Jeffrey Sachs makes it difficult for any libertarians who happen to look at his book, ‘The Price of Civilization’, to consider seriously his claim that powerful corporate interests have excessive influence in America. He claims that libertarians ‘hold that the only ethical value that matters is liberty, meaning the right of each individual to be left alone by others and by the government’.
There are a lot of other ethical values that matter to me – and probably to most others who view themselves as libertarians. In my view, liberty deserves primacy only because it makes it possible for people to live in peace – with minimal coercion of one person or group by another.
Perhaps I am excessively naïve, but it seems to me that anyone who is concerned that people are being manipulated by corporate propaganda might see libertarians as potential allies. Can a case for individuals to be protected from techniques of persuasion that undermine individual sovereignty be argued along similar lines as the case for laws to protect against force and fraud? If it could be, I imagine many libertarians would support additional action to protect individual sovereignty.
Why does Jeff Sachs think that corporate interests have too much influence in America? Dr Sachs, the clinical economist, identifies a range of symptoms. The media is privately owned and funded by advertising revenue. Corporate interests generate propaganda which the media disseminates. Corporate interests largely fund campaigns of candidates for political office. People spend a lot of time watching electronic media.
‘The relentless streams of images and media messages that confront us daily are professionally designed to distort our most important decision making processes. We are encouraged to act on fantasy instead of reason’.
Sachs claims that America has become a corporatocracy – a political system in which powerful corporate interests dominate the political agenda. As he sees it:
‘The media, major corporate interests, and politicians now constitute a seamless web of interconnections and power designed to perpetuate itself through the manufacture of illusion’.
So, some readers may ask, does this explain why Americans no longer see much merit in equality of opportunity, don’t think governments should do more to help people in need and don’t think the rich should pay more tax? No! Dr Sachs actually cites evidence that a high proportion of Americans still want more equality of opportunity, favour more help for those in real need who are prepared to help themselves and favour taxing the rich more heavily.
Where does that leave Dr Sach’s diagnosis? I’m not sure. Perhaps the disease has not progressed very far at this stage. Sachs claims that the patient is suffering from a disconnection between shared values and national politics. He sees the disconnection as arising from various aspects of the political system that enhance the power of corporate interests – particularly the military industrial complex, Wall Street, big oil and transport, and health care.
Jeff Sachs has left me as confused as ever about the American political system. He has not persuaded me that America is a corporatocracy. Corporate interests are powerful in America, but so is religion, the teaching profession, environmentalists, etc., etc.
It seems to me to be the main problem in American politics, which is shared by other modern societies, is the trivialization of politics by media that is primarily in the business of selling entertainment. The media can’t be expected to evaluate the claims made by interest groups, but if journalists have access to such evaluations from respected sources they can hold politicians to account for the views they express (or fail to express). Think tanks perform the task of policy evaluation to some extent, but can be too easily dismissed because they are not seen to be above interest group politics. Paradoxically, the government itself is the only organization capable of creating sources of policy advice that are sufficiently above interest group politics to have some hope of commanding widespread respect in the community at large.
Despite the reservations I have about ‘The Price of Civilization’ (in an earlier post about taxation levels as well as here) I want to end this post on a positive note. I strongly endorse Jeff’s view that individuals can benefit themselves and the societies in which they live by making efforts to become more mindful. We will do less harm and may do a lot of good if we become more moderate in our habits, achieve more balance in our lives, improve our knowledge, exercise more compassion, have more regard for the effects of our actions on the environment and future generations, consider how we can promote more constructive political deliberations and be more accepting of diversity as the path to peace.