Monday, 22 September 2014

On the nature of liberty: people versus things

Through much of the twentieth century, there were two competing theories of liberty.

One, the socialist view, is that capital is fundamentally evil and the state should run society at all levels.

The other, the libertarian view, is that state power is fundamentally evil and private enterprise should run society at all levels.

The fundamental flaw in the socialist view is that a monopoly of power leads to abuse, and that concentrating all power in the state makes such abuse inevitable.

The fundamental flaw in libertarian thought is the failure to recognize that any organization with the capacity to overwhelm the individual is a threat to liberty.

We leave aside the issues of economic merit – that is a subject worthy of fuller discussion. The only point I touch on here is that monopolies are inevitable in a system without constraints on the power of business, because business has the power to influence politics. There is therefore no such thing as a pure market economy: even if you start out with one, as soon as any business or consortium of businesses have the power to influence government and hence economic policy, they have an interest in subverting a free market to their ends.

Niger Delta pollution (source: EnviroNews Nigeria)
The major point I make here is that big business can be every bit as damaging to the individual as government, possibly more so, since a multinational has a cross-border reach. Consider for example massive pollution by the oil industry, which uses excessive profits in countries with weak regulation to help pay costs where they are called to account in more regulated countries. Ask someone in the Niger Delta if they would prefer a stronger more accountable government over unfettered rights of big multinationals.

If we therefore hold liberty of the individual to be the starting point of any rights discourse, we need to include in that discourse limiting the scope of business. And that leads to a fundamental that contradicts a substantial part of the rights logic in the US, where business has a virtually unlimited capacity to interfere in politics. Despite the concept in law of a legal person, a business is not, and should not be, treated as a person as regards rights. A business only has rights to the extent that those who control it and those controlled by it have rights. So it is ridiculous to argue freedom of speech in curtailing the right of business to make unlimited political donations.

In a world where businesses are accorded rights, individuals cease to matter except to the extent that they promote the interests of business, an inversion of any reasonable concept of rights. Unconstrained big business is therefore as much an undesirable outcome as unconstrained government.

Libertarians, particularly, the US kind, commonly make the mistake of seeing big government as the one and only enemy, totally neglecting the potential for harm by big business.

We need not choose between two evils: if we understand both as undesired outcomes, we can avoid both.

A business is not a person, it is a thing. Once we accord it rights, we damage the rights of real people.