We call this stepping in and acknowledging the need for an exception a "sanity check1."
Those of us on this website will be readily able to think of at least one example where this sort of system is not only beneficial, but necessary. Kuro5hin is a community website. Nearly 100% of the content is user created and the vast majority of it is user moderated. It is an open system based on the ideal of the Internet as an equalizing system in peer interaction and review. In most situations, K5 depends on the community to handle abuse by using the existing systems such as moderating, voting or pressing the spam button. There have been several cases however where the admins have had to step in and act outside of the system. Whether the action was the removal of rating privileges, the anonymization of an account, or merely the deletion of a particularly offensive and contentless comment, the admins were always acting with the intent of preserving the real goal of K5 as an enjoyable and productive community website.
In a situation like this you often have to step over the boundaries of the letter of your ideals in order to keep with their spirit. You are acknowledging an exception, and even when some are crying out "censorship!" and "injustice!" you know that you have done the right thing.
Or that's the way it should go. On K5 it works reasonably well because on the whole we have competent admins. Still, it is a benevolent dictatorship of sorts. Fine for a website, much more dangerous for a country. Who provides the sanity checks for the United States? Or likewise, for any democratic nation?
The President? The Supreme Court? Perhaps. I suppose you could call certain sections of the PATRIOT act in the USA a failed sanity check on Freedom of Speech. But there are certain ideals on which the average modern democratic nation is founded which the top administrative and legislative men and women rarely challenge due to disinterest or self-interest. In these cases, it is up to the populace to perform the sanity check and to represent their findings through voting and public information campaigns. The most fundamental of these is the idea of the free market.
This is an Op-Ed, so now is the time for the disclaimer. I am not a communist. I'm a firm believer that capitalism and the free market are systems that can not only work but are inherently better and more just than any alternative on a large scale. But the ideal can't be allowed to run away with itself. We are in a situation now where a sanity check is desperately needed.
Why is the class gap getting wider in the United States? Why are the racial distributions between socio-economic classes becoming more pronounced over time, rather than less? Because the free market has insufficient checks and balances. Someone born to a lower class family of a visible minority lacks the fundamental tools required to better his or her situation. And these tools are exactly what the free market is supposed to supply. It must be accepted that the Horatio Alger stories are dangerous myths. They were myths when they were written and they are increasingly more so now.
Are they to improve their lot through simple hard work? The low minimum wage and general lack of rent control outside of government housing projects (where simple desperation makes it nearly impossible to even cultivate ambition) makes the idea of clawing the way from lower class to middle class armed with nothing more than a work ethic absolutely ludicrous.
Are they to get an education and join the white-collar world? Exorbitant tuition rates and a scarcity of scholarships ensure that just enough socially disadvantaged people get into good schools to make for an occasional heart warming human interest story on the news. But for every lower class teenager who gets a scholarship to Harvard there are tens of thousands who would have easily gotten into a good school if they had been born to families with money but are instead destined to a lifetime of ignorance and poverty.
And it is not only within the borders of a capitalist nation that these insanities exist. They are also reflected in foreign policy. I believe everyone is aware of many such fiascoes, so I will only name a few2.
Consider the case of the ownership of engineered genes. This is a clear case where the same free market ideals which are applied to cars and televisions break down and need revising. But no-one has stepped in to sanity check. Domestically, there are cases of farmers being sued by Monsanto for stealing genetic information that evolution has provided with many efficient ways to help itself be stolen. On the global front, we have the issue where it is readily within our scientific power to create crops that would significantly alleviate world hunger, but this is not being done because it would not be sufficiently profitable or because of intellectual property concerns. Even worse are the cases where such crops or foods exist, but patent and IP concerns are preventing their dissemination.
Likewise, the peoples of many African nations are being denied access to drugs which could help solve major health issues in order to protect U.S. patents. There have been several attempts to sanity check this issue, but so far all have failed because the runaway free market has allowed too much money to collect in concentrated places and these sanity checks are against the interest of those parties.
Other such examples of the free market run amok include third world sweatshops being used to make shoes and bottle cola for first world consumers, energy deregulation and the domestic interests in foreign resources which inevitably affect political and military activity. These are all concerns which are often characterized as pet causes of extreme leftists and inevitable side effects of the otherwise beneficial free market. But these necessary evils are not actually necessary, they are the price paid for free market fundamentalism.
In none of these cases am I suggesting that I know a good quick fix. I am certainly not suggesting that we abolish patents, double the minimum wage and make college free, all on tax money. What I am suggesting is that we must as responsible citizens and human beings acknowledge that these issues are real. We must also be well informed and cynical enough to know when to ignore pundits who say "you can't change that without sacrificing the free market ideal."
The free market gives us so many beneficial things. It promotes innovation and rewards hard work. It can be a tool for fairness and equality. But, like any other ideal, it needs to have checks and balances installed, and the ones we currently have are insufficient. When you propose these changes, people may call you a communist, or perhaps unAmerican. You have to understand that what it actually comes down to is being just a little bit of a cynic and being able to say: "This is a good system, but it's not perfect."
1. The jargon file entry suggests that the term is used exclusively for the purposes of checking to see that a piece of software is sane. In common usage however, the phrase is used at least as often to describe checking to see how well one's model of a system conforms to the actual system or to describe stepping in and modifying initial assumptions in a system before a runaway loop or self-feeding process can get out of control.
2. As a Canadian, I am most familiar with issues specific to Canada and the United States, so I will draw my examples from these nations. The basic ideas should however generalize to any modern democratic capitalist nation.