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The Truth, Mainly - 03/18/2002

Two cheers for deregulated free enterprise

"What a good idea," I say to my wife. "Shoulda done it a long time ago."

"What?" she says from deep inside her crossword puzzle. "You've decided to buy a new pair of jeans? Yes, that is a good idea."

"No," I say. "I avoid all enterprises that require new clothes."

"Thoreau," she says. "'Walden,' 1854."

I'm a retired English teacher. She's a retired librarian. I sometimes quote literature without attribution. I call it literary entrepreneurship. She calls it literary larceny and tells me where I've stolen the passage from. It's her way of regulating my innate tendency toward deception and fraud.

"I'm not talking about new jeans," I say. "I'm talking about this."

And I thrust between her nose and her crossword puzzle an opinion piece from the Journal-Star of February 24. The headline asks "Should the U.S. Postal Service be privatized?"

"So what's your answer?" she says. "And why has it taken you three weeks to decide?"

"I've been thinking long, long thoughts," I say.

"Longfellow," she says. "'My Lost Youth,' 1855."

"The answer to the headline's query," I say, stroking my goatee and looking wise, "is yes, the U.S. Postal Service should be privatized."

"I'll bet," she sighs, still not looking up from her puzzle, "you're going to tell me why."

"One simple reason," I say. "Anything government can do, free enterprise can do better—if we don't smother it with regulations."

"Thatis simple," she says. "Rush Limburger says it all the time."

"All of us deep thinkers say it," I say. "All of us who understand the magic of the unregulated marketplace."

"Uh huh," she says. "Magic that will get our mail here faster and cheaper, I suppose."

"You bet your boots," I say. "Corporation A will deliver a letter in three days for a quarter. Corporation B will figure out a way to deliver it in two days for twenty cents. Competition does it. Unregulated free market magic."

"Like Enron?" she says.

Poor thing. She has a hard time staying focused when I talk about economic deregulation.

"And while we're at it," I say, "why stop with the U.S. Postal Service?"

"You mean—?" she says.

"Exactly," I say. "Privatize and deregulate the whole government. Mints. FBI. Supreme Court. The military. Bureau of Weights and Measures. All of it."

"But," she says, "for the magic of the unregulated marketplace to work, wouldn't we have to have competing Mints and Bureaus of Weights and Measures? Many FBIs all investigating one another? Multiple Supreme Courts over-ruling each other? Myriads of military competing for tax monies? Without competition, how would the cream rise to the top?"

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"Good thinking," I say. "We could have something like March Madness—64 different militaries, all striving to outdo the others, the magic of the unregulated marketplace goosing them to greatness."

"But," she says, "who'd be in charge? Who'd be commander-in-chief?"

"That's the genius of it," I say. "There'd be many commanders-in-chief. We'd call them CEOs and they'd all be competing, getting much more efficient. That is, of course, if we didn't regulate them. The enterprise has to be free."

"So we'd go from CEO to CEO to check out their government policies," she says, "the way we go from Target to Best Buy to Wal-Mart?"

"You got it!" I say, my synapses snapping with excitement. "We'd patronize the CEOs that offer us the best deals. Only in America! Is this a great country or what? Get rid of a regulated economy and it's every man a robber baron! Every woman a robber baroness!"

She's getting excited too. I can tell. She's put down her crossword puzzle.

"But don't we need the regulations?" she says. "Without them, wouldn't we eventually have a country run by mercantile war lords, all with their own rules? You know, like Afghanistan?"

"Hah?" I say.

"You know what I think?" she says. "I think you're a booby and I'm going to have you put in the booby hatch. That's from Thurber's 'Unicorn in the Garden,' 1940."

"Hah?" I say.

"And one more thing," she says. "Can you explain how your deregulated utopia would prevent future Enrons?"

I think a few long, long thoughts before I speak.

"I would prefer not to," I finally say, pleased by my own eloquence.

"Melville," she says, her voice sternly regulatory. "'Bartleby, the Scrivener,' 1853."


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is: leonsatterfield@earthlink.net.


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