Seven years ago, Texas adopted a free-market energy strategy. The architect of this strategy, William W. Hogan, is a professor of global energy policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. The way it works is that as the demand for electricity increases, so too does the price. In theory, in moments of high demand, such as Texans are currently experiencing with subzero temperatures, the higher prices force consumers to reduce their energy consumption because energy becomes unaffordable.

In Houston, for example, one megawatt-hour went from $22 to about $9,000 on Monday and Tuesday. In turn, reduced consumption prevents overtaxing power plants. What is not factored into the market-based approach is how humans are expected to live in subzero weather without heat. As of Feb. 17, more than two dozen people have died from the cold. More than 4 million have lost power. In Fort Worth, about 100,000 people were without drinkable water.

This situation exemplifies exactly what is wrong with free-market idolatry. People are literally dying in Texas because, instead of economic arrangements serving human beings, human beings are now in the service of economic arrangements. So in thrall with the “free” market are some of our Republican and Libertarian legislators, and so hateful are they of our government, that we find people like the mayor of Colorado City, Texas telling constituents “No one owes you [or] your family anything; nor is it the local government’s responsibility to support you during trying times like this! Sink or swim it’s your choice…I’m sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout.”

The founders of our nation established a government that is of, by, and for the people. Beginning in the 1960s, billionaires like Richard Mellon Scaife, Charles and David Koch, and Joseph Coors, Jr., spent millions of dollars peddling the idea that government was evil, and that people should, as the Texas mayor put it, “sink or swim” on their own.

This was particularly rich coming from a pack of men who inherited millions or billions from their parents, and at least one of whom, Scaife, was a raving alcoholic and essentially incapable of working, but who managed to live a life of excess thanks to fortunes his progenitors had amassed. 

We don’t have to live this way. The choice is not between Soviet-style socialism where government owns the means of production and the “sink or swim” free-market radicalism America’s one-percenters have led too many of us to believe is some sort of moral imperative. It’s our government, and if it is not working to meet our needs, then we can change how it works.

We should never let elites who do not have our interests at heart convince us that the structure our founders bequeathed us — a government of, by, and for the people — is the problem, and that the free market — which is dominated by fat cats and unaccountable to ordinary Americans, is the answer. The answer is good government, not no government.

If our representatives can’t figure out how to use their offices to make our lives better, if all they can come up with is that the government in which they represent us is the problem, then it’s time for more competent and industrious representatives.

Shari Jacobson is an associate professor of Anthropology at Susquehanna University. She teaches a class on regulation. 

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