It’s Not Corporations Taking Away Your Freedom

Am I wrong, or is it a common idea in the left these days that corporations are a threat to our freedom? For example here’s a quote from the opening paragraph on Bernie Sanders’ campaign web site (emphasis is mine):

In America today, corporate greed and corruption is destroying the social and economic fabric of our society, where a small group of ultra-wealthy CEOs are making the decisions that increasingly determine our economic, environmental and political future.

Here’s Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, quoted in an article in Newsweek magazine: “we should be scared…corporations have taken over our government”.

My sense is that Senator Sanders and Representative Ocasio-Cortez have it backwards. It’s the state we need to be afraid of. Remember your history. The two founding documents of our republic are the Constitution and Declaration of Independence: the Declaration was a rejection of monarchy; the main goal of the Constitution was to fashion a robust government while at the same time limiting its power. (Note the Bill of Rights plus Article Ten.)

Were the Founding Fathers wrong in their mistrust of strong government? I trust them over Sen. Sanders and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, any day. Note that the Founding Fathers were certainly aware of the influence big corporations exert over government: the East India Company had been around since 1600, the Muscovy Company since 1555.

Strong, Centralized Government = Misery

Look at three examples of states that are famously all-in on state control, from top to bottom: Cuba, Venezuela, and China. Do you see a pattern? Do you want to see the numbers on these three states? The ‘2019 World Press Freedom Index’ is published by Reporters Without Borders and “ranks 180 countries and regions according to the level of freedom available to journalists”. Here are the rankings for Cuba, Venezuela, and China:

  • Venezuela 148
  • Cuba 169
  • China 177

(Turkmenistan comes in last at 180. The US comes between Romania and Senegal at 48.)

The 2019 Index of Economic Freedom is published by The Heritage Foundation and measures “the principles of economic freedom”. Once again, 180 states are tracked. North Korea comes last, the US is between Iceland and Netherlands at 12. Here are the rankings for Cuba, Venezuela, and China:

  • China is 100
  • Cuba 178
  • Venezuela 179

I can’t think of any example of corporations taking over a government, while there are many examples of strong central governments (as above) abusing and impoverishing their citizens.

It may useful to consider motivations. Here’s what I think motivates the four actors I’m considering in this article:

  • The political right: desires freedom and prosperity
  • The political left: desires social justice and equality
  • Government: desires stability and authority
  • Corporations: desire money (greed!)

Why would anyone accuse corporations of taking (or wanting) control of the government? My sense is that Adam Neumann and Elon Musk have their hands full with their own personal concerns, and have little interest in issues like health care, abortion, and gun control, with this caveat: to the extent the issue at hand has no impact on their firms. And what could be more reasonable? Pure self-interest. Any stockholder in those companies will rightly accuse a CEO of malfeasance if they do not focus on the interests of their firms.

Why would the political left accuse corporations of exercising malign control over our government? I welcome the readers to pitch in with comments.

The Bottom Line
Cuba, Venezuela, and China. The effect of expanding government is to give government more, bigger, and better tools to oppress citizens.

Are we missing the problem?

The problem isn’t Donald Trump. The problem wasn’t Barack Obama or George Bush. Our problem today isn’t divisiveness, white nationalism, or economic inequality. The problem is poor leadership, and the problem lying behind this is the process we use to choose our leaders.

Have you noticed that Donald Trump is no George Washington? Did you notice that Barack Obama was not up to the standard of John Adams? Do you think Bush #43 could go head-to-head with Thomas Jefferson?

The population of the 13 colonies in 1775 was 2.4 million. The current US population is 329 million. Our population today is 137 times larger than in 1775. We have a much larger talent pool from which we select our leaders. So why are things going downhill?

Compare the quality of our political leadership then, and now. Think of the literary and political genius behind the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution. Think of the military brilliance that won our independence, and the political brilliance needed to preserve it in the years from independence through the War of 1812. Compare that to the quality of our leadership over the previous four or five presidential administrations.

The difference between then and now is subjective, but I can leverage someone else’s work to put a number on it. Find a ranking of all the US presidents through Obama, then compare the rankings for the first five and the most recent five. A ranking is available here courtesy of, and below I show their rankings for the first five presidents and last (most recent) five presidents:

The first five

  • George Washington, 2
  • John Adams, 19
  • Thomas Jefferson, 7
  • James Madison 17
  • James Monroe 13

The last five

  • Ronald Reagan 9
  • George H.W. Bush, 20
  • Bill Clinton, 15
  • George W. Bush 33
  • Barack Obama 12

Add the rankings. The rankings of the first five sums to 58, the most recent five sum to 89. Yes it’s silly…so do your own comparison. How much better do you think that first group was, compared to what we have now? In summary, with a much smaller population back then, we found much better political leaders.

Why? I don’t care. How do we fix it? I surveyed the Web and as you might expect there’s lots of whining about the problem but fairly little on offer for solutions.

The academic business journal Harvard Business Review offers some non-specific and pretty tame suggestions. The Huffington Post and Atlantic magazine both offered some general and pretty partisan suggestions.

Back in 1991 DePauw University sponsored a conference focusing on political competitiveness that ended by offering ten specific suggestions for reform of the political process. My guess is that numbers 6, 7, and 10 would require amendments to the Constitution, making them non-starters, but good ideas regardless.

In 2014 the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank, published their own list of “10 key ideas to fix the electoral process, return Congress to legislating and enhance public service”. This list shows more familiarity with the ins and outs of the US government, and I like it the most of the ones I found.

The one suggestion I’ll offer in addition is to change the candidate debates. The current format is like a competitive press conference. It’s too easy for candidates to skate through without being challenged. Too little substantive argument. Not revealing at all. I’d like to see something more like an actual debate, either Oxford-style debating; or something like the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Bottom Line
We have strong institutions but that’s not enough to replace bad leadership. Look at the current campaign and tell me we’ll get good leadership from ANY of the top five current candidates (Trump, Biden, Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg).
We’re in trouble. I assume the leaders are out there, so if we’re not finding them we’re doing something wrong. The process should be changed to find and put forward the best leaders available in a population 137 times larger than in 1775.