Big corporations present much bigger problems

August 06, 2010|By ALLAN POWELL

A favorite myth by anti-government enthusiasts is the continuous and monotonous chorus that "Government is not the solution to the problem - it is the problem." The originator of this myth was former President Ronald Reagan and time has elevated this clich to the level of divine revelation. But there is a problem: It flies in the face of our national experience.

Admittedly, there is ample evidence from world history that cruel repressive and authoritarian regimes have existed and still exist. But overall, our government has a benign record. The few cases to the contrary are openly recognized and are regarded as regrettable aberrations.

The inclusion of protected slave labor in our basic document, the tolerance of several forms of discrimination, the forcible revocation of the civil rights of Japanese/American citizens, and the brutality to Native Americans are known and deplored transgressions. In time, we will admit that our wars of choice were also national abuses of power.


The stubborn unwillingness of the anti-government proponents to recognize that the really big catastrophes that we have experienced are the work of huge private aggregates of power is a case of willful disregard of the facts. Deregulation and lax enforcement of existing regulations have permitted huge risks that proved to be ruinous to human safety and the environment.

Many failures of our business cycles can be traced to the excesses of business and financial organizations. The Great Depression and the great recession can both be seen as the direct consequence of irresponsible behavior of private interests.

In addition, the increasing number of environmental disasters by shipping, mining, nuclear, and oil drilling corporations are not failures of government: They are failures of private firms. There are no horror stories to report about the many huge dam projects of the TVA. There are no ugly accounts about federal road projects - none about the huge Manhattan Project and none about the U.S. Postal Service.

The problem of bigness in corporate operations resurfaces every time there is a breakdown or a disaster. When these crises are over, public pressure declines and we have "business as usual." Perhaps this latest oil spill - because of the magnitude of this case - will force Congress to take realistic action. The sheer number of persons and the expanse of territory ravaged will demand proper protection.

There is even the possibility that we might move beyond the usual simplistic solution of more regulation. It became evident during the latest financial crisis that we had reached the unacceptable condition tagged as "too big to fail." How odd it was to end up rewarding the very culprits who were responsible for the meltdown.

Congress has created a patchwork remedy for the financial problems that brought on the collapse. We must hope that the system has more security and stability for commerce. They need, however, to take a more forward stride by treating large (and socially vital) businesses as public utilities. We have, for a long time, considered several social needs as of such importance to society that a more direct and immediate form of management was required. We called these entities public utilities.

Just as we can no longer permit the "too big to fail" situation to go on, we cannot permit whole regions of our environment to be spoiled and, with it, the loss of livelihood to whole communities. This more active role of the public utility form of management will give a more adequate means to diminish the massive disasters experienced by big corporations.

In the end it must be recognized that both the state and corporations must be monitored thoughtfully. Both forms of power abhor a vacuum and will encroach relentlessly if permitted. If we have any hope of preserving our democratic values, the state and the corporation must be our servants - not our masters.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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