Bryan Caplan  

The Partialtarian Corporation

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McCloskey on Self-Ownership, T... Costco vs. Wal-Mart...
Noam Chomsky calls corporations "totalitarian" without a hint of irony (gated version only):
...I'd like to strengthen the federal government. The reason is, we live in this world, not some other world. And in this world there happen to be huge concentrations of private power that are as close to tyranny and as close to totalitarian as anything humans have devised.

[...]

The corporations are just as totalitarian as Bolshevism and fascism. They come out of the same intellectual roots, in the early Twentieth Century. So just like other forms of totalitarianism have to go, private tyrannies have to go. And they have to be put under public control.
Maybe corporations are evil, but they're the opposite of totalitarian.  Consider Mussolini's infamous definition of totalitarian: "All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state."  Now think about how corporations treat their customers.  They don't care who their customers are.  They don't care about their customers' philosophies.  They don't care how customers use their products.  As long as customers pay up, corporations are content.

So what do you call an organization that cares about one narrow goal, and views everything else with indifference?  Since we don't have a good word for it, I'll coin one: partialtarian.  A totalitarian government wants to run every aspect of your life.  A partialtarian corporation, in contrast, is only after one thing: your money.

But what about employees?  Corporations clearly pay a lot more attention to their workers than their customers.  They care if you were out drinking last night.  Discrimination law notwithstanding, they care if a woman has young kids.  Many corporations even want "team members" to prominently use their products: If you work at a Mercedes dealership, your boss probably wants you to drive a Mercedes.

Even here, though, corporations aspire to nothing like totalitarian control.  The partialtarian ethos is always in the background: Do whatever your like on your own time as long as it doesn't detract from your work.  Can you imagine Mussolini saying something like that?

You could argue that corporations are cold.  Maybe distillery CEOs should worry more about the families torn apart by alcoholism.  Maybe tobacco CEOs should worry more about customers who die horrible, premature deaths.  Maybe potato chip and television CEOs should worry more about obesity.  But corporations' coldness is just the flip side of their extreme tolerance.  Totalitarian governments try to control everything you do because they care about everything you do.  Partialtarian corporations leave you alone because they only care about your money. 

Perhaps Chomsky would condemn corporations as callous.  But I remind myself that the people who run corporations are strangers - and thank them for minding their own business.


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COMMENTS (33 to date)
Marc F Cheney writes:

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Jeff writes:

You have to wonder whether Chomsky really believes a lot of the things he says or if he's just playing to the biases of his audiences.

Jonathan writes:

Chomsky philosophy: I'm against everything and for everything. You don't understand because you're not a linguist!

This is a logical consequence of the claim "Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together." Since corporations are things we choose to do together, they are therefore governments. They are not democratic and therefore must be dictatorships. Since they are unusually single-minded for dictatorships, they are totalitarian. It's as simple as that.

Carl writes:
as close to totalitarian as anything humans have devised.

Baffling.

Rick Hull writes:

Joseph,

Funny, it seems to me government is the name of things we'd not do, given a choice, together.

spot writes:

Sidenote: Fascism isn't totalitarian. Which is why right-wing dictatorships tend to be less damaging to the people in tbe long run.

RPLong writes:

Is the goal to be right or is the goal to be persuasive? I am inclined to believe what Jeff suggested about Chomsky. I presume he believes what he believes for complex and nuanced reasons, but that he finds it expedient to make a simpler and more polemic case for his beliefs, in a bid to win more converts.

Okay, here's my controversial statement of the day: When I read passages from either, I find many similarities between Chomsky and Rothbard. I find the works of both somewhat unsettling, as though the truth is being obscured somehow.

Brian writes:

"A partialtarian corporation, in contrast, is only after one thing: your money."

Yep. Since corporations are single-minded, perhaps "monotarian" would be a more apt term.

Chomsky seems too ideologically conditioned to produce clear thinking. He's spent his career criticizing government, military, media, and corporate institutions, but NOW wants to embrace the Federal government as a hedge against totalitarianism? This just seems like his own personal version of the pro-99%, anti-corporate fever currently afflicting the Left.

Brian writes:

Having looked at the whole article, I see that Chomsky is even more confused than he appears in Bryan's quotes.

Here's what he says before the first quote begins:

"In the long term, I think the centralized political power ought to be eliminated and dissolved and turned down ultimately to the local level, finally, with federalism and associations and so on. On the other hand, right now, I'd like to strengthen the federal government...."

Why is he advocating the opposite of his long-term goal?

"There's only one way of defending rights that have been attained, or of extending their scope in the face of these private powers, and that's to maintain the one form of illegitimate power that happens to be somewhat responsible to the public and which the public can indeed influence.

So you end up supporting centralized state power even though you oppose it."

Yep, he's tied himself into mental knots.

The source of his self-contradictory position is fairly obvious. He believes (wrongly) that 1) a democratic system makes government uniquely responsive to the preferences of the people, and that 2) economic exchange (with corporations) is not similarly responsive.

Oh, the unfortunate people, always living at the mercy of clever advertisers who make them buy what they don't want! Who will free them from their servitude by making their decisions for them? I think we know who Chomsky would nominate. ;)

Max writes:
Why is he advocating the opposite of his long-term goal?
Because Chomsky is a communist. Are you not familiar with how Marx said communism was going to work? First you build an all-powerful totalitarian state, then you watch it wither away because the New Socialist Man will have no need for it.
Yep, he's tied himself into mental knots.
I agree with this, but unlike the posters above, I'm not convinced that he's doing so consciously or merely propagandizing. I do think subconscious signaling plays a role though; he's pushing a superficially counter-intuitive conclusion that huge numbers of people nevertheless find extremely intuitive. Those people are likely to think he's clever and high-status as a result.
James writes:

Chomsky is seen as being "out there" even by most on the left but the idea he expresses here seems fairly similar to a fairly mainstream notion:

Democratic government is more deserving of trust than any private business because if the government messes something up, we can vote the bastards out but if a private corporation messes something up, no equally good option is available.

sourcreamus writes:

In speaking with liberals who claim that corporations have too much power and are totalitarian, I have come to the conclusion that they mean different things by those words.
What they mean is that corporations do bad things (pollute, underpay employees, etc.) and they want to give the government power to make them stop doing the bas stuff. Since the bad things claimed do not come from having power, it is very confusing. What liberals mean when they say corporations have too much power is either they have too much influence over government, or usually that corporations have too much freedom. Since they know that sounds bad they use power instead of freedom.

Eric Falkenstein writes:

Great post.

Of course, as a libertarian socialist, Chomsky's bound to die himself up in knots.

Chris H writes:

@sourcreamus

This seems to me to be an example of Arnold Kling's three axes model striking again!

Hunter writes:

Do whatever your like on your own time as long as it doesn't detract from your work.

Historically this wasn't true. There were a number of employers who were concerned with the moral welfare of its employes and made such compliance mandatory for employment.

Tracy W writes:

Chomsky's history is suspect again: corporations were around long before the 20th century - Adam Smith argued they were doomed to failure because of agency problems.

This reminds me of a weird article he wrote about intellectuals supporting the state, saying that people like Bertrand Russell were punished long term for their opposition to WW1 and not mentioning his BBC lectures or his Nobel Prize.

7x7 writes:

[Comment removed for policy violation. --Econlib Ed.]

happyjuggler0 writes:

The big difference between people dealing with government and corporations is that there is no choice with the former, while the latter loses our money vote when it gets things wrong.

Competition rules, which is actually something that Chomsky seems to understand, at least by the quotes from the comment section here.

We need jurisdictional competition for government, not centralized government, just like we need open access, competitive, free market capitalism to provide new competition and the realistic threat of new competition for existing corporations.

Centralized government leads to (increases) an unholy alliance between government and existing corporations; it certainly is not the antidote to that problem.

libertarian jerry writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Philo writes:

total + -itarian = totalitarian
partial + itarian = partialitarian

You need to insert an ‘i’.

libertarian jerry writes:

webmaster @econlib.org my valid Email address is jerryzeldin@yahoo.com I have been using this address with your site for months.

JohnC writes:

Historically this wasn't true. There were a number of employers who were concerned with the moral welfare of its employes and made such compliance mandatory for employment.


See, e.g., "The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century," pp. 199 et seq (discussing, inter alia, his plant's sociological department).

Jon writes:

Take a look at the power and control exerted by the corporation at this link. Chomsky's claim is backed by sources here.

http://crookedtimber.org/2012/07/01/let-it-bleed-libertarianism-and-the-workplace/

JohnC writes:

Take a look at the power and control exerted by the corporation at this link. Chomsky's claim is backed by sources here.
http://crookedtimber.org/2012/07/01/let-it-bleed-libertarianism-and-the-workplace/

Huh, color me skeptical of anything that argues based on a cite to a cite to an unsubstantiated guess/question begging ("As many as 1 in 17 workers who try to join a union is illegally fired or suspended"), and assorted other footnote labyrinths. Show your frickin' work, please, crooked timber.

Floccina writes:

Chomsky often seems self contradictory to me. He also seems to exude the attitude that if people disagree with him it is because they am not smart enough to understand what they are up against and maybe he is right but he always reminds me an article that I read that said that schizophrenic people can function very well and be quite creative if they are intelligent enough. He seem a bit schizophrenic to me.

Floccina writes:

Also it seems to me that in the modern wealthy countries it is not to hard to be independent from employers. Just save most of your income for a while learn about alternative ways of living. See the "Extreme early retirement" blog and permies.com. You can also start a company and be the employer.

Jon writes:

JohnC, the opinions of experts in the field and their estimates are considered evidence of a point. You don't have to believe it, but it's not an irrational basis for a conclusion.

The fact that you can be commanded to pee, forbidden to pee, watched on camera while you pee, forbidden to wear what you want, say what you want, at what decibel. These and the many other characteristics described at my link are in many ways like tyrannical relationships. Chomsky's claim is perfectly reasonable. Even if the claim about 1 in 17 being fired is wrong this really doesn't change that.

drycreekboy writes:

@Jon

"The fact that you can be commanded to pee, forbidden to pee, watched on camera while you pee, forbidden to wear what you want, say what you want, at what decibel. These and the many other characteristics described at my link are in many ways like tyrannical relationships. Chomsky's claim is perfectly reasonable. Even if the claim about 1 in 17 being fired is wrong this really doesn't change that."

I really don't believe you are being that obtuse. The corporation, if the way I dress is really that important to them, or what controlled substances I may or may not use, etc; can only fire me for violating those preferences. If I don't like those preferences and I am otherwise a good employee then some other corporation that is likewise indifferent/hostile to those preferences has a competitive advantage in bargaining for my labor and I am free to take advantage of that.

The government, on the other hand, has the authority to:

-- tax me
-- fine me
-- arrest me
-- jail me, and, in extremis,
-- execute me

if I don't hew to its preferences.

My relationship to the state and its unique powers is not considered voluntary, but a function of where and when I was born. The very definition of a modern state compels that fact, and that's why we treat it as different from a corporation.

Rick Hull writes:

Joseph,

Funny, it seems to me government is the name of things we'd not do, given a choice, together.

Jon writes:
If I don't like those preferences and I am otherwise a good employee then some other corporation that is likewise indifferent/hostile to those preferences has a competitive advantage in bargaining for my labor and I am free to take advantage of that.

There's the theoretical stories that libertarians tell themselves, and then there's the real world, which shows that people that actually find themselves in these situations are compelled to obediently comply, meaning they are being coerced. Are people actually saying "Well, I'm not going to let my boss watch me pee because I have job offers coming out of my ears, and it's effortless to just go get another job that doesn't require this." As Nozick explains in "Coercion" (cited at the crooked timber link) "You threaten to get me fired from my job if I do A, and I refrain from doing A because of this threat….I was coerced into not doing A." The corporation can coerce you to do outrageous things, and does so, just as Chomsky says. It is like a tyranny in this way.

Not only that, but the corporation is total top down control. You don't have a say when it comes to the decisions of your superious that affect you. You take orders. You can plead with them, but it's still up to them. You pass those orders on down to your subordinates, who must do as you say. It's tyrannical from top to bottom.

Unlearningecon writes:
Do whatever your like on your own time as long as it doesn't detract from your work.

Also, don't fight for rights or anything or we might kill you. Yep, sounds totalitarian to me.

Anonymous writes:
"Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together."
Contract is the name we give to the cooperative ventures we voluntarily enter. The social contract theory of government may sound ideal, but it has very little relationship to reality. Mr. Hull's rejoinder
"government is the name of things we'd not do, given a choice, together."
is apt. Those things done volutarily require no coercion - it is only the supposed Public Goods that governments feel empowered to deliver by force (as necessary) that destroy our freedom and prosperity by contravening individual choices.

Chomsky missed the target by claiming totalitarianism is a corporate means or end; he should have aimed for the fascist trap into which corporations inevitably fall: the seduction (and ease!) of tapping into that power-to-coerce in order to realize a market advantage. The ability of corporations to grow beyond their natural size thanks to such advantage sets up the conditions for workers (and in many cases captive customers) that Chomsky and fellows are quite right to accuse of behaving tyrannically.

To my mind, more anarchy is the only remedy. Fortunately, nature is anarchic: waiting out there for the "best laid plans" to come to naught. The flip side of thinking of governments as monopolies-in-the-use of-force is to think of them as cornering the (international) market in anarchy: keeping their citizens from fully benefiting from open borders, and unrestricted capital flows, reserving the world stage to themselves - a few hundred more or less peer actors - the 3*10^-7 % who are totally free.

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