Discussion before the City Council and on Facebook about wine tasting rooms on the Plaza always seem to include mention of The Free Market. This issue mirrors arguments one hears about the role of government nationally, i.e., should businesses be allowed to regulate themselves?
This question has been asked in various western societies for hundreds of years, ever since Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Adam Smith opined on the topic. Hobbes got the ball rolling by introducing the idea of the invisible hand of the market, though he called it the hand of Providence, or what today we call God. Hobbes proclaimed that the natural state of “man” is complete autonomy, and his lengthy treatise Leviathan drew upon that premise.
The problem is that the assertion of autonomy as our natural state of being flies in the face of social and economic reality. None of us is or can be autonomous; we are inextricably interconnected with each other and the natural world. Autonomy is an abstraction and exists in an intellectual realm – only. Nonetheless, many people have embraced the idea of the free market, extending Hobbes’ ideas about autonomy to private business enterprise.
If one explores the economic history of humankind no evidence can be found of a large society operating purely on free market principles. Regulation of markets has always accompanied economic activity and commerce in some form or another. In books such as Karl Polanyi’s “The Great Transformation” and Peter Graber’s “Debt,” unregulated free markets are revealed as theology, not economic reality. This is to say near-religious faith in the idea of the superiority of an unregulated free market exists, but it’s only an idea, and an unproven one at that.
Government has been constituted in large part to regulate the tension between private interests and public good. In monarchy, the matter is simple; the assets of the state belong to royalty unless given away by decree. In democracy, such allocation of assets is determined by collective action: votes and laws enacted by elected officials. Herein lies the tension we witness nationally and locally.
Such tension between public and private good is healthy but leads to conflict and disagreement. We’re sure the makers of hot dogs would have preferred to avoid government inspection of their sausage-making operation, but Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” exposed the horrific workings of the meat-packing industry and eliminated that option. The fact is that business success sometimes leads to greed, and unless controlled, greed corrodes public good. The control mechanism in America is government regulation; it’s the way democracy is supposed to work – it benefits the public and we support it.
Unfortunately, money has conquered America, and has rendered government’s attention to the public good subject to manipulation and coercion. Added to that has been a persistent, forty-year anti-government propaganda campaign, exemplified by Ronald Reagan’s declaration that “government is the problem.” The combination has been toxic; the very institution created by democracy to ensure the public good has lost the faith of citizens.
The number of wine-tasting businesses and wine-bars on the Plaza has been unlimited and that’s questionable when it comes to the public good of Sonoma’s residents. And simply extolling the virtues of the free market to self-regulate wine-tasting remains what is has always been, ideological claptrap.