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Morons of the world, unite!

My wife makes me subscribe to the New York Times, and occasionally it is worth it. Take this recent essay by Roger Cohen. It is difficult to get past the faux-intellectual babble — “As it is, everyone’s shrieking their lonesome anger, burrowing deeper into stress, gazing at their own images” — but if you can resist laughing or immolating yourself to escape Cohen’s drivel, you’ll get to a tremendous claim. Cohen writes:

Americans don’t want a European nanny state — fine! But, as a lawyer friend, Manuel Wally, put it to me, “When it comes to health it makes sense to involve government, which is accountable to the people, rather than corporations, which are accountable to shareholders.

Some thoughts about Mr. Cohen’s claim about corporations:

1. Health care is indeed essential to our wellbeing, but so is food, water, entertainment, productive work, transportation, and on and on. I assume Mr. Cohen eats food from supermarkets, dines at restaurants, drinks bottled water, flies across the ocean, and drives a car. But these are goods and services provided by corporations! Unaccountable corporations! It is a short leap from his absurd claim to nationalization of the means of production, and it is an inevitable step from there to totalitarianism, murder, starvation, and chaos.

2. Shareholders are people. Who exactly does Mr. Cohen think owns our corporations? We do. The “people” who allegedly can hold our government to account are exactly the same people who can hold our corporations to account. If corporations are not accountable to us, the fault dear Brutus lies not in the stars but in ourselves.

3. Neither the govenrment nor corporations are perfectly accountable or aligned with the people’s interests. The question is which is more capable and accountable under specific circumstances. Markets for labor, capital, and products and services provide discipline for firms; elections provide dicipline for government. Sometimes we can rely on the former — no one believes we would have a better Internet search engine, grocery store, or computer if it were provided by Uncle Sam instead of Google, Whole Foods, or Apple. Sometimes we can rely on the latter — no one believes we could reduce acid rain without government involvement, in one way or another. There is a reasonable debate to be had about how well functioning the market for delivering health care is and how we may be able to improve it, but that debate is not advanced at all by absurd claims like Mr. Cohen’s. We law professors tinker at the edges to try to make governments and corporations more accountable, but to flatly assert one always dominates the other is just sophistry.

4. Does Mr. Cohen really think the government is always accountable to the people? Let me guess that Mr. Cohen was opposed to the invasion of Iraq. Who exactly does he think did this? Hint: it wasn’t a corporation.

5. If Mr. Cohen’s problem with shareholders is the profit motive, he might want to do some research on the provision of health care by non-profit hospitals, clinics, and insurance companies. In many states, the big, terrible insurance companies are non-profit corporations. Are these unaccountable too? If so, why? Just because the individuals behind them chose to be a “corporation”? If that is the reason, perhaps Mr. Cohen would be surprised to know Chicago is also a corporation.

6. Although I could go on and on and on about Mr. Cohen’s simplisitc and downright silly analysis, I’ll just point out that Mr. Cohen himself works for an unaccountable, greedy, terrible, world-destroying corporation, called the New York Times. Perhaps we should be afraid.

Filed under: markets