The perceived inefficiency of government is often measured against the wholly unsubstantiated myth of the well-oiled corporate machine. The state’s many modules, thought of as shiftlessly unconcerned with the bottom line, are implored by the standard conservative philippic to be “run like a business,” as if real-world businesses are models of sleek efficiency.
The binary framework of American political folklore sees business interests as hermetically sealed from state interests, with the cold orderliness of “professionalism” defining our image of the corporate world. The state, by comparison, is thought to be the sanctum of all the good-hearted, underpaid crusaders for social justice, imprudent with the dollar but well-meaning. Just a passing glance at the actual corporation (as opposed to its idealized image), however, begs for a thorough reconsideration of the prevailing narrative.
In a special feature for CNN.com, Jason Fried, author of the book Rework, challenged the notion of corporate order and productivity. He notes that while “[c]ompanies spend billions on rent, offices, and office equipment so their employees will have a great place to work,” those employees nevertheless prefer to work outside of the “interruption factory” of the modern office, a seedbed of waste and misspent hours. It would seem, then, that the corporate world and the state — whatever their differences — operate in much the same way, squandering resources that might have been put to productive use.
Of those features that we, as libertarians, proclaim to admire most about the free market (e.g., innovation, responsiveness, social utility), most if not all of them are conspicuously absent from America’s multinational monsters. Conceding that the United States’ sweep of cubicles is a muskeg of stifling communication barriers and sinkholes for labor, our inquest ought to focus on why this is, on what conditions give rise to these results. After all, aren’t profit motive and the need to account to stockholders sufficient to incentivize some creative solutions from the country’s boardrooms?
It may very well be that these inducements are potentially enough, but — even assuming that’s the case — they are, in today’s corporatist economy, either completely erased or largely alleviated as considerations. In his book Organization Theory, Kevin Carson observes the fundamental difference between the existing corporate economy and the market economy that libertarian anarchists desire. He quotes David Friedman as noting that the American system, the titular situs of “free enterprise,” is actually “largely populated by indigestible lumps of socialism called corporations.”
And as vast, hierarchical institutions defined by a numbness to technological and social change, corporations seem an especially appropriate analogy to the bureaucratic mammoths of state socialism. The largest and most powerful of them, rather than being the most avant-garde or the most reactive to the wants of the humble consumer, are the most inept and incapable of competing in the tempestuous world of untrammeled exchange. In his exhaustive treatise on economics, Human Action, Ludwig von Mises counseled that a “successful corporation is ultimately never controlled by hired managers,” and in a free market that may be true.
In the state-corporate society, though, where status lives in job titles and climbing the corporate ladder, managerial elites enjoy a tight grip on the power. It is no coincidence that they run their companies in much the same way that the state functions, through gradations of authority and arbitrary administrative processes. It isn’t even as though there’s a societal balance between state and corporate interests, implying some polarity between the two. They are very simply elements of the same arrangement, whereby laws like the Williams Act — a securities rule that purports to protect shareholders — regulate away challenges to indolent suits in corner offices.
Just as taxpayers pay and vote for their own bondage, the average corporate nine to fiver finances the bloated salaries of CEOs who drive their companies into the ground only to be salvaged by ever more rule-making that stacks the deck for the Washington-Wall Street cufflink class. It’s no wonder the worker bees of the corporate prison have such low job satisfaction, or that so many seek escape in Big Pharma’s versions of Brave New World’s “soma.”
In this system, with only so many “seats at the table,” human life is defined by meaningless paper-pushing that augments the fortunes of our soi-disant “social betters.” But free markets would besiege corporatism with the energetic inventiveness of an order brought about not by autarchic rules, but by mutual respect and free exchange.