A giant, ominous, sensationalizing headline on Drudge (shocking, I know) inadvertently punches a few well-deserved holes in a few long-running but fallacious/deflective narratives. For that, we might actually thank the repressive Saudis, who forced Netflix to discontinue offering a particular episode of a comedy program in that country.

Pay attention to both current political rhetoric from the Left (and especially the likes of Elizabeth Warren) and to a mountain of offerings from the various genres of science fiction, and you’ll find deep and dire warnings of how both the present and the future are about all-powerful, unaccountable, unrestrainable multinational corporations. Warren’s recent hat-in-the-ring declaration regarding the 2020 presidency is awash in “we must rein in the corporations” hyperbole. The Democratic Socialist party platform wants to do away with corporate ownership of business entirely (to be replaced by cooperatives (ha!) and government ownership). Science fiction “corporate dystopias,” such as Blade Runner, Rollerball, Neuromancer, and Ready Player One, to name but a handful, are popular in no small part because their premise is believable. After all, the term “multinational” suggests that these big corporations are “greater” than any one nation, and thus exist above and apart from the popular will of representative governments.

While there’s a grain of truth to be found in that idea (consider how companies “shop around” for tax havens), the fact is that these companies, rather than dodging nations’ laws and mandates, must comply with many nations’ laws and mandates, as the Netflix-Saudi hullaballoo demonstrates. We may be incensed by Google’s bowing to Chinese censorship, but we should learn from the fact of that that China, not Google, decides what goes on within her borders.

Ditto for Saudi Arabia in this case. While we may clamor for Netflix to stand up to censorship, and we may vote with our dollars in response to any large company’s behavior, the real power rests with governments, not major multinational corporations. The latter may have lots of money, and use that money to exert influence, but the former has the coercive power. And the durability/longevity.

To wit, consider the Fortune 500 list, first formed in 1955. Of those original 500, only 60 remain on the list today. In this century (i.e. the Y2K list vs today), more than half have gone bankrupt, been acquired, or merged out of existence. In 2015, more than half of the Fortune 500 companies failed to make a profit. Apple, the world’s most valuable company as of 3 months ago, has since lost fully a third of its market value. The free market’s “adapt or perish” mantra remains as strong as ever. Monster companies like Blockbuster, Kodak, AOL, and Sears are now irrelevances or completely consigned to the dustbin of history, and the world has gotten on just fine without them.

Governments, on the other hand, persist, no matter their failings. It takes either true catastrophe or violent outside intervention to unseat a government. Moreso, barring such catastrophe, they grow. And grow. And grow some more. When governments shrink, a very rare event, it’s more often due to a maverick leader and impulse briefly overwhelming that endless march as to an enduring reversal.

The movie Rollerball (the 1975 James Caan/John Houseman version, not the atrocious remake), posited a world run benignly by six corporations (Transport, Food, Communications, Housing, Luxury, and Energy), where a violent game was used to both distract the populace and teach the futility of individuality. Today’s realities and trends speak, however, of a future where governments, not corporations, work to distract the populace and teach the futility of individuality. There’s nothing to suggest a corporatocratic future, other than perhaps the unholy marriage between government and business dubbed “cronyism.” But, even there, who retains the power? The corporate cronies behave as they do because it helps their bottom line, but it is abundantly clear (demonstrated most recently by Presidents Obama and Trump) that cronyist corporate power exists only insofar as government abides that existence.

What, though, of corporate behavior? Should we demand or expect that they stand up for rights and liberty? “We” can do whatever we want (within the law, of course) in terms of expectations and individual reaction. If “we” don’t like a company’s activities, or a company’s specific action, “we” can complain about it, either directly to the company or in some public forum where a representative might see it. “We” might choose to stop doing business with the company, either quietly or alongside an explanation. All this falls within the normal course of business and interaction, and a company’s managers must weigh their decisions against the results, consequences, feedback, etc that those decisions produce. This is basic free-market economics, and it’s how a society collectively coaxes behaviors it prefers and discourages behaviors it doesn’t.

What we should not demand is that government intercede in legal but perhaps unpopular actions (or, more selfishly, actions that we may not like but that most of the public doesn’t care about). The First Amendment does not apply to the private sector, nor does it apply to multinational corporations. We, individually, can react to a censorious action, but we have neither basis nor standing to demand a coercive or punitive response from the government. I, personally, subscribe to the Friedman theory that corporations are responsible solely to their shareholders. Adapting to public wants and feedback lies well within that theory.

But, even those who disagree, who believe that corporations have some “social responsibility” that should be enforced by government, should acknowledge the reality that the real power rests with the politicians, not the CEOs.

Corporations come and go, benignly. The once-mighty often evaporate, and even those that dominate at some point don’t hold that dominion forever. Governments, on the other hand, are mightily stubborn and intransigent, and outlast anything the private sector can offer. If you fear a future of unaccountable corporate dominance, your fears are misplaced. The true danger is from big governments.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.


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