Business & the Market
In matters of economic organization, as in other areas, atheists should be guided by the evidence. One thing history has shown is that state-controlled economies simply do not work. The Soviet Union, the largest experiment in communism in human history, ultimately collapsed under the weight of its own failed economic structure, and most of the remaining communist countries are either in a state of economic tailspin themselves or are becoming increasingly capitalistic to survive.
On the other hand, unrestrained capitalism has its own flaws. Chief among these is the problem of externalities, where businesses have an incentive to export as much as possible of the pollution and other costs of their operation to society at large, instead of bearing those costs themselves. There are also potential problems of anti-competitive behavior, large-scale fraud and worker mistreatment, all of which are in evidence around the world today. These wrongs are too serious to put our faith in the market and hope that it will correct them on its own. I therefore recommend that atheists support regulations including progressive minimum-wage laws, strict financial reporting to prevent another Enron-style fraud, guarantees of employees’ right to unionize, and bans on predatory pricing.
Although commerce should occur as freely as possible, without unnecessarily burdensome regulation, we should advocate necessary oversight because we value the free flow of commerce. A well-regulated market, one where people can put trust in business deals and know that they are paying the true cost of their activities and buying from a company that treats its employees ethically, is far more conducive to successful capitalism than a laissez-faire, “anything goes” economy.
As one example of this principle, atheists should advocate closing the loophole that allows “dietary supplements” to evade testing and regulation. Any product, service or therapy claimed to have medical benefits (including vaguely-worded statements such as “boosts the immune system”) should have to support those claims with evidence in the form of properly conducted, double-blind clinical trials.
On the other hand, except in extreme cases, there is no legitimate reason for the government to interfere in the choice of an informed consumer. For this reason, I believe atheists should support the legalization of marijuana, and possibly other recreational drugs as well. Not only is there a strong argument from individual liberty for letting responsible adults choose for themselves what chemicals to take into their bodies (an argument whose force is already accepted in the case of alcohol and tobacco), but the evidence again shows that the alternative is completely infeasible. After several decades, we are now in a good position to evaluate the results of the “war on drugs”, and they are as follows: billions of dollars in expenditures, the flourishing of violent criminal gangs, the costly and unjust imprisonment of thousands of nonviolent offenders, and ironically, no decrease whatsoever in the actual availability of illegal drugs.
Much like America’s experiment with alcohol prohibition, the war on drugs has been a colossal failure, and we should recognize it as such. Without downplaying the health risks of drug use, we should grant mature adults the right to choose for themselves. Creating legitimate businesses to sell these substances will provide the economy (and the government, via taxes) a huge revenue boost, will allow for regulation and quality control to protect the health of users as much as possible, will encourage true addicts to seek medical help by destigmatizing drug use, and will choke off the lifeblood of the violent and dangerous gangs that currently profit by supplying them.
As per the theory of universal utilitarianism, the purpose of all our endeavors should be to maximize human happiness, and the economy should be no exception. However, situations where a minority is getting rich at the expense of everyone else do not fulfill that directive. For this reason I also recommend that atheists support progressive taxation. The wealthy have earned their wealth only because of our stable society and well-regulated market, and it is not unfair to ask them to give something back to the society that gave them so much opportunity; and no one needs to own billions of dollars in assets in a world where millions of people are still poor and hungry. (Of course, this assumes that money collected through taxes is being used wisely for that purpose. There is no reason to advocate progressive taxation of business in a corrupt or militaristic society.)
The area of foreign relations presents atheists with a delicate tradeoff. As I have said, atheists should abhor totalitarianism of every kind, and increasing freedom worldwide is without a doubt a noble goal. On the other hand, as the disastrous Iraq war has shown, invading a country to overthrow tyranny usually ends very badly. It is a contradiction in terms to force democracy on a people from outside. If a democratic revolution has already begun in a country and fighters on the side of freedom ask for help, then the United States and other powerful nations should by all means intervene. Likewise, if human-rights violations are taking place on a massive scale (such as the 1990s’ ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, or the ongoing genocide in Darfur), then the world should intervene on purely humanitarian grounds. But invading a stable state on our own initiative to rebuild it in our own image almost always ends in failure. For this reason, atheists should always oppose preemptive war for the purpose of nation-building.
This does not, however, mean that we should allow tyranny to flourish unmolested. On the contrary, the international community should exert all possible economic and political pressure to isolate and pacify rogue states (and in this I include both terrorist nations such as North Korea and non-aggressive, but totalitarian, countries such as Turkmenistan and its bizarre national cult of personality). In these cases we should support imposing trade sanctions, banning sales of arms and technology, and in the case of belligerent nations, sending in international monitors supported by the promise of military force to punish noncooperation.
The other side of this coin is contributing to an ethic of international cooperation, which will promote peace worldwide and allow greater pressure to be brought to bear on rogue nations. To this end, the United States should commit to immediately ratifying international treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Ottawa Treaty to ban anti-personnel landmines, and the Kyoto Accords mentioned earlier. Most of these treaties have been ratified by the vast majority of nations; for some, the U.S. is the sole holdout aside from recognized totalitarian states and those that are in a state of chaos and currently unable to ratify any treaty. This refusal is unconscionable considering the United States’ superpower status.
Miscellaneous Controversial Issues
There is one major political issue that I have not yet discussed, and that is abortion. Although a full version of my position would be too long for this post (and may be the topic of a future posting), I strongly believe that atheists should support the legality of abortion, at least in the early stages of pregnancy. We atheists do not believe in the soul; and without that religious assumption, there is simply no reason to believe that a new human being exists from the moment of conception, before anything like a brain or a nervous system develops. Abortion should be safe, legal and rare, and we should exert all our effort to oppose theocratic efforts to deny women the right to control their own bodies.
Other posts in this series: