A Dim View of Libertarianism
Corporations: Invaluable Servants, Ruthless Masters
The libertarians’ position on corporations is divided. One faction holds
that there should be no legal and regulatory curbs on corporations, since
they are the result of free association of individuals. As such,
corporations are entitled to full participation the “free markets” which, as
we have noted, libertarians fully endorse.
On the other hand,
repeating a point that we made earlier, observes that “corporate power and
the free market are actually antithetical; genuine competition is big
business’s worst nightmare.” Moreover, Long continues, “Corporate power
depends crucially on government intervention in the marketplace. This is
obvious enough in the case of the more overt forms of government favoritism
such as subsidies, bailouts, and other forms of corporate welfare.” And
government interference with markets, as we have noted repeatedly, is the
bête noir of libertarians. Long concludes, “small wonder that big business,
despite often paying lip service to free market ideals, tends to
systematically oppose them in practice.”
Finally, corporations raise problem for libertarians, in that the only
feasible remedy for corporate abuse and for the protection of affected
unconsenting third parties (‘externalities,” market failure) is government.
Even so, no discussion of free markets and privatization can be complete
without a careful examination of the impact of corporations on society. For
if government assets and functions are to be privatized, as the libertarians
propose, most of them will surely be taken over by large corporations.
Furthermore corporations are now, and will remain long into the future, the
major players in the “free market” as well as the predominant force in
The Scorpion, the Frog, and the Corporation.
A scorpion, eager to get to the other side of a stream and unable to swim,
pleads with a frog to allow him to ride on the frog’s back, across the
“Certainly not,” said the frog. “You would kill me.”
“Preposterous!,” replied the scorpion. “If I stung you, it would kill the
both of us.”
Thus assured, the frog invited the scorpion to climb aboard, and halfway
across, sure enough, the scorpion delivered the fatal sting.
“Now why did you do that,” said the frog, “you’ve killed us both.”
“I am a scorpion,” he replied, “this is what I do.”
What corporations do is strive to maximize the returns on the investments of
their stockholders. As Milton Friedman put it, “The social responsibility of
business is to increase profits.” Unfortunately, if corporations are
unconstrained by law or regulation, they can, by simply “doing what they
do,” suck the life out of the economy that sustains them. Like cancer cells,
lethal parasites, and the scorpion, unconstrained corporations can destroy
their “hosts,” without which they cannot survive, much less flourish.
By saying as much, I might appear to be favoring the abolition of
corporations, like some far-out Commie nut case.
On the contrary, I approve of corporations. I have seen, in the former
Soviet Union, the results of an alternative system, the “command economy.”
It isn’t a pretty sight.
How can I disapprove of corporations when I am surrounded by devices and
conveniences that were developed and marketed by corporations? The computer
with which I write this essay and the internet that publishes it would be
impossible without the corporate structuring of our economy. (However, let
us not forget, they would likewise be impossible without government
sponsored research and development).
So here’s Two Cheers for Capitalism. Thank God for Thomas Edison, Henry Ford
and Bill Gates, and the millions of others who have, by exercising free
enterprise, immeasurably improved our lives, as they proceeded to improve
But I withhold that third cheer as I view with foreboding, the dangers of
capitalism and corporatism unconstrained and running wild.
My message is a simple one, if familiar: corporations are invaluable
servants that can become ruthless masters, to prevent which: “Governments
are instituted among men [and women], deriving their just powers from the
consent of the governed.” This means that laws and regulations, which
implement limitations and constraints, are enacted and enforced in behalf of
“the public good.”
Remove these constraints, and the servant soon becomes the master, as well
as the parasite which consumes its host, thus destroying both the parasite
and the host on which it feeds.
Put simply, when the corporation is subordinate to government and the rule
of law, prosperity throughout society is possible. But when government and
the rule of law are subordinated to corporations, the result is ruin for
Bold pronouncements, all. Now to the supporting arguments.
The Corporation vs. Society.
The stakeholder problem. William Vanderbilt famously proclaimed, “the public
be damned, I work for my stockholders.” The basic market transaction,
celebrated by the libertarians, is between a buyer and a seller. No place
here for unconsenting third parties, the “stakeholders,” who are affected by
the transaction. (More about this "third party" in the previous essay, “Market
The Stock Market is geared for the short term. In contrast, wise and just
social policy plans for the long term. Imagine two competing lumber
companies: the first clear-cuts, moves on and leaves a ruined landscape. The
other employs sustainable forestry, leaving ground cover and seed trees, and
replanting seedlings, in the expectation of harvesting trees fifty years
hence. As a result, the first company, free of the costs of sustainability,
has twice the return on investment for the first two years than its
competitor, and sells lumber at 80% of the price of the other. However,
after ten years it is bankrupt. The second company, sustains lower profits
and higher prices far into the future. If you were an “in and out” investor,
which stock would you buy? This admittedly simplistic illustration distorts
reality. Some far-sighted commercial enterprises do flourish, and “ruin and
run” companies can and do fail. Nonetheless short-term planning is endemic
to corporate structures. Fortunately, this corporate myopia can be mitigated
through subsidies and tax incentives -- i.e., through government
intervention in the market.
In sum: For most investors, the sooner and the greater the return, the
better. But societies flourish when citizens are psychologically and morally
invested in the long-term success of their nation. It’s called “patriotism.”
Corporate Volunteerism doesn’t work. Corporate officials often proclaim, in
person or through their trade associations, that government regulation is
unnecessary, since voluntary acts of “good corporate citizenship” will
suffice. No company, they argue, can afford to be ill-thought of by the
public. (See my
"The Public Interest and the Limits of Volunteerism").
To be sure, corporations will contribute to civic enterprises and strive to
be “good corporate citizens.” It’s good public relations, which means a
worthwhile return on the modest expenditures involved. But when public
service collides with the bottom line, the results are all too familiar and
I found this out when I served for seven years on the Public Advisory Panel
of The Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA, now The American Chemistry
Council). (See "My
Seven Years as a Corporate Token").
Following the 1984 disaster at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, the
CMA established a program of “Responsible Care” toward industry workers and
toward the public in general. The published principles of the Responsible
Care program are commendable and uncontroversial, describing just the sort
of behavior one would expect of an industry cognizant of its public
At the three to four yearly meetings of the Panel, various industry
initiatives and programs designed to ensure safety and environmental quality
were presented to us, and we visited numerous plant facilities and
ecological restoration areas adjacent to the plants. All quite impressive. I
will credit the chemical industry with fine corporate citizenship, at least
with regard to numerous “small things.”
However, since the advent of the Bush administration and the relaxing of
government regulation and oversight, the industry has failed spectacularly
to meet its civic responsibilities. Immediately after the Supreme Court
decided the outcome of the 2000 election, the Public Advisory Panel was
abolished. Then followed three responses to public issues by the CMA/ACC
which together have undone the gains of the Responsible Care program. The
first was opposition to efforts to meliorate global warming. The second was
an attempt in conjunction with the EPA (!) to test the toxicity of
insecticides on human subjects: infants younger than 13 months. This
“CHEERS” program was abolished by congressional action. Finally, the
industry thwarted congressional efforts to require strict security measures
at chemical plants.
As a November, 2003, 60 Minutes broadcast dramatically demonstrated to an
audience of millions, the insecurity of chemical plants is a disaster
waiting to happen, since it is apparent that a terrorist with a satchel
charge might be able to simply walk into a facility and set off an explosion
that would release chemicals that could kill hundreds of thousands. The
protection of these facilities is a public imperative, to date still
unrealized. It is clear, at last, that the chemical manufacturers will not
volunteer to secure these facilities. So they must be made to secure them by
the only agency capable of enforcing that security. That would be the
government, of course. (Follow
this link for more about these issues
and the American Chemistry Council).
Unregulated free markets are self-eliminating. One of the great myths
promulgated by regressive politicians and their media supporters is that
mega-corporations support free markets. In fact, they don’t. Competition
forces down prices and compels product and service improvement. That’s good
for consumers, but bad for corporations, which much prefer monopolization,
for themselves at least, and “free markets” for their competitors. Witness
Microsoft and the media conglomerates.
Once a corporation (or a consortium of corporations) takes control of a
market, they can set their own prices and make their own rules. If they
control the market on some insignificant widgets, consumer demand will keep
the prices down. But if they control essential and indispensable
commodities, such as food, water, prescription drugs, gasoline, heating
fuel, or electricity, they are free to set prices that will impoverish their
customers. (See Chapter 9,
Remedial Economics for
Conscience of a Progressive).
The remedy is obvious, and has worked well in the past: the enactment and
enforcement of anti-trust legislation. And in the case of “natural
monopolies” such as electricity, the remedy is regulation. And that means,
of course, government.
The Great Experiment.
Libertarians and regressives of the Republican right insist that once
government regulation of business is abolished and the free market is
allowed to function without constraint, prosperity for all will follow.
That’s the theory and the promise. However, history has proven otherwise.
For example, in the twenties, under successive Republican administrations,
business was given free reign, unconstrained by “government interference.”
And that led to the Great Depression. After the fall of Soviet Communism in
August, 1991, Russia was overrun with right-wing, free-market economists
from the West, bearing advice which was, unfortunately, all too often
taken. The Russian economy collapsed as enterprising former industrial
managers seized control of these resources and became instant billionaires
and almost the entire population was impoverished. Finally, with the fall of
Baghdad in 2002, Bushistas, led by Paul Bremer, saw a fresh opportunity to
establish a free-market utopia. Today, 60% of the Iraqis are unemployed.
But no matter. History be damned. So once again, with the advent of the Bush
administration, cowboy capitalism was on the loose, and the American economy
careened straight toward a precipice, over which it fell in August, 2008.
Parasitic capitalism has poisoned its host and, absent prompt and radical
treatment, both are doomed.
In the past ten years, the incomes of almost all middle and low income
Americans has stagnated or fallen, while the incomes of the top 1% have
Consumer credit has increased to the point that the national credit card
is about “maxed-out”. Add this to the increasing interest rates, and the
inevitable result must be a sharp drop in consumer spending and an increase
in personal bankruptcies.
Corporations, driven to reduce labor costs and thus increase profits, and
heedless of the social and economic consequences, have shipped
(“outsourced”) millions of industrial and now service jobs overseas, further
reducing the consumer base in the United States.
Similarly, corporations and the super-wealthy have sought, and found in a
compliant Congress, “tax relief” through numerous tax loopholes and overseas
tax shelters. Thus, government revenues have plummeted while deficits have
As a result, domestic spending for social services, education, scientific
research and development, and physical infrastructure has been cut
No modern economy can survive without an educated work force or an operating
physical infrastructure or a population of consumers with disposable
incomes. And yet, in their misguided pursuit of “corporate self-interest,”
the corporations starve those very institutions that sustain them.
Unconstrained corporatism, through its control of the media and the federal
government, has brought this about.
Fiduciary Responsibility and the Tragedy of Outsourcing.
My computer and I have been through a bad spell these past couple of weeks.
First, my router/modem developed a terminal malfunction, and then my new
anti-virus software failed to install. Thankfully, three very capable and
patient gentlemen at various technical support facilities found solutions.
These three gentlemen were, respectively, from India, the Philippines, and
once again, India.
If you or someone in your family is about to graduate with a degree in
computer science, don’t expect to find a job in the U.S. any time soon.
Amidst my computer worries, I bought a dozen or so electrical supplies from
the local hardware: a surge protector, extension cords, a phone, that sort
of thing. Glancing at the labels, I found that each and every one was made
in China. And a new hard drive? From Malaysia.
No need to go on with this, you know about it already. It’s called
Damned greedy capitalists are dismantling our manufacturing base and
shipping it overseas!
Were it as simple as that, it would be a waste of my effort writing about
it and of your time reading yet another complaint about that which is
But outsourcing, and the consequent loss of millions of American
manufacturing and service jobs, is not the plain and simple result of
corporate greed. It is, instead, an inevitable result of a combination of
the successful enactment of the libertarian dogmas of “the invisible hand”
and “trickle down,” namely the conviction that individual entrepreneurs and
corporations will, by seeking only their own economic gain, obtain the best
results for society at large. These are "dogmas" because they are "proven,"
not by historical evidence or practical experience, but rather through
the corollary libertarian dogma that government has no justification
whatever in interfering with the economic activities of private individuals
and corporations. In the words of Milton Friedman, “There is nothing wrong
with the United States that a dose of smaller and less intrusive government
would not cure.”
fiduciary responsibility: the legal requirement that the primary
responsibility of the corporation is to its stockholders, not the public.
Thus the necessity of outsourcing is beyond the control of any single
corporation’s executives or board of directors. It is a thus a tragedy, in
the sense defined by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead: a consequence
of “the remorseless working of things.” As long as these conditions obtain,
jobs will gravitate toward the individuals accepting the lowest wages, i.e.,
those abroad, and the middle class will wither as wealth flows from those
who create the nation’s wealth to those who own and control the wealth.
These are conditions that are destined to ruin the economy of the United
“As long as these conditions obtain...” The obvious solution, then, is to
change “these conditions.”
So why don’t corporate executives simply behave like good Americans, and
keep those jobs stateside?
Because, quite frankly, if they were to do so, they would be taken to court
by the stockholders and sued. And they would lose.
In these essays I have, on a
couple of occasions, quoted William Vanderbilt's remark, “The public be damned, I work for my stockholders.”
I have also cited Milton Friedman's 1970 New York Times article,
“The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits.” The
title says it all.
The knee-jerk liberal response is that these quotations are expressions of
plain lousy attitudes. Sadly, it's much worse than that.
It’s the law!
The fiduciary responsibility of corporations, first and foremost to their
stockholders, has been articulated in numerous court decisions, and in the
statutes of several states. And so,
as Daniel Brook writes in Huffington
“Corporations have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize profits even if it
means betraying the nation, trashing the environment, or fomenting
unconscionable levels of inequality. Nothing is unconscionable for a
corporation because they don't have consciences; they're not really people,
whatever the courts may say.”
Accordingly, my internet service provider and the company that makes my
anti-virus software simply had no choice: they had to hire tech support
workers in India and the Philippines and to fire their American technicians.
Had they not done so, they would have been put at an insurmountable
competitive disadvantage with their rivals who have no qualms about
outsourcing. The profits and stock value of the “socially responsible”
corporations would drop, causing losses to their stockholders – i.e., those
to whom they owed “fiduciary responsibility.”
And then the company would find itself in court, facing a winning law suit
by the stockholders.
Obviously, corporate activity affects more than managers, employees and
stockholders. Corporations also involve customers who are entitled to be
protected from fraud and from defective products. Civil courts exist to
reimburse customers for damages from corporate abuses, and few if any
libertarians would object, in principle, to the exercise and enforcement of
civil law. Because civil suits can be costly and impact upon the corporate
bottom line, corporations have a fiduciary responsibility not to engage in
fraud or to sell defective products. (Unfortunately, as the recent Supreme
Court decision on the Exxon Valdez suit reminds us, corporate-friendly
courts can reduce civil settlements to trivial sums, "the cost of doing
business," that fail to deter corporate malfeasance).
In addition to injured customers, there are unconsenting third parties,
“stakeholders,” who are affected by corporate activities. These include
persons residing downwind and downstream from industrial polluters,
teen-agers “hooked” on cigarettes leading to a shortened life of addiction,
taxpayers who pay for the public health costs of smoking, ecosystems damaged
by pesticides, citizens whose government is corrupted by corporate lobbying
and campaign contributions, and humanity at large the future of which is
imperiled by global climate change.
Add to this, American workers who lose their jobs to outsourcing; victims of
“collateral damage” resulting from the fiduciary responsibility of
corporations to reduce labor costs and thus to increase profits and the
return on the investments of the stockholders.
Who Speaks for the “Stakeholders”?
Who else, but the government?
Many, and perhaps most, corporate executives, when confronted by the
economic and social devastation brought on by outsourcing, might reply:
“Yes, it’s horrible! But what can I do about it? If I insist on hiring
American workers at American wages, my firm will go broke or, before that
happens, the Board of Directors will fire me. I’m helpless!”
Sad to say, they are right.
Alternatively, one might bring together the CEOs of all the competitors, and
try to persuade them to agree not to outsource. Problem is, that might be
collusion, which is illegal. Or if not, there would be no sanctions against
violating the agreement, and enormous advantages would be gained by any
renegade firm that did so. It's a paradigm case of the tragedy of the
commons: that which is good for all is bad for each. Without the enforcement
of sanctions there is an irresistible temptation to defect from the
In any case, missing from that assembly would be delegates representing
those unconsenting but seriously affected third parties, the “stakeholders.”
Their claims against the corporations would exact costs that would adversely
affect “the bottom line:” profits and returns on investments. And the
corporations, by law, have that fiduciary responsibility to maximize the
Leave it to the unregulated free market, the profit motive, and fiduciary
responsibility, and the stakeholders, which is to say the general public, is
screwed. Given these conditions, there is no escape from this “remorseless
working of things.” It is a tragedy.
So the solution is compelling: abolish the conditions that bring about the
The stakeholders must be given a place at the table that determines
And there is one and only one institution qualified to represent the
stakeholding general public. That would be a representative government, such
as that established by the founders of our republic.
“To secure these rights, governments are established among men, deriving
their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
"We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union,
establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common
defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to
ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for
the United States of America."
How strange and sad it is that we have allowed the libertarian dogmas of
market fundamentalism, “the invisible hand” and “trickle down” to cause us
to forget the founding principles of our republic, and to forget the lessons
learned from a difficult history since that founding.
We’ve tried laissez faire capitalism, and each time it has failed all but a
very few wealthy and privileged individuals, and eventually those too when
the economy collapses.
We learned from the crash of 1929 and the depression that followed, that
corporate greed, unconstrained and unregulated, can lead to a ruined
economy. Then we recovered, not by abolishing capitalism, but by reforming
it and regulating it with agencies of government acting in behalf of "we the
people," i.e. the stakeholders.
Through tax incentives, tariffs, and other laws and regulations, the
government can end and reverse the outflow of jobs from the United States.
Goodness knows there's abundant work to be done within our borders. The
physical infrastructure of the U.S. is in an advanced state of decay, and
only government appropriations can repair it, with jobs that by their nature
can not be outsourced. Like it or not, the petroleum age is on its way out,
opening the necessity for the development and implementation of alternative
and sustainable energy sources. Here is a compelling opportunity to
re-establish our dismantled manufacturing base. And be assured that if we
don’t take the lead in ushering in the solar age, some other country will do
it and we will be left behind.
The lessons of history notwithstanding, we have tried market fundamentalism
and minimal government once again, and they are failing once again. The
United States of America is near bankruptcy, our currency is in decline, we
are massively in debt to our rivals, our manufacturing base has been
dismantled, and we are despised the world over.
“When you are in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.”
Time to stop digging and to start climbing out.
And so, at last, we arrive at a refutation of Ronald Reagan:
In fact, Government is the solution to our problems -- or at
least to many if not all of our problems. Still need
further argument? It's in the next essay.
Necessity of Government