Politicians and talking heads, of both the mainstream liberal and conservative persuasions, commonly refer to this as “our free market system,” or maybe “free enterprise.”
But we haven’t had anything even remotely resembling a free market for over 150 years. (For that matter we didn’t have one before, what with Enclosures, the Combination Law, mercantilism, slavery and colonialism.) Since the mid-19th century, what we’ve had is massive collusion between big government and big business. The corporate economy was created almost whole-cloth through a monstrous act of top-down government intervention, with the help of such things as the railroad land grants and other infrastructure subsidies, the exchange and pooling of patents, tariffs, regulatory cartels, and union-busting by uniformed thugs. The New Deal was just corporatist icing on the cake.
What we have is not a free enterprise system, but an interlocking directorate of giant, centralized government and corporate bureaucracies. The same personnel circulate, through a revolving door system, between senior corporate management and government political appointees. The same person who is now Assistant Vice President for Such-and-Such at So-and-So Corp LLC, is apt in five years to be Deputy Undersecretary for the Other Thing. And vice versa, of course. It makes about as much sense to treat a Fortune 500 corporation as a “private business” as it makes to treat a count in fourteenth-century France as a private landlord.
Within the large corporation, management bears more resemblance to the Soviet Nomenklatura than to free market entrepreneurs. They justify their power in the name of shareholder value, but in fact shareholders exercise almost no control over corporate management. Proxy fights almost never work, and corporations are typically controlled by inside directors. After a brief period of hostile takeovers in the ’80s, management quickly acted to restore insider control and nullify the threat of such attacks through measures like poison pills and greenmail; today, most takeovers are friendly and carried out by the management of both companies in collusion. If some seats on the board are occupied by institutional investors, it’s more accurate to describe it as a coalition between interlocking corporations. Bond issues are reserved mainly for financing mergers and acquisitions, and most new investment is financed by retained earnings, so the external control exerted by the capital markets is largely mythical.
American corporate management claims to represent shareholders as a legitimizing ideology, just as the Soviet bureaucracy claimed to represent the workers or the people — meanwhile having dachas, private cars, and shopping privileges in the luxury department stores reserved for Party members. In both cases, though, what you really had (and have) is a self-perpetuating oligarchy in control of a free-floating mass of unowned capital.
The typical Fortune 500 CEO invests money that she didn’t contribute from her own past savings, but that lacks any external owner capable of exercising any genuine control over it. Corporate management spends other people’s money, amounting to de facto owners of it. Shareholders are conventionally regarded as residual claimants, because in legal theory they have a claim on all revenue that’s left over after after all contractual claims are paid. But in the real world, it makes more sense to say that the shareholder is a contractual claimant with even fewer rights than a bondholder, and that management is the real residual claimant. A shareholder is entitled only to whatever dividend management sees fit to issue, if any. But senior management is entitled to whatever salaries and bonuses they can get, through mutual logrolling with the board of directors.
A lot of establishment libertarians, when they call for a “free market,” really seem to mean the present corporatist system without the welfare or the health and safety regulations — a world owned by Wal-Mart and Halliburton.
But when you hear a call for a freed market by someone at the Center for a Stateless Society, or anyone else on the free market left, please be aware that we mean something completely different by it. What we want is a society in which corporations are deprived of all the subsidies, privileges, protections, and artificial property rights they currently enjoy. What we want is a society in which all market activity consists of free exchange between equals, without anyone paying monopoly rents to the privileged and powerful. What we want is a society in which all functions of the state are replaced by voluntary association, whether by market transactions, mutual aid associations, or gift economies.
In short, the free markets we talk about have nothing to do with those of Dick Armey and FreedomWorks, the AEI, or the Heritage Foundation. We’re not talking about socialism for the rich and a Dickensian work house for everyone else.
When we say we believe in free enterprise, we mean it.