Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's Senate subcommittee has been listening to some disturbing testimony about "entertainment" expenses incurred by the railroad and trucking industries.
One official told the committed $1.5 billion a year is spent on "gifts" and entertainment for federal regulators and people in industry who are in a position to decide which lines will get their company's shipping business. Another witness said the money spent on this form of bribery - and that's all it is - was probably a lot more than $1.5 billion.
Shipping costs are a factor in the pricing of almost every item we produce, import, buy, sell or use. When shipping costs are inflated, the effect of the increase is magnified because jobbers, wholesalers and retailers all add their percentage markups. Heaven only knows how much the public pays out as a consequence of that $1.5 billion in baksheesh each year.
To make matters worse, these practices take place in two closely related industries in which price competition does not exist. Shipping regulations have for years kept costs artificially high. Control of air fares has only recently been loosened a bit.
Capitalists traditionally complain about government regulation and its stifling effect on free enterprise. "Get the dead hand of government off the throttle of American industry," Wintergreen urged in "Of Thee I Sing." And the capitalists in the audience loved it.
But the truth of the matter is that most modern capitalists want government regulation that eliminates price competition. They much prefer to compete on the basis of who provides potential customers (and government regulators) with the most lavish parties, junkets and gifts. The only thing free about this kind of free enterprise system is the graft that is passed around.
We live in a world in which capitalism is on trial. The communists are waiting for us to commit economic suicide, and it sometimes appears that we're bent on doing just that.
If the capitalists who own and manage large industries no longer believe in competition and free enterprises, we're in deep trouble. With friends like those, capitalism doesn't need any enemies.
If President Carter and the Congress are serious about curbing inflation, one of the first things they must do is really get the dead hand of government off the throttle of American industry. The most basic type of competition is price competition, and in too many industries there isn't any.
Just about every one of us free enterprisers is in favor of vigorous price competition - but not in our own field, of course.
The druggist who is buying a new car wants to be able to shop around for the best deal he can get, but he hates the chain drugstore that undercuts his prices. The realtor wants a fixed commission as compensation for his work, doctors and lawyers are sometimes ostracized by their peers unless they maintain minimum fee schedules, and in fact all through business, industry and the professions there is the same attitude: We want the advantages of free enterprise competition when we're buying, but when we're selling we don't want any trouble from those damn price-cutters.
If Mr. Carter can make this countrymen understand that they can't have it both ways, he will have made a major contribution toward giving capitalism a new lease on life.
But I must say his chances appear dim.