaries”) are being borne by rightful investors both large and small, and now taxpayers. On the scales of Justice, if those citizens who’ve suffered losses are balanced against the few who’ve accrued gains, the obligation to provide relief is compelling.

A more effective implementation of our current laws of business and financial regulation, and sadly, revised and additional regulations, is of course the moderating force alluded to. The cost of recent years’ dilution of governmental supervision within investment banking highlights again the non sequitur of industry self-restraint. Regulation increases the potential consequences for individuals or firms contemplating excessively self-serving practices, and if those actions are taken helps to make injured parties whole.

Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, does offer some heartening words, “Our genes may instruct us to be selfish, but we are not necessarily compelled to obey them all our lives. It may just be more difficult to learn altruism….” To surmount our beguilement by the dollar though, while we’re learning, our economic well-being demands more then reliance on the “invisible hand”, but the acceptance of that phenomenon only if it’s more sternly guided by the state. A viable middle class is not a natural condition, a consequence only of the behavior of the markets. It results from government policy enacted to strengthen it.

Robert Gratz