Jewish World Review Sept. 7, 2001 / 18 Elul, 5761

Lewis A. Fein

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Consumer Reports

Chaos at the Mall: The Battle Between Profits and Politics -- Which image better captures the state of American freedom, a citizenship ceremony or summer employment at Walt Disney World? Sadly, the basic principles of American life -- including public interaction and free speech -- now exist as so many rules, indexed and restricted by private corporations. For the longer Americans stay within the orbit of private enterprise, the less freedom they enjoy.

Make no mistake, private enterprise is essential for a prosperous and efficient economy. Government cannot replicate the incentives and market conditions responsible for, say, Microsoft or Nike. But government can easily upset the balance between management and shareholders -- even the relationship between buyers and sellers -- with antiquated legislation and excessive regulation. Put another way, business is spontaneous and government static: that is, corporations change or die; government is forever.

Still, there is a potentially unavoidable conflict between private enterprise and public expression. For example, a shopping plaza may restrict the dress and behavior of its patrons, even though the clothes or words themselves -- imagine the sartorial style of Jerry Garcia and the verbal splendor of George Carlin -- are not unconstitutional. Yet inappropriate dress or controversial language may compromise a company's profitability. Thus a business may regulate any behavior that threatens its financial goals.

The implications of this conflict are twofold. First, as a mall or shopping plaza assumes greater public significance its private objectives- - of uniformity, control and profitability -- do not recede. The mall is not a democratic institution; and, insofar as patrons emulate the false comity of a Gap commercial, the mall's version of "democracy" survives. But democracy is inherently messy, producing disagreement and even violence.

Second, a shopping plaza siphons public trust. The migration of citizens from public parks, where cosmetic or criminal neglect may be a problem, leaves commercial vendors - and their modestly salaried corps of security officers - as a community's sole regulators of political speech. And, no matter how courteous or knowledgeable the attendant, a salesperson's goal is profits, not politics.

Now, the greater variable of political freedom is time. For the hours a citizen spends between work (speed reading corporate rules governing maternity leave to religious expression) and leisure greatly outnumber the full range of constitutional rights. Simply graph the trajectory of a contemporary citizen's life: daily commute to and from work, where surveillance cameras record John Q. Public's arrival and departure - including any avoidance of red lights; affirmative action either rewards or retards his career goals; sensitivity training restrains his masculinity; and dinner is an evening at the mall, generic music included. This is the world of private government.

Again, the above scenario is a problem born of a phenomenon --- success! The triumph of private enterprise is a noteworthy achievement, considering the evils of communism and fascism. Yet the byproducts of private enterprise - namely, overtime and consumer envy -- achieve what communism only envisioned: near total control of our lives. In the end, there is still a fundamental difference between Soviet propaganda and product placement by Hasbro or Mattel; Malibu Barbie is not a murderer.

The greatest casualty of government by private enterprise remains truthful expression. Take, for instance, the tobacco industry. Notwithstanding public warnings and investigative reports, the tobacco industry begrudgingly admits the obvious - that long-term cigarette consumption is potentially lethal. Thus truthful advertising is a governmental necessity, not a corporate luxury. Why? Because there is an unavoidable conflict between private enterprise and public expression.

Private enterprise is an absolute necessity, but individual freedom is a greater priority. This is a choice between rights and riches. This is the battle of modern America.

JWR contributor Lewis A. Fein is a writer and Internet entrepreneur in Los Angeles.Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, Lewis A. Fein