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Corporatism Santa

As a classical liberal, I’m fascinated by the ongoing confusion of the Progressive Left over the meaning of the word liberalism. To be “liberal” is to support individual autonomy, self-determination, and freedom from coercion by the state. True liberalism necessarily implies a minimal state apparatus because the state can only derive authority from its power to coerce. Confusion over the meaning of liberalism was covered in “Labels For the Authoritarian Left” on Sacred Cow Chips last year.

A similar confusion surrounds use of the word corporatism and its relationship to progressivism on the one hand, and liberalism on the other. I came across this excellent essay by Max Borders in The Freeman that begins with a discussion of the term neoliberalism. Lately this has been invoked as an derogatory reference to classical liberalism, except that the users don’t really understand the latter. In fact, as Borders points out, one prominent author describes free market advocacy as something more akin to cronyism, complete with state support and bailouts, which is contradictory on its face. But it is consistent with the doctrine of corporatism. Borders offers this quote from Thayer Watkins:

In the last half of the 19th century people of the working class in Europe were beginning to show interest in the ideas of socialism and syndicalism. Some members of the intelligentsia, particularly the Catholic intelligentsia, decided to formulate an alternative to socialism which would emphasize social justice without the radical solution of the abolition of private property.

The result was called Corporatism. The name had nothing to do with the notion of a business corporation except that both words are derived from the Latin word for body, corpus.

Sounds like innocent beginnings, but enforcing “social justice” within this framework demands a substantial role for the state and an intricate set of relationships between the state and private parties. That provides opportunities for accumulating economic power and wealth by manipulating any arm of government that legislates, adjudicates, purchases, licenses, regulates or levies taxes. That is, any arm of government! Such rent-seeking activity gives rise to a symbiosis between the state and powerful private economic actors, and that is the essence of modern corporatism as practiced by Mussolini, George W. Bush and Obama and their governments. Borders quotes economics Nobel laureate Edmund Phelps:

The managerial state has assumed responsibility for looking after everything from the incomes of the middle class to the profitability of large corporations to industrial advancement. This system . . . is . . . an economic order that harks back to Bismarck in the late nineteenth century and Mussolini in the twentieth: corporatism.

Borders closes with a discussion of Jason Brennan’s admonition: “Dear Left: Corporatism is Your Fault”, which dishes the bald truth.

When you create complicated tax codes, complicated regulatory regimes, and complicated licensing rules, these regulations naturally select for larger and larger corporations. We told you that would happen. Of course, these increasingly large corporations then capture these rules, codes, and regulations to disadvantage their competitors and exploit the rest of us.

Corporatism has nothing to do with the corporate form of business organization per se. Granted, limited liability is an artificial construct created by the state, and it is a hallmark of that form, so it’s fair to cite it as an example of corporatism. But corporatism in its systemic sense represents the larger web of non-market dependencies between the state and powerful economic actors, corporate in form or not. Both sides benefit from these relationships and, in many direct and indirect ways, compromise the integrity of the voluntary market mechanism and harm smaller actors who rely on it.

This is not a state of affairs that meets with the approval of classical liberals, free marketeers and fans of real capitalism, the so-called “neoliberals” of Leftist fiction. The Left purports to hate corporatism too, but they don’t understand its genesis and are fully oblivious to the real reasons for its progression. Instead, in their ignorance, they pass the blame onto “neoliberals”.