Free market ideas, in various disguises, seem to be catching on in big business. There are serious exceptions, of course. (The Humphrey-Javits Economic Planning Act has the support of several major corporations.) But, among others, Mobil Oil Corporation has been putting ads in many major publications which state support for the free market. One recent Mobil ad states that "There are many bills in Congress today specifically designed to restrict the petroleum industry's ability to do its job. Bills that would, in effect, deny the industry the right to operate in a free market. Which, if not coercive, is at least intolerable." The ad also states that "nothing fine-tunes incentives better than the marketplace." Moreover, the ad goes on, "A free market, if we may be rebels enough to say so, is still the best device for bringing about greater energy self-sufficiency. If that sounds a little radical to some people, we can only add: If this be treason, make the most of it!"
It would be gratifying to witness all this if we could forget some of the earlier ideas which many major corporations advanced in their attempts to achieve success. Who can forget that most if not all natural gas companies are public utilities—that is, private firms which are legally protected monopolies. California's Pacific Gas & Electric has recently been faced with threats of municipalization in Berkeley—the referenda on the last two occasions barely passed in favor of letting PG&E continue with its operations. Yet PG&E is already a monopoly, so its case against municipalization of gas and electric distribution in Berkeley is difficult to support. One can at best say that between the two evils of private and public legal monopolies, the former is to be preferred. Deregulation of natural gas, decontrol of its price, is also generally supportable only by keeping in mind that although natural gas distribution remains legally monopolized, the relative decentralization that still exists despite such monopolized distribution is preferable to centralized federal regulation and control. (Despite the legal monopolies held by natural gas companies, as public utilities, some competition can now exist via various substitute goods and services. So decontrol of prices will not necessarily be monopolistic pricing.)
In general, then, the rational approach to dealing with the current, albeit not universal, support big business is giving to the idea of the free market is not easy to identify. In some cases injustices might at least be shifted by slapping big business on the wrist with heavy taxes, municipalization, even nationalization. Yet one cannot forget that those now managing and owning these corporations could very well be sincere in their, as opposed to their forerunners', advocacy of the free market.
One way to test this sincerity is to propose to the businesses coming out for freedom that they change their practice of sponsoring statist oriented intellectual and artistic programs on TV. Their advertising practices could be clear testimony of their seriousness. Why is General Motors placing huge ads in The Progressive? It is hardly your top free market, procapitalist periodical. Why is Mobil Oil Corporation sponsoring so much of the elitist programming on public television? They could choose to sponsor more of the independent station programming, including some special documentaries available which point up the virtues of a free society.
To many people it is distressing that the case for the free society is so closely associated with economics. Granted, economic freedom, legal protection and preservation of the institution of private property, is essential to all other liberties. But the justification for the free society is not itself mainly an economic theory. Emphasizing economics to the exclusion of other considerations such as education, art, entertainment, science, and the many other kinds of valuable human activities can mislead those who are undecided about their political position. Are those who defend liberty simply supporting those who wish to get rich? Is that the main benefit of a free society? While the economic analysis that shows that freedom is a condition more conducive to efficient, productive market activities does not imply this, lack of concern with other dimensions of freedom may make it appear this way.
For corporations which have lately come to see the value of liberty the main advice to be given is: Liberty is good for everyone, be that a person in business, in education, science, etc. When Mobil announces that it opposes censorship of the arts, violation of people's privacy by narcotics agents, the subsidization of Lockheed Corporation, the special protection of multinational corporations via government insurance which the taxpayers are forced to back—only then can their newfound support of liberty be taken seriously. Not that Mobil Oil and the rest should not pursue their selfish interest. They certainly should. But rights, including the right to liberty, are general features, applicable to all members of a human community. Giving them selective support is not giving them support enough.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Liberty and the Protests of Corporations".