About November 2008
This issue tackles a grave misconception: the idea that corporations and markets are synonymous, and that what’s good for the one is good for the other.
Astute economists have noted that far too often, corporations act to restrict the free operation of the market. Corporations that have become successful in a free or quasi-free market don’t like to face competition any more than any other entity, and their success gives them the resources, unfortunately, to stifle would-be competitors. In these cases, corporations and governments can often find themselves in an unholy alliance against consumers, other firms, and liberty itself: corporatism, in other words — a system that seems to value corporations as an end in themselves.
And after that — what’s an advocate of the free market to do?
In this month’s lead essay, philosopher and libertarian theorist Roderick Long examines the often tangled relationship between governments, corporations, and those who argue both for and against laissez-faire capitalism. Is a truly libertarian politics possible? Or do libertarians always run the risk — despite their best intentions — of sounding like, or acting like, apologists for an alliance between the state and corporations?
In the rest of the issue, we will hear from three authors with different takes on corporatism and its relationship to free-market advocacy. Political analyst Matthew Yglesias has expressed skepticism about libertarian and free-market advocacy in the past, owing to corporate entanglements. Economist Steven Horwitz has argued that many of our current economic troubles owe precisely to corporate entanglements with the state, and has urged liberals and libertarians to recognize the many potential points of agreement they might find on these issues. And economist Dean Baker has criticized what he refers to as the “conservative nanny state,” or the ways in which the wealthy use their resources to harness government power to their own advantage. Be sure to stop by through the week as our contributors debate these very important issues for the future of a free economy.
In this month’s lead essay, philosopher and libertarian theorist Roderick T. Long draws a sharp contrast between corporatism and libertarianism properly understood. He argues that liberals, conservatives, and even libertarians have all been guilty to some degree of obscuring this difference, and that the quality of our political discourse has suffered accordingly. He suggests that libertarians should guard themselves against falling into the trap of “vulgar libertarianism,” in which all things good spring from business, and particularly from business as usual. Corporations, he argues, should be no more free from scrutiny than any other institution in society, and often businesses have done more than their share to hamper free economic relations in the industrialized world.
One implication of all of this is that the truly free market is farther away than we imagine. Long suggests several ways in which a freed market would be different from what we see around us today. Notably, nearly all of these differences are to the benefit of the consumer and the small or start-up business. These likely outcomes of laissez faire suggest new grounds for left-liberals and libertarians to revise their thinking on economic issues and on politics more generally.
In his response to Long, Matthew Yglesias argues that although corporations naturally seek to win special privileges from the state, libertarianism is far from the obvious solution to the problem. Instead, he reiterates the charge that libertarians often act as corporate apologists and suggests that the net effect of any “free market” advocacy will tend strongly toward corporate power. Liberals may have much to learn from libertarians on certain issues and in some policy areas, but the laissez-faire solution to corporate political influence is unworkable.
Steven Horwitz offers several examples of so-called “de-regulation” that only served to benefit corporations, while leaving the government, and therefore the taxpayers, to shoulder the risks of the market. He argues that market competition is a form of regulation, albeit a kind worth wanting, as it forces corporations to respond to consumer demand and punishes them when they fail to meet it. He takes issue with Long’s lead essay by arguing that “playing defense,” that is, defending today’s corporations when they act consonantly with a fully freed market, is a valuable part of libertarian advocacy. One must nonetheless take issue with these same corporations when they violate the principles of laissez faire and distinguish carefully between these cases.
In his response essay, Dean Baker declines to tally up a “score” of how well libertarians, or other groups, have defended a truly impartial, laissez faire economy. Instead, he suggests intellectual property as an obvious area where libertarians must challenge corporate power to distort the market. Patents that make health care more expensive and copyrights that artificially restrict whole areas of our culture are obviously concessions to corporatism, and the “extraordinary abuses” undertaken to enforce these privileges should be vigorously challenged. Although libertarianism has been skeptical of both patents and copyrights, Baker suggests that this is an area deserving still further attention, and one in which liberals could perhaps become solid allies.
The discussion this month has focused to a greater than usual degree on the activities of certain Cato Institute policy scholars. The editors thought it appropriate to solicit responses, and we present them here in their entirety.
Related at Cato
» Article: The New Role and Politics of State Regulation (pdf), by Paul Teske
» Book: Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution, by Michael D. Tanner
» Policy Analysis: Medical Licensing: An Obstacle to Affordable, Quality Care, by Shirley Svorny
» Article: The Future of Copyright, by Rasmus Fleischer