By Robert Reich
Conservatives and liberals interminably debate the merits of “the free market” versus “the government.” Which one you trust more delineates the main ideological divide in America.
In reality, they aren’t two separate things and there can’t be a market without government.
Legislators, agency heads and judges decide the rules of the game. And, over time, they change the rules.
The important question, too rarely discussed, is who has the most influence over these decisions and in that way wins the game.
Two centuries ago slaves were among the nation’s most valuable assets, and a century ago, perhaps the most valuable asset was land. Then came another shift as factories, machines, railroads and oil transformed America. By the 1920s most Americans were employees, and the most contested property issue was their freedom to organize into unions.
In more recent years, information and ideas have become the most valuable forms of property. This property can’t be concretely weighed or measured, and most of the cost of producing it goes into discovering it or making the first copy. After that, the additional production cost is often zero.
Such “intellectual property” is the key building block of the new economy. Without government decisions over what it is, and who can own it and on what terms, the new economy could not exist.
But as has happened before with other forms of property, the most politically influential owners of the new property are doing their utmost to increase their profits by creating monopolies that must eventually be broken up.