13 February 2010

Power's More Acceptable Abusers

I don't know what degree of anguish (or relief?) may have accompanied the deliberations of the four judges who voted the majority ruling in Citizens United vs FEC. I do know there's been a good deal of anxiety, in some circles, over the potential powerlessness of private corporations - the danger of their political voice being drowned out in the public arena. All I can hope is that, among the judges themselves, such worry was accompanied by a similar degree of concern over the very real power of corporations, and not least in the public arena. And that no judge's decision - not even Sam Alito's - was made easily.

Nowadays, of course, mainstream American society tends to be most vigilant against governmental abuses of power. And with what good reason God knows. Elected officials' accountability to voters has never been much of an insurance against contempt of those same voters, and collusion with others - even (but who could have imagined it?) with private corporations! - at the expense of voters' stated wishes and interests. In the same way, neither does accountability to customers always insure against contempt for one's clientele - else there would be very little of what we know in the world as fraud, poor service, shoddy workmanship, and grossly risky and irresponsible management of clients' funds and investments. Let's face it: Even good honest success in business is no guarantee of respect or consideration for those who, in one way or another, have come to depend on your success. Like those who work for you, for instance - or those who buy from you. In short, much like politicians, even merchants and manufacturers are not perfect - or even, sometimes, all that patient, kind, or humble a group of people, as proverbial wisdom and Adam Smith both attest. Even businesspeople can get swollen heads, and begin to lust not just for riches well within their own sphere, but for power well beyond it. Or just as likely, start believing their honest success and productivity entitle them to a proportionately greater share of political influence than other members of society, whose own work however useful may be less measurably productive. Hence, again, the need for competition - and even among those (hopefully various) interests who control our news and political media.

And so I pray at the very least it's highly plausible - both to the US Supreme Court and to all of us - that economic organizations no less than political institutions are susceptible to the temptations of Power. And possibly also much better at defending, and rationalizing, their own succumbing to those temptations. Again, nobody's perfect, right? And whose imperfections ought to be easier to excuse, and overlook, than those of the folks upon whose productivity we all depend? I mean, whatever vices they may have, didn't they work hard to get where they are? If they don't have a right to throw their weight around now and then (and that's just human nature, remember?), who does?

Even now I wonder if the real debate between today's global Right and Left concerns not the intrinsic right of organizations to control and circumscribe the lives of individual citizens, but whether certain organizations - namely, political ones - have properly earned that right. After all, it may be argued, what does any mere political entity do to enhance a society's wealth creation, or to improve its productivity? On the other hand,

"What institution has done more than wealth-creating corporations to earn the right to full participation, coequal with individual citizens, in the political process? And if so, why shouldn't be they be guaranteed the right to vote? And why shouldn't that vote be fully proportionate to the full weight of the contributions of these organizations, upon which everything else in society so obviously depends?"

Does that question seem totally unthinkable even now? And will it seem equally unthinkable twenty years from now?

"Oh yeah, right," jeers the fast-on-the-draw wiseacre, of a sort we might find frequenting some of Alice's madder tea parties out there. "And what of it? What's the worst even the most powerful global corporations could do to abridge or constrain the rights of individual citizens?"

For starters, let me say that even now that is an entirely open question. And, frankly, I think one day we'll all be amazed at what plucky, enterprising global corporations can do - yes, even with political power - with their hands firmly at the reins of the right governments.

No comments:

Post a Comment