Among the conscientious objectors to last Sunday’s column, were several readers who noted that if we invert the system of business regulation, so that it is done mostly at the municipal level, and only by real necessity at the provincial or higher, we will add tremendously to the costs of big business, and thereby subvert the “economies of scale” which allow them to fill our world with cheap products.
Cheap products, in turn, are not to be sneered at. Not everyone is rich, not everyone can afford first class. And when it comes to such necessities as food and clothing, the big supermarket and department chains (or more precisely, their suppliers) have done a great service to mankind. Verily: think this through. For everything that can be said against our era, for every valid criticism that can be made against the ugliness and sprawl of our material culture, we are feeding and clothing and housing in some comfort vastly more people than we ever did before; and even a higher proportion, than before, of a world population that has nearly quadrupled in the last century (while the population of Canada has sextupled).
Those who advocate change in the way we arrange our economic activities had better take that into account. Malnutrition, poor hygiene, exposure to heat and cold, make lives short and miserable. The increase not only in live births, but in longevity, had almost everything to do with the advance of “mass market capitalism,” and only a little to do with such a poster child as “modern medicine.” But the medical advances, too, we owe almost entirely to the capitalists.
And not to the regulators. Except in one important, if paradoxical respect. Simply by creating a common regulatory regime, on the large scale, governments have in effect created large free trading zones—for once you’ve met their regulations, you can sell anywhere. Big governments have thus created environments in which big businesses (with their ability to deliver economies of scale) may flourish; and drive small, traditional family businesses (the old engines of employment and private opportunity) out of the market. For the little guys can’t lobby.
The upside of this is satiation.
The downside is our bleary world of shopping malls, and big box stores, and office towers, and rush hours, and human insignificance. It is each town nearly identical with each other of the same size. And even the historical relics, of what once gave each location an identity of its own, get commoditized for the very big business of tourism.
Humans must eat, bathe, and cover themselves by day and by night. But man—as even “progressives” acknowledge, when they demand government funding for “culture”—does not live by bread alone. In particular, the human creature crawling through the world, who no longer really comes from anywhere, returns by increments to the feral condition. He requires, ultimately for his own sanity, the “place” that is given by a mother and a father and a point of origin; by a religion and a language and a trade or calling; by serious friendships. Or else he degenerates into an irresponsible unit within an incomprehensible mass, and is perforce “commoditized.”
What I see on the streets of our big sprawling cities (for I, like Rousseau, am a solitary walker), are “the feral children of moral imbeciles” (and here I am paraphrasing the acute social thinker, Bruce Thornton). I see not only kids, but grown adults who are lost; bleared and demoralized because they have in fact been reduced to unloved units. I see the spoiled and misbehaving “beneficiaries” of an order that has advanced a kind of economic efficiency—and arguably even made some superficial ethical improvements—at the direct expense of faith, hope, and charity.
Now, returning to economic calculation. The answer to the question with which I started is, yes, the inversion of the regulatory order would indeed put crimps on the operation of big business. It would create costs for them, at the local level, that were not there before. They would have to sell their goods, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, among people armed with the power to ban them. Several kinds of economic inefficiency could derive from that.
In compensation, they could eliminate most of their own centralized bureaucracies, designed to “interface” with the Byzantine product, distribution, and labour regulations of big government. And they would gain considerably by the “empowerment” of their local agents and franchisees, to feed real-world experience up the hierarchy—adding usefully and creatively to the discomforts of number-crunching, big-league executives.
They would finally have to rethink their own operations from the ground up—“adapt or die,” as every corporation has always had to do. Adaptation is invariably painful; but it brings dividends.
In the course of such a change, they would have the opportunity to relearn the most basic principle of business, from which the behaviourist techniques of mass marketing have progressively insulated them. And that is: business exists for the sake of the customer, and not vice versa.