Imagine a tiny, luckless country -- call it Robertovia -- devoid of natural resources except for a single commodity: a valuable metal ore I'll call Steinbackinium.
There's a vast worldwide market for Steinbackinium, and Robertovia, with its population of 100,000 people, is the world's leading supplier. But the lucrative Steinbackinium industry only requires 10,000 employees, from miners to mechanics to executives. Another 10,000 have jobs running groceries and pizzerias and bars serving Steinbackinium industry workers.
Should all Robertovians derive some benefit from the nation's lone salable commodity? Or should 20,000 residents prosper while 80,000 are left to their own devices to survive??
What I've posed is a simplistic test case about economic justice, which I submit is at the root of the growing disaffection throughout Latin America for American-style economic policies.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in her address Sunday to the General Assembly of the Organization of American States in Fort Lauderdale, urged the 34 Western Hemisphere member nations to redouble their commitment to democracy. But she missed a golden opportunity by saying nothing -- except a parenthetical reference to ''problems like poverty and inequality'' -- about economic justice.
''We must insist that leaders who are elected democratically have a responsibility to govern democratically,'' Rice said, an obvious reference to Venezuela's populist, anti-capitalist president, Hugo Chávez, whose flirtations with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro have irritated the Bush administration for years.
What Rice and President Bush can't, or won't, grasp is that democracy alone won't address basic quality-of-life concerns of real people -- particularly when the corporate decision-makers who really run the prevailing economies remain beyond the reach of the popular vote. Democracy without a parallel commitment to economic justice is a useless tool -- like a band saw without a blade.
Worse, it can actually contribute to political instability. Democracy, as promoted by America's current policy makers, is always rigidly linked to free markets. In concept, this is good; any efficient economic model must include open markets. But this isn't the same as allowing corporations to do as they please -- which too often has led to exploitation of workers struggling for subsistence while corporate barons accumulate obscene wealth. The very act of extending the vote to disgruntled masses can result in electoral support for the likes of Chávez.
It's why what Rice and Bush are promoting isn't likely to gain much traction in much of Latin America and beyond.
Factors of production
Fixing the ''Chávez problem'' requires much more than OAS states applying pressure to force rogue leaders to ``govern democratically.''
The Achilles' heel of laissez-faire capitalism is its regard of people solely as a fungible factor of production, rather than as warm-blooded individuals who go home to spouses, kids and parents after a day in the factory or the field. Human beings are more than data points on a graph.
Those little mathematical units of ''labor'' are people who get frustrated, angry, confused or desperate. In their anxiety, they may resist what they see as an unfair economic system -- backing a crippling strike, endorsing an anti-capitalist candidate or signing on with a guerrilla faction or fundamentalist religious movement.
Economic justice doesn't have to be code for Marxism or nationalized industries. It can be accomplished through balance within a capitalist economy, with roles played by unions to protect worker rights and health, government regulators to protect consumers and investors and advocates to defend environmental quality, child safety, indigenous rights and more.
Failure to address the needs and dissatisfactions of the greater population is what undermines democracies. It's why 14 democratically elected Western Hemisphere governments have been toppled just since 1989 -- while the nations of Western Europe, which have utilized a more socialized and labor friendly version of capitalism, have enjoyed relative political stability since World War II. Any Robertovian will tell you: The more citizens can share in a nation's prosperity, the more stable the nation will be.