What “Free Enterprise” Means to Some Republicans

The day after the elections, Robert Murray, the owner and CEO of Murray Energy, the largest privately owned coal company in the United States, laid off  156 employees, claiming that the Obama administration was waging a “war on coal.” Murray offered a prayer with his announcement, part of which stated:

“The American people have made their choice. They have decided that America must change its course, away from the principals [sic] of our Founders. And, away from the idea of individual freedom and individual responsibility. Away from capitalism, economic responsibility, and personal acceptance.”

What makes this statement both ironic and hypocritical is that Murray Energy is hardly a pillar of responsibility. Since 2000, the Ohio EPA has cited Murray’s American Century and Powhatan coal mines for coal slurry leaks on seven occasions, twice for leaks that lasted days and turned more than 20 miles of Captina Creek black. Murray Energy also owns the Crandall Canyon Mine in Emery County, Utah, which the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) fined $1.8 million for violations that directly contributed to the death of six miners in 2007.  What is worse is that the company ignored MSHA warnings that the operating conditions were unsafe.

All this shouldn’t be surprising, given that Murray Energy and its subsidiaries have one of the worst safety and environmental records in the mining industry. It also shouldn’t be terribly surprising that Robert Murray has been criticized widely for coercing employees and miners to attend a Romney fundraiser – without pay – and has spent years attacking EPA, OSHA, and MSHA for “overregulating” the coal industry.

What bothers me about Murray, and the Koch Brothers, and a number of other Republican industrialists who trumpet the need for free enterprise and less federal regulation is that they’re not talking about reducing bureaucratic nit-picking and regulations that don’t make sense, of which there are more than a few, but about basic environmental and safety regulations.  Murray clearly wants to build cheap slurry ponds, despite repeated failures of those ponds that have polluted streams and sent toxic wastes into water supplies.  He opposes regulations on dangerous forms of mining as a restriction on “free enterprise.”  He’s opposed dust control measures in mines, despite the fact that coal dust causes black lung disease.

In practice, “free enterprise” advocates like Murray want to be free to make money, regardless of the health and environmental costs they impose on others.  That’s not really “free enterprise,” because taxpayers shoulder much of the burden of cleaning up waste spills; other businesses suffer; the families of dead miners suffer greatly; and the government/taxpayers end up paying Social Security disability and Medicaid costs for workers whose health is destroyed by poor working conditions.  And of all of this, Murray and others like him seem to be unaware – or they feel that imposing such costs on others is their right in a “free enterprise” society.

So-called “free enterprise” isn’t.  No business enterprise is without costs, both internal and external, and the question is who pays those costs. Murray’s lay-off of employees is just another example of an egotistical and self-centered businessman who has no understanding of the costs his actions impose on others – nor does he care, except for his profitability, for all of his pious rhetoric [and poor grammar].

So… when you cite the need for free enterprise, think carefully about how free you want it to be… and who really pays for that “freedom.”


14 thoughts on “What “Free Enterprise” Means to Some Republicans”

  1. Amy K says:

    It would be wrong to make Murray a poster-child for the GOP, just as it is wrong to make Obama a poster-child for an effective President. Neither represents their subsets very well.

    It will be interesting to see what you make of John Schnatter’s comments.

    1. I think John Schnatter is in a similar position to Murray, except, so far as I know, Schnatter isn’t going around violating health, safety, and environmental laws. Schnatter wants to sell pizzas as cheaply as possible, and part of the way he keeps costs down is to pay as few benefits as possible to employees. The problem with this model is that because Americans buy at least partly on cost, if not entirely at times, it encourages his competitors to do the same thing, and if everyone goes to part-time employees, especially if those employees are near minimum wage, it just makes the whole health care insurance situation worse.

      What too many Republicans don’t want to admit is that the bottom line is everything… and to a degree, they’re right, in the sense that if they don’t make a profit, they don’t stay in business. But that’s why business has to be regulated to some degree. Otherwise, there are enough who will do anything for profit, as Bob Murray has already demonstrated… and he’s far from the only one, just as Obama is far from the only president who failed to live up to his rhetoric.

  2. Until we get away from corporations, special interest groups, welfare, and the two party system, we are going to be stuck on a slow, or possibly increasingly rapid, decline into the same state as the Roman Republic just prior to the Pro-Consul era. We as a people have become ignorant of the forces in history that shape the course of a nation, and thus we are doomed to repeat them. The Democrats as a whole, and especially the extreme Left seem to believe that advanced technology means there are no barbarians left to appease, or are simply blind to what appeasement and apologist rhetoric means to the barbarians of the world. The Republicans as a whole are too obviously in bed with corporations (though in this regard they only differ from the Democrats in that it is far more widely known), and the Religious Right has become more generally belligerent and verbally offensive in an Era where tolerance is much more desired by the majority. Born Americans have become more and more intolerant of what has historically made our country great: the pioneering spirit of immigrants, a patriotic sense of duty and military service, religious tolerance (especially from those of us who have little tolerance for any religion), and taking a stand against evil and barbarism. Many desire for us to take a step back and let the lest of the world lead for one reason or another, rather than taking the moral and ethical lead without imposing on or arrogating ourselves above other nations. There truly is no way forward for us as a nation given our how far into the slide we have gone. We started down the slippery slope when we as citizens declined our militia duty for the easier path of complacency, so much so that the militia was in a sorry state of affairs even as early as 1812 and nearly worthless by 1842. We continued when we allowed our President to violate international law, and ignore the will of Congress, by annexing The Republic of Texas via Presidential decree. Destroying our moral and ethical soul in our quests to annex and retain territories and cultures that did not wish to join our union (Indians and Mormons). We compounded our errors by allowing the Federal Government to do away with Apportionment. All of this could have been fixed by the will of the educated voting majority had it not been for the introduction and permanent retention of Social Security, Medicaid, and now Obamacare. Each of these entitlements brings power to the reigning oligarchs at the expense of the people. How? By giving the Federal government the ability to buy the votes of the ignorant and desperate through bribery and scare tactics. Quickest way to lose an election? Threaten the entitlements of the elderly. Quickest way to win an election? Promise a bigger hand out. The inevitable result of this process without a miracle is a binary solution set: collapse or turn expansionist and then collapse. Really the only question is which one comes first, and how soon.

  3. Amy K says:

    As I think back, longingly, at my college years, cheap pizzas were the staple of our diets. The market is highly price-competitive and those few cents can make a difference in deciding from whom one will buy.

    It’s the “business has to be regulated to some degree” that’s troubling. Who determines the degree? How do we keep it in check? No, I do not subscribe to the draconian world of Atlas Shrugged, but we must be concerned when The Government starts legislating us under the guise of they know what’s best for us.

  4. Tim says:

    @Amy K’s second para
    In the UK, there has been a lot of resistance to regulation of the press, to avoid being compared to countries where the press is censored.

    Following a recent Government inquiry, a series of scandals involving mobile phone tapping by newspapers (which led to R.Murdoch closing a paper which had been around a long time) and other privacy violations stated to be ‘in the public interest’ are likely to lead to this regulation.

    i.e. we cannot trust to self-regulation anymore. Like tax avoidance, if there is no regulation to really punish offenders, human nature and greed will prevail. Freedom to allow the people to decide what is good and what is bad is probably as unlikely now as it was in the Ancient Greece of Pericles.

  5. Joe says:

    Murray and people like him do not understand personal responsibility.

    They were given existence on this planet for a short while. It is on loan, and will be reclaimed. They were given it through no effort of their own. They did not “build it”. The possibilities open to them, and to a large degree the quality of their life has never depended on them, but on those who preceded them. Responsibility would mean to strive to leave the world in no worse a shape that the way you found it, and possibly even to make it better. Doing otherwise is theft: theft of the work of those before.

    We would not need to spend money on regulations or enforcement if there were no such thieves.

  6. Kanonfodder says:

    Part of the skewed in my view of Murray vs various EPA organizations, is that you have an individual trying to cut costs by polluting lands he only has one use for, and nearby territories. How do you go about that? Well if you give more money to political organizations that control the inspections and lawsuits, you can now pollute up to that point. Perhaps a more effective solution, instead of all the federal/state land, more private property, and actually enforce the private property. If I own river front property and sludge/slurry starts landing on my river banks, I should be able to address that issue in court. If enough of us are affected, we band together for a bigger suit. There are holes of course, fly-by-night companies that smash and grab. Would be different to have “green” organizations purchasing the land around resource extraction facilities and just monitoring their property for a pretense to file suit. A slightly twisted version that popped in my head is where you have cities that fine people for their yard condition, or what they are growing in their front yard. Why should a government organization be doing this? The neighboring homes whose home values are declining should sue to recover their lost home value. If the individual is so lazy to not clean up their yard, they can compensate their neighbors.
    Of course, the last thing our society needs is even more lawsuits, but maybe if we could get rid of the stupid time waster lawsuits, we could get back to a core. The government should enforce private property and contract, in general principle. Short simple examples with examples with problems, but they couldn’t be worse than our current setup. Take UT, I think 97% is federal land. So the citizens of UT can’t effectively determine what to do with the vast majority of their own state.

    1. Joe says:

      That’s nice in theory. In practice not so much. Unless you have more money than the mine, your chances of prevailing in court are much lower than you think. Since the mine is constantly bringing money in, it has more money than you, and can appeal until your funds are exhausted. I have family that lost land to a rich neighbor who essentially exhausted all his neighbors financially. The reason we pay the government to enforce laws is that they are stronger than most criminals. The old model (village enforcement) died out because it did not work well.

    2. Actually, the federal government owns slightly less than 60% of the land in Utah. The state with the highest percentage of federal ownership is Nevada, with about 85%.

      1. Kanonfodder says:

        Thanks for the numbers, now I just have to remember what that 97% number was from. Maybe it was 97% of the readily available natural resources are on federal land? I just remember the number, for either UT or NV.

  7. Steve says:

    I agree, Mr. Modesitt with your essay. A completely laissez faire, Hamorian style system leads to abuse and excess.

    The trouble is that we vote based on our experience. I have no experience with large mining operations or oppressive monopolies. My experience with government involves forms, fees, registrations and tax notices.

    I pay an accountant what I consider to be a large amount of money to navigate an unfair and obscure tax code. Several times during the year I receive notice to provide this or that information to the IRS. Every time there is no additional charge from the IRS but the accountant takes another $100.

    I’ve stood in lines to pay a fee that covers the wage of the worker who collects the fees.

    I’ve been made to dig up my mailbox to reposition it three feet further from the drive.

    These and other silly experiences with government lead me to vote with the mining companies and the oppressive monopolies. I vote with them even though we are voting for two very different things. They benefit from my vote even though our world views are very different if not in complete opposition.

  8. Ryan Jackson says:

    You vote with someone you know to be doing bad things, albeit without knowing specificas, because you’re inconvenienced?

    Not sure what to say on that.

    Amy, back on the Papa John issue. Your point skips one small thing. The man lives in a 40k square foot castle with a 22 car garage and he’s making these threats over a net loss or price increase of 4-14 cents per pizza.

    The flaw with defending these businesses under the “In it to make money” stance is that there are companies that don’t behave that way and they flourish. Look at the recession and the credit companies. Almost every bank and credit card took massive hits, relied on Government money and barely struggled through before starting to return to profitability. Then look at a company like Discover, who took Federal funds only to keep even with their competitors, paid them back almost immediately, added to their stock and the number of companies under their umbrella, expanded to an international stage via Diner’s Club, the CEO owns a private Island. They do all this while doing their best to hire full time employees, to push for retention of those employees, even with their higher wages, vs turnown and hiring new people. Provide full health, dental, vision, tuition reimbursment, etc, etc.

    Sorry, but when I can casually point to even one company that is incredibly successful while doing all the things that would supposedly ruin said company, then the arguements of people like Murray and Schattner evaporate.

    1. Steve says:

      Did you vote for a member of a political party Ryan? Then I can guarantee you that you voted with an organization doing bad things. Pick your poisen. I simply picked the one that hopefully reduces the burden of government.

  9. Jay Oyster says:

    To attack this discussion obliquely, which is how I tend to go about things, I’ll start by saying that I’ve often found myself a bit bemused by my penchant for reading your works, Mr. Modesitt. I’m an overly educated technologist with literary and scientific degrees, and yet I find myself very strongly drawn to your fantasy fiction. “Why?” I ask myself. (‘Why not?’ I suppose is an equally valid question, but as someone who reads a lot less than he used to, why is it that Modesitt books are the ones on which I choose to spend my time?)

    The post above, and the previous one about “Get it Together . . .and Give a Little” kind of tell me why I do. I find your worldview nuanced and pragmatic, something that is sorely lacking in most discussions of the modern world, particularly of American politics. I’m a pragmatist with a bit of a liberal bent myself. And I pretty much agree with your assessment of Bob Murray and many of the ‘government IS the problem’ members of the Republican party today. Something about your writing is illustrative to the way the world works now, at least for me. The political and economic forces at play in the books seem relevant to me while watching CNN. Yeah, I know I read for the escapism, but pure escapism must be too far afield for me now. So I’ve found an author who cares about ecology, yet understands that compromise is necessary, and that the use of power may be required at times to avoid worse outcomes for more people.

    But what’s more interesting to me in this discussion is what impact being political has on those who also have a public persona. Historically, people who have a non-political identity, such as many authors, actors, and business people try very hard to keep personal politics out of their public utterances. This has usually been a wise course of action, to prevent their opinions from eroding their marketing reach. By offending part of the public, you risk cutting off some of your sales.

    But in the last few years, I’ve seen more and more famous, or at least publicly-known figures take a political stance in one direction or another. I’m not one of those people who think public persons shouldn’t weigh in on such issues. I think they have just as much right to state their beliefs as anyone else. What I find more interesting is the various trajectories that these people have had *after* taking such public positions. It seems to me that those who dip a toe in . . . send a political twitter message, or publish a couple of blog posts, or
    make a statement from the stage, but then back off and try to become non-controversial again . . . usually end up paying a price for it in terms of sales, but then get no benefit because they’ve self censored again. On the other hand, those like Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon, Donald
    Trump, Ted Nugent, who often place their politics at the center of their public persona, end up with just as big an audience, albeit one that has a particular political view that largely agrees with them.

    Watching the Dixie Chicks pay the price for speaking out against George W. Bush, or the President of Chik-Fil-A back pedal on his comments about gay rights, it strikes me as a courageous thing to be honest in public. Not always wise, but courageous. Personally, your blog posts and your public persona are probably low key enough that being overtly political (in the real world sense, rather than the fantasy sense) won’t impact sales of L.E. Modesitt books. At least, I hope not. And I value such insights on the interpretations of current events. The previous blog post, BTW, provides one of the most even-handed (yet not descending into the sin of false-equivalency) takes I’ve ever seen on how we need to approach the problems facing modern America.

    I find myself thinking that free speech by public persons, people who don’t normally fight in the public arena over policy, is a bit like the intangible power you often include in your novels. When a woodworker, or an artist, or a cooper . . . gradually realize that they have a certain power that can impact real world events, and they need to decide whether they should utilize it to make things turn out for the better . . .or not, it strikes me as a very similar situation to an actor, or a fantasy writer, or a singer, who realize that their ability to speak publicly about political situations also has a certain power. And in both cases, the formerly private (at least politically) individual suddenly becomes a political actor, with both positive and negative consequences.

    I find myself occasionally thinking about the choices made by humble Modesitt characters when I face the comment field on the Huffington Post, or the NY Times online editorial pages, or the Fox News website. Now, I don’t have the power of any fame, so my ‘magic’ is weak, and the consequences for me to speak out is correspondingly minuscule, but it does make me think about the consequences of my comments.

    Really looking forward to see what Quaeryt will face, and do, next, BTW . . .

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