Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Comment rescue: Levers in a democracy and corporate statism

This statement of mine, in a post on health care, roused some interesting comments from readers:

...the truth is that we have, as citizens, far more levers to use against the government than we have to use against the corporations, at least with respect to this one issue [health care].


Bowly, a regular libertarian reader, responds:

That's a bold claim. And even if true, the corporations have access to the same levers. That's why I'm not sure that "something" is better than "nothing", on this issue or any other.

And Dana Garrett, from the progressive end of the spectrum weighs in:

I know you want to confine it to this one issue, but I think this insight applies in far more matters. It's good to have a healthy suspicion of government, but in a democracy it's smarter to be more suspicious about constellations of private power where there is no shred of democratic control (unlike a government).


Both good points, and each deserving an answer.

Dana first, because I have to address the relative unique nature of health care. Thanks to government regulation [which is in itself affected by industry lobbying] I have far fewer levers available to me to affect a CIGNA or an AETNA than I do to affect the behavior of, say General Motors or GEICO.

I can, in colloboration with other citizens, drive GM to the brink of bankruptcy simply by not patronizing the company's product.

I can, in colloboration with other citizens, threaten to boycott GEICO for advertising in support of media programs I might dislike [as Glenn Beck has found out recently].

Why can I do this? Because in both of those cases I have easy access to competitor's products, which is manifestly not the case with health insurance. There, at best, thanks to prohibitions on inter-State competition, I only have access to two, maybe three competitors, and artificially created markets in which one company holds well over 50-70% of market share. Not because it has the better product, but because it has the benefit of government regulation enforcing a near-monopoly situation.

So I think it is justifiable to claim that I have far fewer levers to use as a citizen against a health care corporation than in most other cases [there may be some comparable cases; I just cannot think of them right now, which suggests their rarity].

Now back to Bowly. Granting you that the original statement was poorly written [I should not have said at least in the case of health care, but should have specified in the case of health care], I think it is defensible.

In States where there is initiative and referendum I can band together with other citizens and actually do my own legislating.

I can actively campaign, not just to throw any particular bum out, but to ruin that bum's effectiveness in office by denying him public legitimacy through the use of the press, new media, etc.

I can work to pit different levels of the government against each other: local, State, and Federal.

I can monkeywrench the government in a variety of legal, quasi-legal, and even marginally illegal ways.

It is difficult to argue, on a national scale, that elections have not turned the country's political direction in dramatic fashion, far more dramatically that we can affect corporate operations:

From a conservative perspective, Reagan in 1980 and the 1994 GOP takeover represented citizens wrenching the course of government into another direction, as did the re-election of LBJ (empowering the voting rights, civil rights, and the Great Society) from a liberal perspective--not to mention the huge ideological reversal in the government's behavior with Obama's election.

Government, far more than corporations, tends to reflect the often-capricious will of the voters.

Unfortunately, the voters, individual American citizens whose liberties I would like to preserve, tend to have the foresight of gnats, the corruptability of tax collectors, and the consistency of patients in a dementia ward.

Final note for both of you: the rise of strong multi-national corporations with economic, political, and even military power to rival small nations has even more dramatically changed this equation. At the point where we have corporate entities with state-like concentrations of power, you can no longer build any argument based exclusively on conditions that pertain within the United States alone.

1 comment:

Bowly said...

I understand better the points you were trying to make. Still not sure I agree; I need to digest a bit. I will throw some counterpoints and/or random thoughts out there though, because I'm not sure when I'll be able to get back to this.

Why can I do this? Because in both of those cases I have easy access to competitor's products, which is manifestly not the case with health insurance. There, at best, thanks to prohibitions on inter-State competition, I only have access to two, maybe three competitors, and artificially created markets in which one company holds well over 50-70% of market share. Not because it has the better product, but because it has the benefit of government regulation enforcing a near-monopoly situation.

So I think it is justifiable to claim that I have far fewer levers to use as a citizen against a health care corporation than in most other cases [there may be some comparable cases; I just cannot think of them right now, which suggests their rarity].


You say that, but exactly how much good have those levers done you in reality? None. The lack of choice is still there, and was created by the government, not the corporations (by your own admission). That's my point. It should also be noted that the reason you can use the government to address your grievance is because the government created the grievance in the first place. I wouldn't blame MBNA if the stoplight outside their HQ was malfunctioning.

It is difficult to argue, on a national scale, that elections have not turned the country's political direction in dramatic fashion, far more dramatically that we can affect corporate operations...

Ahh, but that's not the claim you made the first time around. You said that you had access. Voters as a group might change things, but individual voters don't. If you want something changed, you have to hope 50 million other people feel the same way, and then hope they actually make the change in office. (What would really be different right now if Kennedy hadn't died, or if Goldwater had won, or if Carter had been re-elected? My guess is not much. The same changes would have occurred, just in a different year; long-term effects would have been the same. I'm sure that's cold comfort to a black man in Alabama in 1964, but my point is that long-term change was inevitable regardless of election results.)

...the rise of strong multi-national corporations with economic, political, and even military power to rival small nations has even more dramatically changed this equation.

1) Which corporations, and (especially) which small nations? I don't sit around at night and chew my nails worrying about Belgium or Vietnam. Hell, Vietnam was considered our enemy within my lifetime, and now I'm trying to get a job there. And I wouldn't consider North Korea to be militarily small.

2) It doesn't really matter, because as soon as these corporations contradict the interests of the US Government, they'll go the way of Saddam Hussein, apartheid, and one-party rule in Taiwan.