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When You Can't Trust Your Herbals, What's Left on the Left?

02/05/2015 11:58 am ET | Updated Apr 07, 2015
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As was widely reported yesterday, including by Mary Esch on the Huffington Post, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has directed several major chains (including Walmart, Walgreens, Target and GNC) to remove mislabeled herbal remedies and dietary supplements from their shelves immediately.

The investigation of something so relatively benign as echinacea, ginseng, ginkgo biloba and Saint John's Wort may not seem like a big story -- certainly not in light of the latest execution by the so-called Islamic State and the capital response of the Jordanian government. But some stories have a way of laying their finger gently on the pulse of the national culture and political mood. This one does just that.

First, there is the science. Investigators performed random DNA tests on sample herbals in order to determine whether their contents matched their labels. Many, if not most, did not -- some contained no trace of the elements listed on their labels. Further investigation revealed that most of the contents were neutral, and quite worthless, fillers: beans, rice and wheat, and a variety of inert plant products.

Second, there is the money involved. Herbal remedies and dietary supplements constitute a $6 billion-a-year industry, according to the non-profit American Botanical Council, and currently it falls outside of the purview of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It is, in short, another massive corporate interest that has managed to remain altogether unregulated.

Which raises the third issue at stake here: public health and public safety. Herbal medicine and dietary supplements may seem innocuous enough, but such gross examples of misrepresentation in advertising create the very real possibility of dangerous reactions prompted by the unwitting ingestion of allergenics currently rendered invisible in the labeling of such products.

Naturally, this appears to be a very small public health risk, and so the friends of de-regulation on the political right will argue that placing such remedies within the purview of the FDA is simply more overreach by Big Government and aggressive attornies general on the political left. The American people have the right to a genuinely free and unregulated market: to be misled, to waste money on products that are not what they appear to be, are simply the political price we the people pay for our freedom. "Let the buyer beware."

This is where the implications of this story become more interesting, and really quite profound. We should recall that another major story in yesterday's news cycle was the agreement by Standard and Poors to pay a whopping $1.38 billion for its role in the 2008 Wall Street meltdown. The payment is tantamount to an admission by the company that it knowingly overrated financial industries it knew to be exposed and vulnerable.

In short, the buyer cannot be wary if the information with which he or she is provided is doctored like an herbal remedy.

The argument for blanket de-regulation in this country traditionally hinges on three subtle errors of judgment: confusion over what kind of freedom the U.S. Constitution is designed to protect; confusion over what constitutes a genuine public health risk; and confusion over the relationship between Christian values and free market capitalism. Naturally, blurring the line between a person and a corporation adds fuel to this fire.

The essential rights which grew out of the political revolutions in England, the United States and France culminated in a crucial distinction between negative and positive conceptions of liberty. Negative liberty is the relatively benign idea that people, much like the rebellious teenager, have the right to be left alone. That is the liberty that de-regulation is allegedly designed to protect, though as a practical matter it protects corporate rather than personal liberty by and large.

A more robust conception of liberty recognizes that the Classically informed notion of liberty, the one that inspired democratic Athenians and republican Romans alike, was the right to be free of domination. The relationship between a master and a slave was deemed the paradigm of such a dominating relation. It was the retrieval of this Classical ideal, and its application to all persons, that led to the abolition movements of the nineteenth century. That kind of freedom requires government oversight and, yes, regulation.

The question of what constitutes a genuine risk to public safety and to public health has been highly politicized in this country since Ronald Reagan's assault on "liberals" and their conception of state regulation. When the Centers for Disease Control designed a study of gun violence and framed it as a public health issue, they were warned off the study by the NRA-friendly Bush administration. The NRA, it should be noted, is a shill for the gun industry and no real friend to persons who own guns. Score one more for the corporations.

Public safety and public health are precisely public concerns, involving we the people in our collective, public endeavors, not merely in the privacy of our own homes. To ensure that the water coming out of the faucet in our homes is safe to drink requires regulation and oversight and massive investment of public funds and energies. But that is not the half of it.

The number of people who lost their homes as a result of the fraudulent Wall Street practices that led to the near-collapse of our system in 2008 constitutes a threat to public health and public safety of the first order. We are increasingly developing a cultural comfort with the idea that we need to create tobacco-free public spaces, the need to force people to wear a safety belt in their cars, and so on. But wherever big money is involved, there re-regulation is de rigeur.

This has something importantly to do with religion in American life, and the subtle relation that is posited between conservative Christianity and modern capitalism.

I am not speaking of the famous "elective affinity" Max Weber observed between a certain kind of Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, and I am not speaking of what William E. Connolly calls "the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine" that increasingly defines far-right politics in this country.

Rather, I think this constitutes one important residue of the Cold War, and the way any number of domestic and foreign policy matters were framed as pitting the Christian-capitalist free world against the totalitarian excess of godless communism. To that way of thinking, the connection between capitalism and Christianity seemed clear and beyond dispute.

What is missing from that connection is any sense that what differentiated capitalism and communism as systems was their widely diverging anthropology, their sense of who human beings are and how they behave in groups. In short, communists believe people are essentially cooperative, whereas capitalists believe that people are essentially competitive. After 1989 Ronald Reagan, and the new economic-religious coalition that he established, insisted that they had won a war of ideas and that the capitalist view of human nature had triumphed.

That Pyrrhic victory resulted in a stunning cultural sleight-of-hand which constitutes one of the most dazzling cases of open-eyed self-contradiction in modern politics: conservative, Bible-believing Christians who are proponents of laissez-faire capitalism and deregulated financial markets.

If the capitalists were more correct than the communists, and if human nature is fundamentally more competitive than it is cooperative, then it will not surprise us that people, left to their own devices in any setting where large amounts of money are at stake, will lie and cheat and steal. Wall Street financiers did so, big pharmaceutical corporations did so, and so, apparently, do the herbalists.

A cautionary tale may be found in the New Testament. Luke famously describes the early community of Jesus-followers in Jerusalem almost as a sort of proto-communist collective:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all as they had need. Day by day they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. (Acts of the Apostles 2: 44-47).

A great deal of evangelical and exegetical energy has been devoted to proving that the early Christians were not really communist or collectivist in their social ethics. Nor, of course, does this story really justify a tax policy intended to redistribute weelth and distribute it to "each according to their need."

But we should be wary of the standard Protestant practice of reading two or three verses out of context. Pull back the camera lens a bit, and we see a very different story emerge about what Luke and his fellow Jesus-followers confronted and believed.

The next stories Luke tells (Acts 3:1-5:11) place this idealized community-of-care in a very different light: namely, a stubbornly unrepentant and fallen world. Peter and John are hit up for money by a disabled beggar as they are about to enter the Temple; Peter has no money to give, but offers what help he can. The man is healed and walks. Those who witness this event are mystified and so Peter preaches to them, telling them of Jesus, of his power and of his fate, and then forgiving those in this Jerusalem crowd who presumably had called for Jesus's execution some years earlier. The religious establishment -- the temple priests and the police -- have the two men arrested, interrogated and later released. Peter and John return to their beloved community and tell the tale.

Luke chooses this moment to reiterate the novel economic arrangements in this community:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possession, but everything they owned was held in common.... There was not a needy person among them. (Acts 4: 32-34)

Or so they hoped. One couple who joined the movement, Ananias and his wife Sapphira, held back some of what they gathered, and brought only a part of their wealth to Peter. When Ananias brought the pilfered proceeds to the Apostle, he knew it for a lie, condemned him publicly and then watched as Ananias dropped dead as a stone. Later when his wife Sapphira came to Peter, she lied to the Apostle as well, and dropped dead at his feet.

The community, Luke tells us, was terrified.

This is a set of stories about original and enduring sin, about the corrupting power of money and power over the human heart, no matter how generously inclined that heart may be. If this is an argument in favor of capitalist realism against communist idealism, then it is also an argument for monitoring and regulating people's economic behavior fairly closely.

People lie, cheat and steal where money is concerned. There is no surprise in that fact. The surprise is that a political movement would emerge which wishes to act as if this were not so, all the while preaching a gospel that knows better.