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COL Nader's anti-capitalism message lacks balance

Ralph Nader, presidential candidate and corporate watchdog, rolled into town earlier this month and delivered his message that the little guy has been getting rolled by the big guy for too long. Nader says it's a crime whether the victim is a drunk in an alley or a retired laborer who loses his life savings to investor fraud.

It's not so much that Nader's definition of what's wrong with "the system" or that his call to action are mistakes. Instead, Nader's inability to publicly acknowledge that there have been some positives in full-throttle capitalism limits his ability to move beyond a punitive crackdown on big business. In another sense, the message is hindered by the messenger.

For example, Nader rails that corporate infiltration of the political system has resulted in twisted rules that allow what is criminal to be defined as legal. When that doesn't work, charges Nader, the proliferation of corporate culture is slowly changing the definition of right and wrong to what's good or bad for the company.

Joining Nader on stage at the University Center Rochester's Hill Theater for a discussion on corporate ethics was Ian Maitland, a University of Minnesota professor at the Carlson School of Management.

As Nader broadly defined both the problem and solution, that corporate greed must be met with sweeping and tough government regulation, Maitland winced. No wonder. Nader used the corrupted accounting firm Arthur Anderson as an example of the worst of the worst. Maitland was a staff accountant with Arthur Anderson.

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Maitland's squeamishness was less about past employment than Nader's call for regulatory reform. Maitland suggested that excessive regulation leads corporations to dig deep into politics. "The solution should not be worse than the disease," Maitland said.

For Maitland, competition is the principle means that capitalists use to keep business from hurting people. It's competition for consumer dollars that motivates corporations to do business with consumer-centered ethics. Over-regulation, he argues, stifles the economy and would do little to enforce ethical behavior. Nader, he believes, underestimates the power of competition.

Who is correct? There is clear evidence -- witness Arthur Anderson and Enron -- that unbridled capitalism can run over citizens without regard. Yet, a capitalistic system produces wealth that supports much good. Taxes on wealth pay for a social safety net, among other things.

Like so much else, the regulation of commerce requires a balance. This is a message Nader seems incapable of delivering.

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