Whitewashing the bribers

David Boaz (whom I used to really admire - I have an autographed copy of Libertarianism) writes his latest essay advancing the old Cato Institute line that institutional analysis need only go so far as to frame up politicians, letting the other players in the politics itself go blameless:

People invest money to make money. In a free economy they invest in building homes and factories, inventing new products, finding oil, and other economic activities. That kind of investment benefits us all -- it's a positive-sum game, as economists say. People get rich by producing what other people want. But you can also invest in Washington. You can organize an interest group, or hire a lobbyist, and try to get some taxpayers' money routed to you. That's what the farm lobbies, AARP, industry associations, and teachers unions do. And that kind of investment is zero-sum -- money is taken from some people and given to others, but no new wealth is created. If you want to drill an oil well, you hire petroleum engineers. If you want to drill for money in Washington, you hire a lobbyist. And more people have been doing that.

And if you want to kill somebody, you hire a hitman. That doesn't make it ok that people hire them, just because the service is available for purchase. This apologism for the corporate influence in - nay, the perpetuation of - state capitalism is the very portrait of the vulgar libertarian approach. Selling influence is bad. But buying influence is mere economic survival. Politicians should be more principled, but businessmen looking for a buck can be forgiven for looking at the short term gains of rigging the game.

As I see it, the left libertarian approach balances the issue. The problem is indeed the centralized, all-powerful state; on that, I agree with Boaz. But he's only addressing the influence supply side - what about the demand for influence? Is this demand soley a function of undesired government regulation and meddling? Or does big business play a vital role in the continuation of the corporate welfare state? And if we seek to dismantle that state, how can we hope to ignore such a powerful factor in the equation?

Here's the truth of the matter: mega corporations derive their existence, power, and modus operandi from the government from the get-go. Government charters corporations and protects them from liability, subsidizes, allows de-facto cartelization, etc. Big business has sought not only to expand their influence of gov't, but to expand the power of that very state they are buying an interest in - using regulation to offset market mechanics, accquire sweetheart loans and bailouts, sieze private property through eminent domain, and otherwise manipulate this so-called free market. For every businessman who distastefully lobbies Congress there are at least 5 who see the dollar signs and are quite content to let our individual freedoms and pocketbooks take the hit.

Business is part of the problem. Corporations are quasi-states, using government to gobble up the market and returning the favor by funding the politicians who enable it. They've always been part of the political equation, from the Civil War at least. Boaz can talk about how the free market works, but in order to do that he needs to criticize both elements of the unfree market. If we are to achieve liberty for people - actual living, breathing, humans and not just the privileged corporations - we need to start analyzing the entire picture of our current political scene. If that exposes some ugly flaws in the supposed American dream, so be it.

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Written on Thursday, January 19, 2006