Tyranny in the Private Sphere

The large, tyrannical state has always been one of the greatest threats to freedom and liberty. And even in our current age, unchecked government power continues to stifle human progress and expression, not only abroad but in the United States as well. For, in even in our country, the state, both at the federal and local level, still punishes its citizens for indulging in the “wrong” types of narcotics—it still denies equal rights to those of a different sexual orientation, it still retains the unchecked, lethal authority of one person, the executive, to sentence death upon any citizen the president deems a “terrorist.”

Labor activist Kalpona Akter holds up Wal-Mart clothing found in the recent fire in a factory in Bangladesh that resulted in the arguably preventable deaths of 112 people.
Photo Credit: Photo provided to The Nation by the International Labor Rights Forum.

Yet, although the illiberal actions of the state still need to be combated  government is not the only source of tyranny—it is not the only enemy of freedom. As recent events in Bangladesh attest, with the death 112 factory workers as the result of atrocious working conditions, the private sector has its share of tyrants.

This is where most libertarians and current day liberals seem to differ. The former sees only the state, the government as the perpetrator of oppression. However, as both history and recent events demonstrate, private powers, especially in our age of international business behemoths, are equally capable of denying liberty.

The obvious observation is that basic workers’ rights—such as work hours, break periods, work conditions, etc.—are directly affected by private entities. But these aren’t the only rights that private companies have and continue to trample on. Private organizations often censor and/or punish individuals for their speech or expression, for example.

Since the era of the Roman Empire, as the French political philosopher Montesquieu explained centuries later, humans have divided the powers of government as a means to preserve liberty for all—the reasoning being, as Montesquieu believed, that dividing the beast of government and its powers set each branch against each other, preventing one from gaining monopolistic power over the people.

So why is it we cannot use the same reasoning in our views of limiting private entities and their power? Of course, libertarians would argue that the competition created by the free market intrinsically establishes these safeguards on private power. However, as history shows us, the free market can often be overtaken by a monopoly—the creation of unitary governments over some territory is a key example of this.

Perhaps one may argue that in a truly free market these monopolistic holds can only be temporarily held. But even if this were true, liberty denied is made no sweeter based on length of duration. As the economist John Maynard Keynes pointed out about recessions always ending in the long run, “in the long run, we are all dead.” In other words, who is to say how long “temporary” would be.

Instead we should strengthen our institutional barriers to unchecked private power, and key to this is bolstering government power in those areas where private power can be a threat.

But our country has seemed to have taken the opposite approach in recent years, expanding government power to violate its citizen rights and stand unchecked by other powers while at the same time neutering government power to stand against private tyranny in the marketplace (i.e. deregulation, lenient taxes for the wealthy, weaker lobbying laws, etc.).

Hopefully this trend will see a greater reversal in President Obama’s second term. If not, things will not bode well for freedom and liberty in this country.