06/09/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Hey, Free Marketeers, the Burden of Proof Is on You

We hear a lot about the country being polarized by ideology. Frankly, I don't see any real ideologues on the left, and I'm sure I would recognize them because in my youth I was a raging Marxist. You don't hear anyone calling for public ownership of the means of production, or tossing out terms like "proletariat," and not even Michael Moore would want to replace the entire capitalist system with some form of collectivism. What passes for leftist ideology is a belief that government can be used to solve, or at least ameliorate, social problems.

That's hardly a radical dogma; it's just one way groups of people have always dealt with collective issues. It's not ideology that makes liberals want government regulations; it's pragmatic self defense. No one would have dreamed up the EPA if manufacturers didn't insist on polluting our air and water. We wouldn't need the FDA if food and drug producers didn't put contaminated products on the market. We wouldn't bother with an SEC if brokerage firms didn't try to pull the wool over the eyes of investors.

But free marketeers, libertarians, "government-is-the-problem" true believers and other conservative ideologues are everywhere, trying to convince us that we'd be better off if government would only let the good people running giant corporations do their thing. I suggest they save their breath and instead make corporate executives prove they're worthy of our trust. Let them demonstrate that they can act with honesty, integrity, and a sense of public virtue. Because, given the events of the past two years--not to mention most of modern history--the evidence suggests we'd be idiots to trust them.

Here's my modest proposal: corporate big shots should create a self-policing body with real teeth. Many professions have organizations that hold their members accountable. Doctors have the AMA, lawyers the Bar Association, psychologists, social workers, and others their equivalents. Needless to say, their existence does not eliminate the need for laws and public oversight, but such associations keep the need for regulation to a minimum by exacting a heavy price on members who violate their standards. Their penalties are effective deterrents; even censuring a member or revoking his or her membership can seriously damage a career.

So, corporate executives, go ahead and create a legitimate professional organization across your many industries. Sign up some big-name CEOs, so the association has credibility right off the bat, making anyone who doesn't join a pariah. Offer membership to anyone at the level of, say, vice president and up. Set the bar high with a rigorous behavioral code, not just regarding obvious ethical issues, but also things like how employees should be treated, remuneration policies, non-deceptive advertising and marketing, the impact of corporate decisions on communities and the environment, and so forth. Maybe even steal an idea from physicians, and start the code with "First do no harm." Then show us you're capable of enforcing the standards rigorously, so violators feel the pain, not just with financial loss, but with shame-inducing exposure and career-threatening ostracism. In short, make it really a bad idea to act against the common good.

If, in due time--maybe a decade or two--the public is satisfied that corporate executives can be counted on to act more like virtuous citizens than greedy, selfish scoundrels, liberals will have no excuse to spend tax dollars on excessive regulation. Until then, we have no choice but to ask our government to protect us from them. In other words, corporate leaders have to do what parents expect their misbehaving teenagers to do: prove they can be trusted.

I'm not holding my breath, but just in case some corporate honchos are paying attention, here's my final suggestion. Name the organization the Association of Business Executives--ABE, in honor of the president whose name is synonymous with honesty. Live up to that acronym, and even the staunchest lefties might agree to a looser grip on your vaunted free market. The burden of proof is on you.