Corporate “Power”

In this thread over at Reason’s Hit&Run, commenter Taktix asks:

Will someone please define exactly what “power” a corporation yields over me (eminent domain abuse doesn’t count, as it is power reserved for the government).
McDonald’s has never given me a speeding ticket, Coca-cola has never busted me smoking a joint, Microsoft has yet to throw me in jail for buying a Mac.
What is this corporate power? Advertising? If you’re so fucking dumb that you obey every advertisement you see, then I suppose it’s not difficult to believe that companies hold power over you!

I have always been fascinated by the idea that I should resent and fear a large corporation which can do nothing to me without my consent and active participation, while at the same time I should love and trust the government, an institution based wholly on forcing me to do things I do not wish to do.

Bill Gates (or the evil robber-baron du jour) cannot set one foot on my property without permission. Yet, the local dog catcher can enter my property, remove my beloved animals and sell them off, and I can do nothing about it without risking a violent confrontation with the near-infinite physical power of the state. Given this dichotomy, why should I fear the rich individual or the corporate entity more than the least government employee?

Corporations don’t present less of a threat than the state because the people in them are more inherently moral and trustworthy than people in government. Instead, corporations present less of a threat because we structure them to function in a voluntary, non-violent environment. It seems obvious that to build a better, safer world, we should concentrate on moving as many functions as possible into the realm of non-violence and reduce the functions we accomplish by threats of violence.

Now if you will excuse me. A SWAT team from McDonald’s just kicked in my front door because I no longer supersize.

8 thoughts on “Corporate “Power””

  1. I agree in principle. But McDonalds, Coke, and Microsoft are too easy as examples. Something that is likely to feel more like “corporate power” is the classic circa-1900 case:

    You are a farmer in a town served by a single railroad, which represents the only feasible way to get your crop to market. The nearest competitive railroad is 100 miles away, and the roads suck big-time.

    The railroad just increased its freight rates, and your profit margin just got pretty close to zero.

  2. I am unsure why you believe that a company or a corporation in fact has any “power” over you…what makes you believe that this is a charge held by others? There may be, however, a “power” when, say, the pharmaceutical industry control costs to using their products and you need the product and have no recourse to another source. I suspect you are making a counter claim where there was no claim to begin with.

  3. David Foster,

    You are a farmer in a town served by a single railroad, which represents the only feasible way to get your crop to market.

    I would argue that you’re mistaking a difficult choice i.e. a vast disparity between the consequences of each choice, for a lack of choice itself. Think of the problem this way: What did the farmer do before the railroad came to town? Is the farmer better off with the railroad than without even with the high price? The railroads great “crime” here lays in providing the farmer with more options than he had before the railroad existed.

    What has really happened is that the railroad provides such a major benefit in comparison to other options (of which there are many) that the farmer is unwilling to make the tradeoffs needed for any other choice. The negative consequences of paying the railroad are more tolerable than the negative consequences of any choice that does not use the railroad.

    It soon occurs to the farmer that he can get a better deal from the railroad by resorting to violence. He can either enact the violence himself or he can get State to do it for him. Either way, he gets a better deal at the expense of those who provided him a great benefit by creating, maintaining and running the railroad.

    The mental gymnastic involved in justifying economically motivated violence are interesting. We create vastly baroque rationalizations that boil down to, “I want something for less than the person who created it wishes to exchange it for.” This mind set basically takes us back to a time of conquest and oppression when military elites took from those who produced.

  4. Shannon,

    Before the railroad came, the farmer was very likely not there at all: for example, he might have been an immigrant attracted to the U.S. by railroad advertising about the availability of free land.
    Yes, he would have been better off researching alternative locations and the transportation options associated with them, but it is probably not realistic to expect a Swedish or German peasant to analyze, at a distance, the U.S. river and rail network.

    He is, in a certain sense, in the power of the railroad; however, he is still much better off than being in the unlimited power of the state. The railroad cannot keep him from moving, for instance; it can bankrupt him but cannot starve him to death. Stalin, on the other hand, could do both.

  5. David Foster,

    He is, in a certain sense, in the power of the railroad;

    The only thing a railroad can do is refuse to cooperate with him. That’s not power. If so, the farmer has the same “power” over the railroad. Obviously, the railroad needs the farmer as much as the farmer needs the railroad. If the railroad drives farmers into bankruptcy, then the railroad will fail. I don’t think there ever was a widespread problem of railroads or any other similar corporation driving their own customers out of business.

    I think farmers just found that in a democracy, a lot of farmers outweigh a few stockholders when it comes to voting on how the State employes violence. To justify their use of violence, they created a rational in which the actions of the railroad constituted a form of attack which justified a balancing. attack by the state.

  6. Government have a legal monopoly on the use of force. Corporations do not. This fact alone makes government inherently less trustworthy than corporations.

  7. The railroad example, as well as the drug company also cited above, are examples of the collectivist assertion that need trumps every other value, and justifies any behavior.

    If someone, or, in the case of a corporation, a group of someones operating cooperatively, develops a product or service which becomes a standard factor in our everyday life, suddenly that person or corporation loses a very real element of their right to the fruits of their own labor, and becomes subject to the claim that, because they are “needed”, others in society may now take control of and direct their activities.

    We see such arguments made on a regular basis about medical products and services, utilities, computer and other communication networks, and a number of other “essential” things that didn’t exist until someone created them, and now, because people want them, are judged indespensible, and, in some cases, even a matter of right.

    It is a form of the ethical inversion that collectivism uses to justify its aggression towards creative and productive individuals, and its coercive appropriation of their ideas and products in the name of “the common good”.

    I’m reading “Koba The Dread” by Martin Amis right now, about the bizarre excesses of the soviet state, so pardon me if the plea that “nasty corporations are too powerful”, and demands that we need the state to protect us fall a little flat as far as I’m conerned, even more than usual.

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