On the evolution of the private sector’s coercive powers and our obligation to build community

Some observations

  1. Democratic governments have been and still are established by the people, for the people and of the people to make us (feel) more safe, more secure, more prosperous than before. People without democratic governments often feel less safe, less secure and are often less prosperous;
  2. Our freedom is, by its very nature, limited. In exchange for safety, security, prosperity, we give these governments coercive powers over us. We pay taxes and comply with the laws. Through these powers, governments can exert significant influence over our lives;
  3. As power often corrupts, we want to make sure democratic governments do not abuse that power (too often and too much). So we have checks and balances in place to make sure they don’t. And if they really misbehave, we can fire them by writing a nice letter. Such as the Declaration of Independence.
  4. Democratic governments realize they are hosted by a people. That relationship is symbiotic. Such a relationship has, by its nature, advantages for all parties involved. The benefits outweigh the costs;
  5. Companies, when they are small, and they all start out small, prosper because of the people. They are also hosted by a people. They adapt to the community and they behave because if they don’t, they seldom prosper. And if they’re lucky or insightful enough to be at the right place at the right time, they grow. And sometimes, just sometimes, they keep growing and growing. Enter Edward Abbey: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell.”.
  6. When a company becomes one of an oligopoly or even a monopoly, it will gain de facto coercive powers over its current and future users. As a monopolist or an oligopolist they can pretty much impose whatever conditions they see fit on those who want to partake of their (tightly controlled) goods or services. The symbiosis turns into something else. Something that feels like an unbalanced relationship. Think some banks. Think some rating agencies. The relationship turns from symbiotic to parasitic;
  7. Companies of a certain size develop their own center of gravity. Everything is pulled towards that center. Gravity of other bodies, such as societal norms, become less important. It’s difficult or even not done to look outward. So now you have a parasite with no normative link to the outside world;
  8. Social indignation and protest on the streets really do not do much. That’s what the Indignados and the Occupy movement have done, and look where they are now. Self-regulation? It works, but only in very specific circumstances. Auto-regulation in the context of food safety actually has a good track record. But the jury is still out on self-regulation in the banking industry, and let’s be clear, it does not really look that good. That is what happens when there is only a limited normative framework available.
  9. Remember the government? Can they regulate? Yes, but only if they have the expertise at hand. Where does the expertise come from, most often? Quite often it comes from the industry. In effect, self-regulation. A good example of that is Henry Paulson. Making abstraction of the effectiveness of the measures his team imposed, there is hardly real independence if today you regulate your peers of today and some of your most trusted collaborators may go back tomorrow;
  10. So, we have a symbiotic structure which may turn parasitic with no normative link to the outside world, which we cannot give the power of self-regulation. Mmm. That’s a nice definition of a dilemma. What can we do?


What are possible solutions? We’ve excluded direct government regulation, we’ve excluded self-regulation.

  • A possible, lethal avenue is societal euthanasia: if the patient dies, the parasite dies. I don’t really believe we want to consider that.
  • A viable alternative (coughs, puts on glasses and leans back in rocking chair while puffing an old pipe) is to assist in instilling values in these structures. As their tribe, their clients, it’s a power we have. As a tribe, we can ask for these structures to be active in and learn to be responsible and contribute to society in other ways than traditional Corporate Social Responsibility programs currently prescribe.

Bringing these organizations and their collaborators back to the basic ethical norms and values is a necessary first step. This is required because for all intents and purposes, they have put themselves outside of society. They are parasitic in nature and only care for their own benefit. They cannot not care but for their own benefit, as their reference framework, their normative framework, does not allow them to look beyond that. In a very real sense, they almost appear to act like a wayward child.

Our failure and our opportunity

And this may be where our current society fails. It actually may be indicative of our failure to properly educate as far as true values are concerned.
And while I celebrate the individual and his or her rights to independence from as many structures as possible, it feels like we have neglected those essential values. And values, while highly individual in how we live them, can only become through community. So perhaps we should try to build community first, as a society. And perhaps the tools we have at our disposal now are the ideal tools to do just that.