May 24, 2011

Crony capitalism and its remedy

By Dr. William Luckey *

If you read my last article, “What Is a Humane Economy?,” you will notice that in there I brought up the subject of whether large corporations seek money or power. I said that if they seek power, it is only because they seek money, which is their raison d’être. Well, this article was a paper I gave at a conference of an academic society. The format of the panel I was on was that each of four participants gave their papers, then responded to questions from the panel, and then responded to questions from the attendees. Mine was the last of the four papers. The first was by a very radical distributist who, I found out later, has no graduate credentials in anything, and said he teaches theology at a good Catholic university down south. I looked at the website of this university and his name does not appear there. Be that as it may, the only “question” anyone asked from the panel was this guy asking something about my paper. I put the word question in quotation marks because he did something I have never seen at any academic conference since I have been either attending or actually giving papers in over 40 years.

He shouted his question at the top of his lungs, saying: “How can you say that corporations don’t seek power?” I felt like replying in an Inspector Clouseau fashion: “Well, I just opened my mouth and the words came out.” But I didn’t. I tried to answer the question, but he kept shouting his question, phrasing it in various ways. I had to shout over his shouting. Finally, in desperation, I said that we would have to agree to disagree and get on with it. No one else on the panel had any question for anyone else. Incidentally, his paper was a hodgepodge of non-scholarship and ranting, such that if I wanted to question or critique his paper, I would not even know where to start.

There are two lessons from this episode. The first one is that distributism is merely an ideology. And distributists are unhappy folks, because this is not the first incident of this type I have witnessed, just not at academic conferences. If distributists had good arguments, why do they not discuss them in a mature way? But they either use trickery, like asking the speaker trivial questions they know the speaker can’t answer, or merely shout their way through. The reason is that an ideology has, by definition, no convincing reasons. It is merely taking an idea, usually unproven, and building a logical system around it. This is why they do not like probing questions. For example, in a meeting of distributists a student of mine asked how this distributist society is going to come about since there is absolutely no real movement in society toward it. Would it have to be imposed by the government? Everyone in the room got furious with this student for even asking the question—a proof that we are dealing with an ideology. (For a good discussion of probing questions and ideology see, Eric Voegelin, “Science, Politics and Gnosticism” [n.p.: Regnery-Gateway, 1968].)

Now for the heart of the question. I do not agree with Milton Friedman that the whole purpose of a company is to make a profit. The purpose of a company is to produce something that the founder of the company believes is beneficial to the public. Studies of entrepreneurs have borne this out. But the desire to do this cannot be fulfilled unless the company brings in more money than it spends. The difference between the money it spends and that which it brings in is called profit. As Pope John Paul II said in “Centesimus Annus,” profit is the sign of the health of the company. In addition, profits are returned to stockholders, who ponied up the money for the company to begin with. They would not have done this without some expectation of a return on their money, which they would have put into a different enterprise. Profits are also plowed back into the company for research and product development so that the company can produce better products.

Why, then, do large companies seek favors from government? They do so because the government will give them privileges which make it easier to make more profit. One way to do this, believe it or not, is to insist that government regulate the industry, because regulation costs companies money, and smaller competitors cannot afford dealing with the regulations, and go out of business, thus limiting competition for the original firm. The same is true of tariffs. Why do corporations not want power? Because power is not money, and they are judged on the basis of money, not power. When the CEO goes to a stockholders meeting, bragging about how often he has been in the White House, it does him no good if the company is failing. But if the CEO has been to the White House and has persuaded the President of the United States to suppress the competition in some way, and that has resulted in an increase in revenue, the stockholders are happy.

The reason that distributists and others do not understand this is because, repeating myself, their views are pure ideology. The value of any writer’s or speaker’s thought comes not from whether you like it or not, but from whether it jives with human experience. Distributism does not. Capitalism does.

But how do we solve this tendency to get government favors for some businesses so that they prosper over those who did not get favors? The remedy is to prevent government from getting involved in the economy. If government were strictly prevented from any interaction with companies for any reason, and this could be monitored, crony capitalism would end. A company would have to survive on its own effort and newcomers to the industry would have a better chance to compete, as well as foreign suppliers. Prices would go down, and the people of the U.S. would not be paying for massive bailouts in exchange for votes for politicians.

Dr. William Luckey is the former chairman of the department of Political Science and Economics at Christendom College, where he is currently a professor.  He holds advanced degrees in Business, Economics, Political Philosophy and Systematic Theology. He was married in 1971, has four children and 12 (soon to be 13) grandchildren, and is a Lay Dominican.

You can visit his blog entitled Catholic Truths on Economics at:

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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