Liberty and Justice for All Markets

Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of MONEY?

The Bush administration is bogged down in bad news, scandals, and a newly-aggressive press corps. While I could write at length about the Plame Affair (scandals ending in -gate, mercifully, seem to be one of the casualties of this matter), it could be rewarding to look into the deeper issues that this presidency should have the mainstream asking about.

At the heart of nearly all questions about the Bush administration is the attitude they take about accountability. For all their claims to be from “the party of personal responsibility,” this White House seems to think its above such concerns. The hypocrisy is breathtaking, and highly unusual even in politics. Politicians, for all their power and influence, are ultimately held accountable in a democracy simply due to the fact that eventually, they have to win elections to stay in power.

Corporations are another matter entirely.

It could be argued that the entire purpose of the corporate structure in general, and the legal fiction of corporation-as-person in particular, is to protect the actual human beings in charge from responsibility for their actions. By blaming “the corporation” for malfeasance or incompetence, the individuals involved become mere cogs in a machine that has become temporarily faulty. Entirely aside from the dehumanizing effect of this philosophy, the inability of modern governments to do more than slap the wrist of a corporation as a whole means that neither the organization nor its members as individuals are discouraged from abusing their power. The culture that has resulted is one where hypocrisy is as natural as breathing, and spinning both fact and truth is not only legitimate, but expected. Worse, the primary check on corporate power — the rule of law — is eroded if not neutralized.

The parallel with our “MBA president” should be obvious. At present, however, the problem runs much deeper. We have a society that increasingly views corporate power as good, and any restriction of that power as bad. This view is no accident, as mega-business targets politicians with billions in campaign dollars and high-priced lobbyists while it spends billions more in advertising meant to lull the American people to sleep.

It was never meant to be this way.

Our Founding Fathers were extremely wary of the consolidation of power. They were very careful to define and place limits on the three branches of government, and ensure that each had some power to counter the political maneuvering of the other two. Preventing the federal government as a whole, and individual branches in particular, from accumulating too much power, is clearly and carefully written into the very foundation of American law.

What I was amazed to discover, upon researching this article, is that the power to control the excesses of business was in fact directly written into the constitution:

Article. I. Section. 8. Clause 3: [The Congress shall have Power] To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;

No mention of free markets. Not a word about abstract concepts having the rights of human beings. Neither capitalism nor corporations are mentioned; the word “business” only appears once, to refer to the business of the houses of Congress. What the Constitution does refer to is that much-reviled word, “regulation.” It is the job, indeed the duty, of Congress “to regulate commerce.”

And yet, aside from a stipulation that Congress cannot favor one state over another, no other mention of commerce is made. That is the crux of the problem, because Congress’ power to control the power of money has been severely restricted, both legally and culturally.

Perhaps the greatest problem is how the First Amendment has been twisted and violated in the service of corporate power. While there is a genuine danger in any restriction of freedom of speech (as we are learning even now), somehow the use of money to manipulate politics is being covered by the Bill of Rights. Bribery is described by its defenders as “freedom of speech.” And since corporations are legally people, they have rights.

This twisting of blatantly illegal activity into a defense of the “freedom of money” has resulted in a wide array of so-called rights that, were individuals to claim such “rights,” any sane person would find them outrageously laughable. Dumping you garbage in your neighbor’s yard would get you a visit from the police (if you’re lucky), but corporations can dump thousands of tons of carcinogens into the air with impunity. Pouring hazardous chemicals into a reservoir will probably get you labeled as a terrorist now — and with a fair amount of legitimacy. If you own a factory, however, and your waste just happens to run off into a river that just happens to flow into a reservoir, well, what right does the government have to interfere with your cost-cutting strategies? If you were to promise a government official hundreds of thousands of dollars to make sure that regulations are not enforced, or undermined as a whole, you’d be indicted before you could say “special prosecutor.” If you own a corporation, on the other hand, lo and behold, you can “lobby” those officials, then hire them after they “leave to join the private sector.”

This careful operation, designed to allow large businesses to completely avoid all the consequences of their actions, is thrown into sharp relief by the quest for “free markets.” What the large First World corporations mean by a global free market is the “freedom” to impose rules on — well, pretty much everyone, that give them the power to do pretty much anything they want in terms of labor laws, tariffs, and local regulations. What should be giving Republicans and conservatives fits (and is doing so to the honest ones; part of the Texas GOP platform is withdrawal from the WTO) is the precedent that an extra-national organization like the WTO can force sovereign nations to make, repeal, or change laws more or less at their whim.

This total inversion of how laws are supposed to relate to business is inexcusable. Ironically, no great changes to the Constitution are needed, no massive reforms have to be put into law, to rectify this injustice. All that America needs to do is reject the constant spin and deception and insist that Congress do its job. All that is required to end the violation of democracy by corporate money and power is to enforce the law equally. Unfortunately, that is the ultimate case of “easier said than done.”

(/) Roland X

[ed. note: image “lady_justice-and-money-170.gif” no longer available]

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