The Immortal Corporation, Part I

The Immortal Corporation is the title of the second chapter of Kevin D. Williamson’s new book, The End is Near and It’s Going to be Awesome, and that chapter is about, not corporations, but government.  It has been said that “Governments presumably will exist forever. People do not.”

Yes indeed, governments will presumably exist forever.  Just not the same ones.  But governments can last, unless they are very, very bad, for a very, very long time.

I ran across this image at Gerard Van der Leun’s American Digest:

 photo thelines.jpg
The asterisk denotes that some classical liberals did support public funding of education (like Thomas Jefferson) while others (like Frederick Bastiat) did not.  Following the link trail, I discovered that the original poster accompanied it with a quote from F.A. Hayek, author of The Road to Serfdom, from his essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative” (PDF):

Let me now state what seems to me the decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such. It is that by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing. The tug of war between conservatives and progressives can only affect the speed, not the direction, of contemporary developments.

And the evidence largely supports this.

And I would be fine with that, seeing as I’m not a conservative either, but I am a minarchist and I am not at all pleased with the direction of the path that we’re being dragged down and which is illustrated in that image above.  Rev. Donald Sensing wrote several years ago,

Big government is itself apolitical. It cares not whose party is in power. It simply continues to grow. Its nourishment is the people’s money. Its excrement is more and more regulations and laws. Like the Terminator, “that’s what it does, that’s all it does.”

And we’re seeing more and more evidence of the metastasizing growth of Big Government every day—NSA snooping into our telephone records, use of surveillance drones over American soil, Radley Balko’s coverage of the explosive growth of SWAT team raids (Seriously? The Department of Education has a SWAT team?), IRS harassment of “TEA Party” groups, and now a massive “Federal Data Hub” being implemented to go along with Obamacare, just for a short list.

That joke about ordering a pizza for delivery is no longer so goddamned funny.

Or so farfetched.

None of this began with the present administration—far from it—but the pace does seem to be accelerating exponentially.

On the topic of corporations, Kevin Williamson writes:

Twenty-first-century corporations are more like temporary associations of people and capital lucky to survive for a few decades, and, if present trends continue, the future corporation will be an even more ad hoc tissue of tenuous short-term relationships.

Given the power of branding and the impressive headquarters that corporations still sometimes inhabit, and American presidents’ habit of picking corporate executives for influential positions, it is easy to mistake familiar corporations for enduring, deeply structured enterprises.  The illusion of permanence that led to the building of the Chrysler Building is for the most part a thing of the past—which is why there are multibillion-dollar corporations that work out of rented space.

The corporate lifetime is shortening becaue the pace of social learning is accelerating.  More complex economic entities develop adaptive strategies more quickly.  We recognize our economic mistakes more quickly and develop alternatives in great number and at high speed.  Understood properly, bankruptcy and business failure are pedagogical tools: They are an important part of how individuals, businesses, and industries learn—and the global marketplace is an exercise in social learning.

Strange thing:  Nobody ever stopped to ask, “If there is no U.S. Steel, then where will we get steel?”

It seems paradoxical, but failure is what makes us rich.  (And we are, even in these troubled times, fabulously rich.) We’d all be a lot worse off if corporations such as U.S. Steel did in fact live forever.  Obvious counterexamples include Amtrak and the U.S. Postal Service, two institutions that would have failed long ago if not for government support—subsidies for Amtrak, the government-chartered monopoly on letter delivery for the postal service.  The cost of their corporate immortality is not only the waste associated with maintaining them, but the fact that their continued existence prevents the emergence of superior alternatives.  No death, no evolution.  A political establishment is a near-deathless thing:  Even after the bitter campaign of 2012, voters returned essentially the same cast of characters to Washington, virtually ensuring the continuation of the policies with which some 90 percent of voters pronounced themselves dissatisfied.

And now Detroit is trying to file for bankruptcy, but is being told by another entity of government that it can’t.

Williamson again:

In politics there is very little reason to grow less wrong, and sometimes good reason to grow more wrong. In aggregate, this leads to destructive policy choices. This is a structural defect inherent in the political model of decision making. Substituting one political philosophy for another will not eliminate the underlying problem. The problem of politics is, for the most part, not that politics is full of bad people or stupid people; the shocking truth is that politics is full of intelligent, well-meaning people. Often they do things the know are not the best or smartest move, and usually it is in the belief that by tolerating smaller wrongs they may serve a greater good. When this produces an outcome the public likes, that is called compromise; otherwise it is called hypocrisy, but it is difficult to tell the difference at the margins, and the shamefacedness with which politicians sometimes go about such business is probably a good sign.

Politics suffers from an insurmountable information deficit, resulting in an inability to plan. It suffers from problems associated with the self-interest of politicians and political institutions. Both of these are made much more acute by the fact that politics has for centuries successfully insulated itself from competitive and innovative forces that produce gradual (and sometimes radical) evolutionary change in other social institutions. Each of these problems is a direct consequence of the fact that politics is, as noted, a monopoly.

But a monopoly on what?

I’ll let Bethesda, Maryland resident Ernest McGill answer that question.  From a letter he submitted to the New England Journal of Medicine (rejected), and the American Medical Association (ditto):

The monopoly on the exercise of armed force, separated from simple gun ownership, defines sovereignty. Government is the administrative apparatus of sovereignty.

Or as Kevin Williamson puts it, “Politics is Violence,” and therefore government is a monopoly on violence.  It’s called legitimate violence, but a monopoly nonetheless.

Now that expansion in SWAT raids seems a little more logical, doesn’t it?

(To be continued….)

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