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Look out for tyranny in the marketplace

Threats to freedom come not only from government


Look out for tyranny in the marketplace
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Over the past couple years, a curious realignment has begun to take shape within American public life. For many decades, we had come to accept as almost a truism that to be conservative in America was to be “pro-business,” and that big business tended to support the Republican Party and at least give a modicum of respect to conservative morality. Today, though, conservatives have increasingly found themselves on the opposite side of cultural and political issues from corporate America.

Whether it’s Big Tech censorship, the proliferation of mandatory “DEI” training in workplaces from coast to coast, or vaccination requirements imposed by many big businesses during the pandemic, the right has ranged itself in protest against corporations it once enthusiastically supported.

Perhaps most perplexingly, in many of these cases conservatives have been most outraged at big business for its violations of individual freedom. It’s not just that we don’t like the values corporate America now seems to be selling; it’s that we think it’s un-American for them to rub our faces in it. Thus far, however, most conservatives have struggled to make sense of these phenomena—after all, haven’t we told ourselves for decades that it is the government that is the sphere of coercion, whereas the market is a space of freedom and competition?

The reality has never been quite so simple. In fact, as many of the oldest competitive sports—wrestling and other martial arts—show, the line between competition and coercion is a blurry one. To succeed in a judo competition, for instance, is to force your opponent into a submission hold, maneuvering into a superior position where someone must do your will or face extreme pain. From time immemorial, the market has followed a similar logic, as successful businessmen sought to “corner” a particular market so that desperate customers would pay whatever they asked, or achieve life-or-death power over their workers so they could extract maximal labor for minimal cost. When necessary, they even employed direct force—at its peak, the British East India Company boasted a private army of 260,000 soldiers.

The solution lies not in seeking either some Marxist or libertarian utopia in which perfect economic balance and harmony is reestablished.

It was the achievement of modern governments to impose some measure of order on these market relations, to keep competition from becoming too coercive, much as professional sports have developed rules and enforcement bodies to distinguish cheating from fair play, and to keep heavyweights and featherweights from competing in the same division. In an ideal free market, every customer, employee, and employer has equal bargaining power, competing on a level playing field so that none can exploit another, but can only succeed by offering superior value or service. Real world markets, though, are always much messier, and coercion of some kind is never too far from the surface.

This is the message of conservative commentator Sohrab Ahmari’s new book, Tyranny, Inc. As the title suggests, Ahmari invites us to consider the ways in which “tyranny,” which we often associate with big government, can actually present itself in any extremely imbalanced power relationship between sinful human beings, private or public—and today often takes the form of tyrannical corporations. It “used to be taken for granted,” Ahmari observes, “that private actors can imperil freedom just as much as overweening governments.” What conservatives have been tempted to treat as isolated and unrelated problems of “woke capital”—e.g., the Big Tech censorship or DEI regimes mentioned above—actually turn out to be just the most visible friction points in a dangerous power imbalance that we have allowed to take hold in many industries.

Although many on the right may not have noticed until their own core values were threatened, paycheck-to-paycheck workers in many industries find themselves largely at the mercy of powerful employers, who, using convoluted contracts drafted by armies of lawyers, can put their employees in “submission holds” where they have little choice but to comply. Ahmari documents the proliferation of phenomena like mandatory arbitration, noncompete clauses, and more to show the ways in which most workers in America no longer enjoy anything like the “freedom of contract” once celebrated as the hallmark of free-market capitalism.

The solution lies not in seeking either some Marxist or libertarian utopia in which perfect economic balance and harmony is reestablished. Rather, we must recognize, Ahmari contends, that “coercion is inevitable in human affairs, not least the significant portions of our lives we spend as workers and consumers. A political-economic order that would wish away this truth only allows coercion to proliferate unchallenged.” Only if we first take seriously the sober reality of power imbalances, and propensity is sinful humans to abuse them, can we start working toward the political solutions that might mitigate such temptations. In this work, conservatives might find themselves marching side-by-side with groups they once considered political foes, but who share their concern to prevent corporate tyrants from running roughshod over the American way of life. We are looking at a bigger challenge than most Americans realize.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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