The “Helping Hand” vs. The “Fighting Fist”

Much is made by conservative economists and pundits alike of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” and the benefits of free market forces to drive efficiencies and lower costs. Unbridled competition is the natural order of things, they contend.

In contrast, I would argue that if free markets were truly free, laissez-faire economics would not be so patently pernicious. But they’re not free.

Rather, rich and powerful corporate interests do everything in their power to distort the market by securing tax breaks and special privileges through their armies of lobbyists resulting in the oligarchy in which we operate today, as revealed by the exhaustive research of Prof. Gilens of Princeton University. Indeed, corporate welfare completely undercuts the so-called free market system extolled by conservatives.

Commercial or “private” insurance administrative costs, for example, hover around 14–22%, according to the industry trade group American Health Insurance Plans. Meantime, Medicare’s “public” administrative costs are around 6–8% (including the cost of outside agencies). Why? Because these commercial overhead costs include 4–6% for commissions and 3–5% for profits.

It’s funny how when companies want to merge and consolidate in order to drive efficiencies of scale — despite the fact that this actually diminishes competition — it’s fine. But when it’s government doing the same thing, the Right screams bloody murder.

Human beings are bi-manual creatures, and yet those on the Right always seem to ignore the other hand of cooperation and collective endeavor — the “Helping Hand,” so to speak.

This conflict between the “fighting fist” and “helping hand” doesn’t just date back to the founding of our nation and the Age of Enlightenment. It dates back to the dawn of our species, or even earlier. Indeed, one could argue that without it, we would all still be living alone in our own Paleolithic caves, fighting off predators singlehandedly, trying to survive in singular isolation.

Instead, it’s the hand that saw infants handed off to relative strangers by females of the clan so that they could go out and gather nuts and berries unobstructed. It’s the hand that grasped the spear so that, back to back, we could collectively face predators. It’s the hand that gathered up seeds so that we could conjointly plant and harvest efficiently as the basis of agrarian sustenance. It’s the hand that, with others, eventually built and maintained the machinery that made possible the industrial and digital revolutions. And it’s the hand that today is manifested in such “socialist” organizations as our local police and fire departments, our road and bridge builders and inspectors, our public school system, our military, our Social Security and Medicare systems, the EPA, and all aspects of government.

“No man is an island,” Donne said, and yet so-called free market ideologues like Paul Ryan would have us celebrate this state of singular animal competition as the basis of all that is good and efficient and natural but it is, in reality, only one part of the natural order of things and, indeed, often far from efficient — as illustrated by the true state of private health insurance cited above, notwithstanding what the GOP tells us. In fact, there is a growing body of scientific evidence that this difference is not just naturally manifested but naturally based. The “me” (based on selfishness) vs. “them” (based on empathy-based cooperation) dialectic predates humankind.

As primatologist Frans de Waal said in his essay The Evolution of Empathy:

“We are so used to empathy that we take it for granted, yet it is essential to human society as we know it. Our morality depends on it: How could anyone be expected to follow the golden rule without the capacity to mentally trade places with a fellow human being? It is logical to assume that this capacity came first, giving rise to the golden rule itself … This capacity likely evolved because it served our ancestors’ survival in two ways. First, like every mammal, we need to be sensitive to the needs of our offspring. Second, our species depends on cooperation, which means that we do better if we are surrounded by healthy, capable group mates. Taking care of them is just a matter of enlightened self-interest.”

While those on the Right like to trot out Adam Smith when underpinning their justification for selfishness, it’s worth noting that this patron saint of economics only mentioned the “invisible hand” twice in his writings, and he never did so to justify heartlessness.

On the contrary, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), he said, “This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition (is) … the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”

Yes, the “invisible hand” of we angel-apes cannot be denied. But as angel-apes we are not merely apes. Each and every one of us also has another hand, one of cooperation and collective assistance that is not simply angelic. It’s what’s helped us crawl out of our singular caves, abandon our Ayn Randist self-centeredness, and gave us succor and support as we fashioned and built civilization itself.