The growing corporate dismantling of our democracy flouts the lessons of history that demonstrate the critical role of countervailing powers to big business greed and power. Let’s look at some ways that our country has developed to curb and discipline business abuses.
1. The antitrust laws were passed between 1890 and 1914 to prohibit anti-competitive practices and monopolization of markets. While these laws had their ups and downs, at their enforcement best they kept our economy less concentrated and less cartelized than other Western nations.
Today, the antitrust laws are weakly obsolete with regard to many new kinds of trade restraints and global corporate machinations. Enforcement of these laws are also weak in traditional market areas as well. The antitrust divisions in the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission have dollar budgets together that are smaller than one of the largest corporate law firms.
2. Consumer protection laws to set safety and health standards for various industries from the automobile to the drug to the construction materials companies have worked when enforced. Now they are under attack by corporate lobbies that have succeeded in daunting the federal consumer cops on the business crime and negligence beat. The Republicans in Congress are busy pressing to weaken the banking laws and the federal false claims law that have protected consumers and taxpayer dollars from fraud.
Law and order for the corporate suites is withdrawing on many fronts.
3. Labor laws were passed decades ago to protect workers rights to form unions and to prohibit unfair labor practices. These laws have atrophied under the corporate drumbeat against the National Labor Relations Board and against attempts to strengthen the labor laws in an era of global corporate mobility and evasions by a small number of Congressional advocates. Only now is there a serious effort in Congress to adjust the minimum wage law from the erosions of inflation that in real dollars has reached a forty year low!
4. Private legal remedies under American contract and tort law have given investors, injured consumers and shoppers rights to take crooks and other wrongdoers in the business world to court. In a little noticed but accumulating drive, companies are stripping away these rights to remedy grievances and deter future violations.
For example, what is called “tort reform” (we call it “tort deform”) is the corporate menu, driven by tens of millions of dollars of lobbying to get state legislatures and the Congress to limit, restrict or destroy the efforts of innocent Americans unfortunate enough to incur serious injuries from product defects, toxics and medical malpractice.
Through outright lies, deceptions and mischaracterizations, greased by much campaign cash to politicians and television ads, this cruel project strives to turn the people who are not injured against the rights of those who need their full day in court. The insurance, banking, chemical, auto, hospital, doctor, drug companies and big accounting firms are behind this democracy destruction. Where you have contractual relationships with companies, the new method of destroying your rights is to stick a compulsory arbitration clause in the fine print of the one-sided HMO, insurance, brokerage and employment agreements, not to mention the Bank of America-style deposit cards that millions of depositors sign. This means that in any dispute you have with these sellers, you give up your rights to file a lawsuit (thereby weakening your bargaining power) and arbitrators, which you have to partly pay for, make the decision without any appeal to the courts being permitted.
So George Washington and the patriots fought King George III for your right to a trial by jury and today’s Big Businesses are taking them away.
5. Regulation by such agencies as OSHA (job safety), NHTSA (auto safety), EPA (environmental health), FDA (food and drug), U.S. Department of Agriculture (meat and poultry inspection) has bordered on the farcical. These regulators largely have become free consultants to industry instead of applying healthy doses of law and order and exposing publically business misdeeds. Lots of cars and light trucks and vans in the hands of American motorists are defective but not being recalled. Phony nostrums and contaminated food reach many households without interdiction. Many regulations are so out of date that they cease to have real world application — such as the 27 year old tire safety standards.
The modest safeguards of the past are now becoming the wreckage of the present. The concentration of corporate power and control over America is taking away the best means ever devised to solve public problems and advance justice in the marketplace, environment, government and workplace. It is called Democracy.