Liberty, environmentalism and corporate power

6th November 2020 By: Saliem Fakir

Individual utilitarianism is seen as primordial in conventional Western economic tradition. However, individualism does not always lead to better public outcomes. Extreme forms of individualism are not tolerated anywhere in the world, despite libertarian proponents holding that this is a better form of social organisation.

In democratic societies, individuals, as concerned citizens – if they act in concert – can have significant influence over public choices, but not all public choices are a product of citizens’ choices but rather organised groups and powerful corporations.

In a liberal society, personal choices raise the bar for the sovereign individual, and, as the philosopher, Isiah Berlin, stated, positive freedom must be safeguarded against negative freedom.

The trick of the libertarians is to project corporate identity and individual identity as one and the same thing in a free society. So, to attack corporate behaviour and the malfeasance of corporate role-players is to somehow attack individual liberty, property rights and economic progress.

Do we really live in a free society? Some are more free than others, based on income, identity and race, thus complicating the degree to which one can become a free and willing member of a liberal society.

Public choices are often not the product of individuals but of powerful interests that determine not only the technological trajectories at the heart of modern civilisation but also consumer choices. While many of these choices have advanced humanity, they have also left behind externalities that have harmed nature and poor communities, especially in areas where toxic waste has been dumped as a result of industrial pollution.

Environmentalism arose because the choices of States and corporations have disregarded the intrinsic value of nature and excluded the costs of harm from the production system. The risk as articulated in Ulrich Beck’s book, Risk Society, has now been distributed across the globe in which technology, capital and corporate power have held sway for decades.

If only Henry Ford had not gone the route of the combustion engine to create oil-guzzling machines, then America would not need oil or involve itself in conflict in the Middle East. If only Germany had pursued hydrogen (despite the crash of Hindenberg), then there would be no need for the Fischer-Tropsch technology to convert coal into fuel during the war period. The world would be different.

If consumers had better knowledge and were a determined voting public, perhaps the choices of our energy and the types of goods we consume – as a hangover from fossil-based industrialism – would be different.

The freedom to choose the good things that enhance one’s positive freedoms – especially avoiding harm and damage to health – holds merit if information about such harm is not withheld from you. What if Du Pont, a chemicals manufacturing company, did not withhold information about the harmful effects of the ‘revolutionary’ nonstick Teflon cookware made from C8 or Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) – a long-chain molecule that is hard to break down biologically, as a result of which it can accumulate in the human body for many years? C8 ingestion may not come from the eggs you fry in a Teflon pan coated with C8, but may well come from chemicals pollution in neighbourhoods where Du Pont has been dumping these chemicals in rivers.

Du Pont has discontinued the use of C8 but China still continues to use it. Du Pont was able to use its power in the market and influence over governments to hide the truth about C8 from the public. It took committed environmentalists and lawyers with a strong ethical bent to take on the giant Du Pont to court.

Unchecked corporate power is never good for society, in the same way that unchecked authoritarian rule by a clique or a single despotic ruler is bad. Too much power tends to corrupt, as Lord Acton once said.

Stephan Leonard’s Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America, draws on extensive insider interviews, court cases and records to show corporate power in action from the inside.

Perhaps at long last we can begin to dispel the myth that corporate power is always saintly and works in our interests. This is why democracies have safeguards and we need to protect ourselves from abuse by powerful corporations that are always working to limit the scope of positive freedoms unless the freedoms increase their profits.

Leonard’s book is also relevant in that the Koch brothers are especially keen funders of libertarian institutions like the Cato Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, Citizens Unite and other nonprofits aimed at limiting popular mobilisation against powerful elites. The Koch-funded think-tanks’ primary aim is to influence government responsibility so that it is less about citizens and more about the protection of corporate interests.

A case in point: the Koch brothers’ climate denialism goes back to the 1990s.

In so doing, they had common cause and interests with Exxon-Mobil (which famously suppressed climate data showing the link between greenhouse-gas emissions and climate change) – one of the early proponents of climate denialism using diversionary tactics to stall US federal government action aimed at reducing carbon emissions.

The Koch brothers organised the first conference on climate change, only to cast doubt on mainstream scientists raising the alarm by organising their own counter science conference in 1991, titled, seemingly innocuously, ‘Global Environmental Crisis: Science or Politics?’.

So influential have the Koch brothers been that experts have given a special moniker for their truth-making machine: the ‘Kochtopus’. The role of the Kochtopus is to spread doubt about science that is against corporate profits, buy the services of lobbyists, write legislation for legislators, place doubt in the public domain and attack the credibility of those experts who hold contrary views.

The libertarian ideology offends because it is lame on corporate power and large on the evils of the State.