When I received this book for review, I was under the impression that it was solely going to attack the tyrannical actions of the private sector during the pandemic. It would have been an easy and obvious target. Sohrab Ahmari, however, has gone much deeper than the heavy-handed extortion perpetrated by corporate America over the past two-plus years.
The Multi-Headed MonsterMr. Ahmari begins his work presenting the problem of private sector tyranny as a multi-headed monster. This is a monster we have created ourselves. It reveals both a Frankenstein monster―the monster we’ve created―and the Hydra―one producing new heads through litigation and legislation.
The author takes the reader through a number of illustrations of just how corporations have restricted or dismantled the freedoms of average citizens. It is not about the consumer, but rather the employee.
From contractual agreements between employers and employees to privatizing common goods and services, like emergency services, Mr. Ahmari demonstrates how these problems have had far-reaching national implications. These are presented through individual stories.
The focal point of these varied stories is contracts: how large corporations, by virtue (for lack of a better term) of take-it-or-leave-it contracts for good paying jobs that are both voluminous and grossly restrictive, or the threat of unemployment that can result in indigence, coerce individuals into positions of near servitude.
At the end of “Tyranny, Inc.” Mr. Ahmari acknowledges the obvious, that “coercion is inevitable in human affairs,” but his overarching objective is to create a counterbalance of coercions. In other words, both sides, or rather all three (employer, employee, and government), should have the power of coercion to create balance and to satisfy all parties.
But They’re Private BusinessesWe live in a strange age where people on both sides of the political aisle advocate for corporate dictatorship―typically advocating for such tyranny when the victim belongs to the other side of said aisle. We excuse the behaviors of corporations by stating that since they are private instead of public (governmental) entities, the Constitution need not apply; or we suggest that corporations are people, too; or that people can always find another job or make their voice heard on a different platform.
Mr. Ahmari addresses the nonsense of such views, writing that we (employees and government) have permitted “coercive restrictions and exploitative provisions tucked into these documents, measures Americans would never tolerate if they were handed down by the government.” And this is the monster of our own making.
As the contractual agreements have evolved (or devolved) to be more restrictive and exploitative, Mr. Ahmari writes that private corporations have also devolved in how they deal with their profits. The traditional narrative, which Mr. Ahmari argues is no longer true, is that major corporations take much of their profits and reinvest in their companies. This is the line Americans are fed.
Mr. Ahmari argues, however, quoting political economist Oren Cass, that now less than 10 percent of profit shares are retained and reinvested, “with the rest paid out to shareholders. From 2008 to 2017, corporations paid out 100 percent of their earnings.”
Power GrabsThere is a famous line that has been attributed to many different politicians, and it goes like this: “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Though typically attributed to governments, Mr. Ahmari indicates that it is a philosophy embraced by corporate executives, hedge fund managers, and the like. For example, when the Great Recession took place, newspapers were already on the wane due to the rise of the internet. This crisis of bankruptcy in the media industry has resulted in a much bigger crisis: the crisis of consolidating hundreds of media outlets from weeklies to dailies into the hands of a few.
But what’s the point? Why invest in the failing entities of a major industry? Mr. Ahmari doesn’t simply theorize that it is about accumulating power by either advocating for certain agendas or silencing certain stories; he provides the numbers and the examples of just how that is taking place.
In a different, and possibly more sinister, form of power grab, the book discusses how corporations that possess large-scale legal teams use that to their advantage. These teams not only understand business law and industry regulation, but they know legal environments and cherry-pick locations to do business or conduct litigation—and even select judges who will do their bidding. It is practically a scheme out of a John Grisham novel.
More Government?!Much to the chagrin of libertarians and so-called neoliberals (two groups Mr. Ahmari has little issue targeting), the author suggests that the government has an important role to play to protect workers. He even goes so far as to suggest that the uptick in unions is a good thing. Of course, this is near blasphemy coming from a conservative. But Mr. Ahmari makes clear that we don’t live in a utopia of perfect competition, and even if that pie-in-the-sky were attainable, the past century-plus has proven that the increase in corporate power has made fair competition less and less possible.
For conservatives, libertarians, and free-market thinkers, Mr. Ahmari’s suggestion that “politics” needs to “tame economics” can seem counterintuitive. I squirmed a bit when reading some of it. But making the reader squirm is sort of the point. And counterintuitive is precisely the point.
Mr. Ahmari wants Americans to stop trying to survey the corporate landscape as if we still lived during the time “when our parents and grandparents were in prime working age.” We no longer live in that time, but the author does believe we can return to those “30 glorious years” of the post-World War II era where the goal was “safeguarding the weak and the political community as a whole against private tyranny, however imperfectly.” Mr. Ahmari suggests that “all this and much more can be done if we would but retrace our steps to the wisdom of the past.”
This is not a reference to a past free of coercion. As Mr. Ahmari states, “Coercion is inevitable in human affairs.” But there will at least be coercion from every party. Yes, the monster will still exist, and to an extent, it will need to. It is, after all, our creation. But just as with the Hydra, when we cut off a head with the sword, another party can swoop in with the torch and cauterize it to keep two more from taking its place.