Duke University political scientist Mike Munger recently made the following claim over at his fun blog KPC:
1. The left needs to admit that the state=coercion, which can metastasize into violence, and does so metastasize.
2. Libertarians need to admit that Karl Marx was right about concentrated corporate power. It’s every bit as dangerous, and in fact in most important ways it’s no different from, the worst aspects of the state. So, ipso facto, concentrated corporate power=coercion (see above about metastasis).
Sure, it is easy for someone – left, right, or center – to agree that the state = coercion. Heck, anyone who has read Max Weber (“Arguably the foremost social theorist of the twentieth century” according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), taken a PoliSci 101 course, or been on the wrong side of the IRS or local law enforcement can understand that the “state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”* In other words, it is, as Weber understood, an institution of violence and domination. Therefore it doesn’t “metastasize into violence” – it is the embodiment of purposeful violence by definition.
I don’t think the (educated) left disagrees with this definition as much as it thinks that a state can use this violence justly to achieve certain ends. Of course, ideally state force would only occur via a process that is roughly democratic (though this is not necessarily the case as witnessed by the left’s approval of using courts to achieve social justice regardless of the views of the demos and a lot of recent EU history in which elites move forward with plans despite a vast democratic deficit). And I for one have a hard time disagreeing with them that state violence can be justified for certain just ends (we just disagree on those ends) given that I’m not an anarchist. Moreover, I don’t have a problem with the process being insulated in part from the people since I too fear the dangers of democratic rule (or at least of too much democracy).
However, the most problematic part of Munger’s claim is the second part. I’m certainly willing to admit as a libertarian that concentrated corporate power can be dangerous. However, I hardly think logic or history can support his argument that “It’s every bit as dangerous, and in fact in most important ways it’s no different from, the worst aspects of the state.” Really?
One doesn’t even need to use a sort of reductio ad Hitlerum to conclude that states have killed, maimed, robbed, and otherwise violated the human rights of far more individuals than large corporations (especially when one factors in only intentional rather than accidental harms like the Bhopal disaster**). Moreover, corporations in even a constrained market are likely to face competition that keeps their size and power limited. And if they could grow in size, scope, and power to rival small states, one would imagine the hand of monopoly grants by a larger state behind it! But large states wouldn’t allow their own power to be rivaled by such corporations. As Bruce Bueno de Mesquita points out in “The Dictator’s Handbook,” companies like Yukos were decimated by the state when they and their bosses got too rich and powerful.
So the real danger from corporations is when they are tied to state power a la corporatism. Absent this tie, corporations have very limited power and certainly far from the coercive power Munger claims. Without the state initiating force on their behalf, concentrated corporate power isn’t “coercion” by any common definition of that term. Coercion is the use or threat of unwanted physical violence by one person or legal entity against another. Can any other definition actually be honestly sustained, especially for use within a libertarian framework?
Concentrated corporate power may lead to unjust use of power – that’s something we can actually debate – but it is an abuse of the English language to say it is “coercion.”
* Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation.”
** If Wikipedia is to be believed, the state was also involved in that tragedy to some extent given the Indian government owned almost half the company!
HT: Jason Sorens