The Ugly (Bloody) Side of Free Market Capitalism

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First they came for the passenger in seat 23B.*

For me, the most alarming aspect of the United Airlines incident is the relative passivity of the other passengers. While a few screamed in protest and recorded the brutality on their phones, most sat quietly, staring ahead, simply grateful it was not them being dragged from their seats. It’s alarming because it’s evidence of the degree to which we, as a society, have accepted and internalized the authority of for-profit enterprise, even when that enterprise stomps on intrinsic notions of human dignity.

There are certainly far worse examples of the abuse of the vulnerable by the powerful in our society, but the everyday banality of an overbooked domestic flight leading to an average Joe being bloodied in the name of corporate efficiency, highlights the relentless creep of market triumphalism into all spheres of life.

…it’s evidence of the degree to which we, as a society, have accepted and internalized the authority of for-profit enterprise, even when that enterprise stomps on intrinsic notions of human dignity.

One doesn’t have to support some form of socialism (though we can discuss it!) to acknowledge that it’s in society’s best interest to place some sort of limits on the reach of market ideology. Political philosopher Michael Sandel makes that argument in his 2012 book, What Money Can’t Buy: “A market economy is a tool; it’s a valuable and effective tool for organizing productive activity. … A market society is a place; it’s a way of life where market relations and market incentives and market values come to dominate all aspects of life. And that’s my worry.”

It’s my worry too. The United CEO’s initial public defense of the crew’s actions, supported by a certain faction on social media pointing to the small-print terms of service on the ticket purchase agreement which acknowledge one can be legally “bumped,” should be troubling to the majority. Did the public have the opportunity to weigh in on a law that allows an airline to forcefully “re-accommodate” passengers when it changes its mind about the ticket sale? I don’t recall that ballot referendum. Does anyone doubt it would be defeated in a landslide?

In a world in which lobbyists can pay a homeless person to hold their place in line for congressional hearings, it’s not shocking that average citizens lack insight into such policy decisions. Will it soon be legal for an hotelier to drag a guest from bed in the middle of the night when it receives a better offer? A tenant from his/her apartment? Your child from school? A patient from a hospital bed? Do we not live some degree of this reality already? Was this agreed to by the majority? When?

I’d make the case that we agreed, in principle, when the Soviet Union fell and it became conventional wisdom that free market capitalism “won.” And if it won, it must be the result of economic natural selection—it must be the best system, and therefore requires little to no criticism. But just like any kind of evolution, the story is never over. While the political/economic misadventures of the Soviet Union, Pol Pot, Mao, Castro, and Chavez deserve criticism, so do our own. Without a countervailing force, we’ve lazily allowed market-based thinking to displace values we once held to be more important than economic efficiency.

Even if you are someone who adheres to the belief that the combination of a capitalist, market-driven economy combined with a center-left or center-right liberal democratic political system is the best way to organize a society (I might disagree!) it would be valuable to consider whether that system can survive an unchecked expansion of events like the one that transpired on United flight 3411.

*Made up. No idea of actual seat number.

Donal Lardner Ward launched his professional career with an acting role in Whit Stillman’s 1990 breakout indie, Metropolitan, and then went on to co-write, co-produce, co-direct and co-star in 1994 indie hit, My Life’s in Turnaround. Donal has co-written, co-produced and co-starred in multiple films since then, and has been employed as a screen or television writer by Sony Pictures, Warner Brothers, New Line Cinema, Universal, Paramount, Fox, and IFC, as well as various independent producers.

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