In recent years, there has been a revival of interest in anti-trust policy in the United States. Scholars like Tim Wu and Matt Stoller have released summaries of the history of anti-trust action in America, the United States Congress has held hearings inquiring into anti-competitive practices by major corporations, and several large mergers (or attempted mergers) have brought the salience of anti-trust law back into the public eye.
Though the Republican party has, in the past, been predominately pro-business, which means pro-big business in practice, there have been flashes of anti-corporate and anti-trust sentiment on the American right during this period. Recently, The American Conservative ran a series of articles on the origin of lax anti-trust enforcement, additionally arguing that it is now time for an anti-monopoly movement on the right in America. Senators like Josh Hawley and Mike Lee have joined their Democratic colleagues in expressing deep concern over the actions of corporate tech giants, sometimes in response to what is viewed as censorship of Republicans and conservative ideas, but sometimes over corporate power in the abstract, wielded broadly and unaccountably.
In short, our current moment is one of questioning the role of business as a powerful actor in the daily lives of Americans. This moment perhaps requires additional policy, appropriate to our time and current technology, to address. But furor over “big tech” and open or obvious censorship can mask subtler ways that non-government actors can make us less free.
This, at least, is the argument of journalist Sohrab Ahmari in his new book Tyranny, Inc.: How Private Power Crushed American Liberty and What to Do About It. While battles over censorship on social media may be flashy and draw the most immediate attention, Ahmari’s book digs into the more mundane exercises of power by corporations against the political and financial interests of the “customers,” or the common consumer-citizen. Without realizing it, Ahmari argues, United States citizens have been trapped in a dense web of corporate control over their employment and occupation, emergency services, and even the mechanisms of justice available to them. The result is that while some citizens and policymakers alike are debating the appropriate scope of government intervention for fear of tyranny originating with the state, corporate tyranny grows in many sectors without obvious or immediate remedies.
Take, for example, my ostensible freedom to choose my employment, to voluntarily take on a contract with a potential employer, to negotiate fair wages, and to take my skills elsewhere if the contract becomes unworkable. In the ideal world of those Ahmari calls “market utopians,” a potential employer and employee enter this negotiation as equals, one requiring the services of the employee, one requiring the wages offered by the employer. Mutual interests motivate a mutual agreement, fair to both parties. This situation is disrupted, the market utopian might argue, when the government interferes with that free contracting process. Adam Smith, for example, argued that government was unduly interfering with the freedom of both employee and employer to submit their skills and needs to the judgment of others when, e.g., they enforce strict licensure requirements and artificially restrict the number of people who can occupy a profession, and the Smithian sentiment has carried forward.