Bad outcomes are the bane of life. This is true for all systems – social, political and economic. We try to arrange outcomes – personal and collective – that are pleasing; happy; rewarding; entertaining; educational; pleasurable; etc. And so, rather naturally, when things do not work out to our satisfaction, we tend to seek who is responsible for the disappointment or the harm done.
By common sense, fault follows power to the source of wrongdoing. Those who can, should. Those who did are responsible. They are the authors of our misfortunes.
In the early decades of capitalism, early socialists started pointing fingers at capitalists for the shortcomings of market outcomes, in particular their greed and love of money. If prices are too high, it is the fault of capitalists. If employees are paid too little, it is the fault of capitalists. If products are shoddy or dangerous or services are deficient in meeting our expectations, it’s skimping or cutting corners to make more money, which is the cause of poor business performance.
This incautious habit had a notable ancestry in Rome with the question “Qui bono?” always to be considered when seeking who was responsible for what had happened.
The Biden Administration has adopted this placing of blame. If gas prices are too high, it is because oil companies refuse to lower prices to help their customers get through a rough patch in global economics.
But who is responsible and for what? How do we allocate responsibility in capitalism? When is greed ok and when is it excessive? What do employees deserve to be paid? Is a wage an entitlement or the market price, given competition and opportunity costs, for a good job well done?
Recently, the European Parliament approved 2 laws to place responsibility on Big Tech for 1) anticompetitive behavior and 2) providing illegal content. The Digital Markets Act will impose new obligations – duties, responsibilities – on a small number of digital giants to restrict what they can do with online messaging, digital advertising and the app ecosystem. The Digital Services Act will put the responsibility on companies, not users, to eliminate illegal content and other speech acts which regulators regard as harmful and give users an avenue to register with the companies’ complaints about curating content.
The Parliament had in mind a vision of what good outcomes are to be expected from the digiverse, so it allocated responsibility in ways it thought would promote those outcomes, making companies more responsible and users less so.
But the laws set up potential conflicts between the companies and users. Some users may feel that they are unjustly prevented by the companies from saying what they want.
In a lawsuit in the U.S. state of West Virginia, a judge ruled for companies that they were not responsible for harm done by opioid consumption. Local government has argued that under the law of causing a public nuisance, three large distributors of opioids were responsible for the opioid crisis in the state.
The court ruled that multiple actors caused the opioid epidemic, not the drug distributors all by themselves. The plaintiff governments did not prove that the drug distributors caused the epidemic, saying that “overpricing by doctors, dispensing of excessive prescriptions by pharmacists and diversion of drugs to illegal use” were “intervening causes beyond the control” of defendant companies.
So, with respect to capitalism nationally and globally to change incentives material and moral for those who are responsible for ‘bad” outcomes, we first need to identify the responsible parties, all the defendants in the chain of causation that the result objected to.
Aristotle, notably, thought there were 4 different kinds of causes at work in the world: the material, the formal, the efficient and the final. Courts in negligence cases in the U.S. can allocate responsibility severally among defendants depending on how much they each differently contributed to the harm done.
When we think of outcomes, we need a more complicated calculation of cause and effect than some owner or company stood to make a profit.