How to stay free
Hanging on to democracy
in good times and bad
"Sam Smith's Great American Political Repair Manual"
(WW Norton, New York & London)
"Smith's book is a toolbox for hacking a corrupt system. It is also funny as hell . . . There are butts that need kicking in this country. . . Sam Smith is handing out the boots." -- Alex Steffen, The Stranger, Seattle weekly "Must read. . . combines laughter and trenchant critique to a degree seldom seen" -- John Rensenbrink, Green Horizons "The Tom Paine of the Nineties" -- Chuck Stone "Truly independent journalist" -- Patrick Mazza, Cascadia Times "Phenomenally interesting. . . I recommend it highly" -- Michelle Laxalt, co-host of Newsmakers "You'll be enlightened, challenged, even entertained" -- Chuck Harder on the Talk America Network. "Lucid . . . Keep going, Sam" -- Mario Cuomo "Desperately needed" -- Roger Morris, author of Partners in Power.
What was it all about? When did it begin? . . . Couldn't we just stay put? . . . We've done nothing wrong! We didn't harm anyone. Did we? . . . There must have been a moment, at the beginning, when we could have said -- no. But somehow we missed it.. . . Well, we'll know better next time.
-- From Rosencrantz's final speech before disappearing and dying
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
About the most important job of a democracy -- next to serving its people -- is to make sure it stays a democracy.
This is a lot harder than many people think. Forms of government don't have tenure, and governments that rely on the consent of the governed -- rather than, say, on tanks and prisons -- particularly require constant tending.
Unfortunately, many Americans either don't understand or have come to ignore this basic principle. As things now stand, we could easily become the first people in history to lose democracy and its constitutional freedoms simply because we have forgotten what they are about.
They also thought they were free
How could it happen? Here's how a college professor, in another country and in another time, described it:
What happened was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to be governed by surprise, to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believe that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security. ~ The crises and reforms (real reforms too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter.
~ To live in the process is absolutely not to notice it -- please try to believe me -- unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, 'regretted.'
~ Believe me this is true. Each act, each occasion is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow.
~ Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven't done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we did nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood. A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and you hired this one rather than that. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.
This quote is from a remarkable book about Nazi Germany written by Milton Mayer in the 1950s. They Thought They Were Free (University of Chicago Press) examined not the horrific perversions but the horrible normalcies of the times. Mayer summed up his own experience this way:
Now I see a little better how Nazism overcame Germany ~ It was what most Germans wanted -- or, under pressure of combined reality and illusion, came to want. They wanted it; they got it; and they liked it. I came back home a little afraid for my country, afraid of what it might want, and get, and like, under pressure of combined reality and illusions. I felt -- and feel -- that it was not German Man that I had met, but Man. He happened to be in Germany under certain conditions. He might be here, under certain conditions. He might, under certain conditions, be I.
We, too, think we are free. But let's review the bidding. Here are some restrictions on American freedoms that are less than a generation old, each instituted, we were told, to protect us from a danger, a crisis or a threat to national security:
- Roadblocks as part of random searches for drivers who have been drinking or using drugs.
- The extensive use of the military in civilian law enforcement, particularly in the war on drugs.
- The use of handcuffs on persons accused of minor offenses and moving violations.
- Jump-out squads that leap from police vehicles and search nearby citizens.
- Much greater use of wiretaps and other forms of electronic surveillance.
- Punishment before trial such as pre-trial detention and civil forfeiture of property.
- Punishment of those not directly involved in offenses, such as parents being held responsible for the actions of their children, employers being required to enforce immigration laws, and bartenders being made to enforce drinking laws.
- Warrantless searches of persons and property before entering buildings, boarding planes, or using various public facilities.
- Closing of public buildings or parts of buildings to the public on security grounds.
- Increased restrictions on student speech, behavior, and clothing.
- Increased mandatory use of IDs.
- Increasing restrictions on attorney-client privacy.
- Greatly increased government access to personal financial records.
- Loss of a once widely presumed guarantee of confidentiality in dealings with businesses, doctors, accountants, and banks.
- The greatest incarceration rate of any industrialized country in the world.
- Mandatory sentencing for minor offenses, particularly marijuana possession.
- Increased surveillance of employees in the workplace.
- Laws in 11 states that make it a crime to suggest that a particular food is unsafe without a "sound scientific basis" for the claim.
- Random traffic stops of blacks are so frequent that the drivers are sometimes said to have been stopped for DWB -- driving while black.
- Increased use of charges involving offenses allegedly committed after a person has been halted by a police officer, such as failure to obey a lawful order.
- Widespread youth curfews.
- Expanded definition of pornography and laws against it.
- Greatly increased use of private police forces by corporations.
- Persons being forced to take part in line-ups because of some similarity to actual suspect.
Coming soon to your neighborhood?
In 1996 the British Parliament passed legislation that allowed police to stop, frisk and search anyone in any area they designate without ground for suspicion. Anyone declining to be searched may be arrested, jailed or fined. Under a previous milder law, some 21,000 people and vehicles in the London area were searched with only two arrests for suspected terrorist activities.
- Loss of control over how personal information is used by business companies.
- Eviction of tenants from homes where police believe drugs are being sold.
- Public housing projects being sealed to conduct home-to-home searches.
- Use of stereotypical profiles (including racial characteristics) to justify police searches.
- Seizure of lawyers' fees in drug cases.
- Warrantless searches and questioning of bus, train, and airline passengers.
- Random searches of school lockers.
- Random searches of cars in school parking lots.
- Increased number of activities requiring extensive personal investigation and disclosure.
- Lack of privacy in transactions such as video rental or computer use.
- Video surveillance of sidewalks, parks and other public spaces.
- Involuntary drug testing increasingly used as a prerequisite for routine activities such as earning a livelihood or playing on a sports team.
- Steady erosion by the courts of protection against search and seizure.
Drawing the line
Over just a few decades the practices listed above have become part of "the slow motion underneath" America -- little changes each "worse than the last, but only a little worse."
Is the analogy unfair? Are the procedures described above merely the necessary results of a complex, modern society? The inevitable result of a war on drugs?
To find out where you would draw the line, go back over the list of items above and ask yourself of each: was this step necessary? Wise? Democratic?
Now, here are some further measures that have been proposed, or are incremental extensions of existing restrictions, or that may come about thanks to advancing technology. Which ones do you feel cross the line? At what point would you take a public stand on one or all of these?
- Video surveillance of public bathrooms
- Strip searches of persons matching terrorist or drug courier profiles at airports, bus and train stations
- If you can't say 'fuck,' you can't say "fuck the government"
- -- Lennie Bruce
- A national ID card encoded with any or all of the following: medical information, credit history, employment record, arrest and driving record.
- Checkpoints at the edge of selected neighborhoods.
- Random identification checks of pedestrians by police officers
- Curfews for adults in high crime areas
- A computer data search before you would be permitted to board a plane
- Daytime curfews for youths
- Random street frisks for weapons
- Mail covers: recording by Post Service of suspicious names and addresses on envelopes
- Mail surveillance: opening of suspicious mail by Postal Service.
- National database assembling medical, credit, criminal and other records in easily accessible format.
- Mandatory fingerprinting or ID chip implantation for purposes of positive identification.
- Incarceration in "public health centers" for those who fail mandatory drug tests required for drivers' licenses or school attendance.
The right to be wrong
The major bulwark of freedom in our country is the Constitution. Many of the liberties we still enjoy did not, however, spring unchallenged from the womb of that document. Rather they were the product of protests, education and litigation, often over long periods of time.
After being won, such freedoms tend to be taken for granted. People lose the memory of why a battle was fought and how hard it was to win. Daniel Webster warned in 1837 that the danger to the country was not from a foreign foe, but from the "inattention of the people to the concerns of their government, from their carelessness and negligence." Thomas Jefferson put it even more bluntly during the Revolution:
From the conclusion of this war we shall be going downhill. It will not be necessary to resort every moment to the people for support. They will be forgotten, therefore, and their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves save in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights. The shackles, therefore . . . will be made heavier and heavier, till our rights shall revive or expire in a convulsion.
Sometimes people believe in civil liberties, but mostly for themselves. Some feminists have attacked the First Amendment for permitting pornography, forgetting that the modern women's movement was built in part on the success of the 1960s free speech movement. Some blacks have attacked the protection of hate speech, even though such a protection works for both Louis Farrakhan and David Duke. And it has become fashionable for some academics to ridicule the Constitution as the work of dead white guys interested only in protecting property, although most of these academics have never been beat upside the head by a cop.
Two hundred and twenty years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the NY Daily News asked 40 people on the street what happened on July 4, 1776. Only nine got it right, almost all of them either school children or foreigners
Because people of differing views often lose interest in liberties when they don't work to their own advantage, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union are frequently criticized for defending what Walt Kelly once described as the basic American right of everyone to make damn fools of themselves. This chart shows some of the freedoms that have been constitutionally established by the Supreme Court just in the past few decades thanks to the ACLU and others. It's a good reminder that while you were doing your thing, someone has been looking after you:
A few rights a few people
have won for you
in the Supreme Court
1932: The right to be protected by the Constitution even in state and local courts
1935: The right not to have your ethnic group excluded from a jury
1937: The right not to be arrested simply for attending a meeting of a peaceful but unpopular group
1938: The right to distribute literature without a permit
1939: The right to assemble in public spaces such as streets and parks
1940: The prohibition of racially based exclusion from party primaries
1946: Major limits placed on the ability of the post office to ban "offensive" material
1948: The outlawing of restrictive real estate covenants based on race and origin
1949: The right to give a speech that some find offensive
1952: The right to produce or view a movie that some consider sacrilegious
1954: The outlawing of segregated schools
1958: The right to travel
1962: Freedom from state-sponsored praying
1963: The right of poor people to be represented in court
1964: The right to have a lawyer after being arrested
1964: The right of the press to robustly criticize public officials without fear of libel charges
1965: The right of married people to use contraceptives
1966: The right to be informed of your rights following an arrest and to remain silent
1966: The right of an elected official to criticize US foreign policy
1967: The right not to have to sign a loyalty oath in order to obtain public employment
1967: The right of young people to be protected under the Constitution
1967: The right to marry someone of another race
1968: The right to teach and learn about evolution
1968: The right of a child born out of wedlock not to be discriminated against as a result
1968: The right of children living with a single parent to receive welfare benefits
1969: The right to speech that does not directly incite imminent lawless action
1969: The right of free speech for students
1972: The right of women to be protected under the 14th amendment
1972:The right of unmarried people to use contraceptives
1973: The right to an abortion
1974: The right of a student to notice and a hearing before disciplinary action is taken
1975: Prohibition of indefinite confinement of mental patients based on illness alone
1986: The right to use profanity towards a police officer in the course of an investigation
1989: The right to symbolic free speech such as flag burning
1994: The right to post political signs in your home windows
1996: The right of gays to equal protection of the laws
Use it or lose it
The lawyer brought a copy of a book on drug legalization to the bookstore counter.
"That looks interesting," said the clerk.
"Yeah," replied the attorney, "a lot of people think this is the right way to go."
"Would you join an organization that supported legalization?"
"Oh no, I wouldn't want the government to get my name."
Does the government compile lists of people opposed to the drug war? We don't know, although certainly government agencies have compiled such lists in the past. But in this case it really doesn't matter. The fact that the bookstore clerk believed they might has the same effect as if it were actually the case. A sort of voluntary repression has set in; what might be becomes as important as what is.
Every time an American decides that it is too dangerous to exercise a freedom, that freedom is diminished.
Thus the first rule of staying free is to act free.
Over the years, many people have forgotten this. During the 1950s, some of the country's most important leaders -- from President Eisenhower to heads of universities and prominent liberals -- allowed themselves to be cowed by Senator McCarthy and other anti-communist vigilantes. In doing so, they contributed to many decent people being badly hurt.
On the other hand, a few people stood up to McCarthy and his ilk. Among the most effective were not the longtime civil libertarians -- despite their steadfast efforts -- but the sort of people who might well have stayed on the sidelines, as so many do today. People fortunate enough not to have to worry about the problem personally. Yet.
These people included a highly respected broadcast journalist, Edward R. Murrow, who spoke out for decency even as the networks were blacklisting other journalists for their views. They included conservative politicians such as Henry Aiken and Margaret Chase Smith whose New England sense of integrity was outraged by what was happening. And they included a bow-tied Boston establishment lawyer named Joseph Welch whom Americans watched on TV being brought to tears and disgust as Senator McCarthy made an underhanded attack on one of his young associates.
Today, as then, there is a shortage of such voices. The media in particular has become unwilling to challenge the status quo, participating instead in what Spengler called the "terrible censorship of silence."
But there are important exceptions -- such as government or corporate whistleblowers. Here are people who, simply because they tell the truth about their government or employers, have been assigned to psychiatric treatment, threatened with dismissal, had security clearances revoked, been ostracized on the job or physically endangered. Here are some of the hidden heroes and heroines of democracy. They remind us that if they can take such risks, the least the rest of us can do is to act like a free people.
Understanding your warranty
The second rule for staying free is to know your rights.
When representatives of the American people met in 1787 to form what they called "a more perfect union," they drew up a sort of warranty agreement -- a contract between the people and the government they were creating. They called it the Constitution. Back then you didn't have to explain why such an agreement was important. After all the country had just fought a war against a government that had made a lot of bad laws without asking anybody. They didn't want it to happen again.
The Constitution created a new kind of government -- one that did not draw its legitimacy from force and intimidation but from the people themselves and from the places in which they lived. The powers of the federal government, as it says in the 10th Amendment, are those delegated to the United States by the Constitution. Everything else belongs to the states or to the people.
Lawyers tend to make the Constitution sound far more complicated than it is. They also fail to tell you that it is not just a legal document but a political and a moral one, and that your opinion about it counts, too.
Polls suggest, however, that Americans are woefully uninformed about the Constitution. According to one survey, three and a half times as many Americans can name the Three Stooges as can name three Supreme Court justices.
This is one reason why it's been so easy to chip away at the rights the Constitution contains. In fact, the important aspects of the Constitution are easier to understand then, say, the rules for the NFL player draft or free agentry and salary caps.
The best rights you've got
Here, for example, are the most important guarantees the Constitution makes to you:
1. You can say what you want
2. You can pray what you want or not at all.
3. You can gather peaceably with others,
4. You can complain to the government and ask for redress of your grievances.
5. You, your house, your papers or property may not be subject to unreasonable searches and seizures.
6. All citizens are entitled to equal protection under the laws.
7. If you run afoul of the law, you are to entitled to a long list of protections -- just in case someone made a mistake or is trying to frame you, to wit:
- You are subject only to warrants issued "upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
- You have to be informed of the crime of which you are charged.
- You do not have to testify against yourself.
- You can't be tried twice for the same crime.
- You can't be tried for something that wasn't against the law at the time you did it. You are entitled to "due process of law."
- You must have a "speedy and public" trial before an "impartial jury" if accused of a crime.
- You are entitled to a court review of how and why you were imprisoned.
- You are entitled to be confronted by the witnesses against you.
- You can present witnesses on your own behalf.
- You have the right to a lawyer.
- You are to be free from excessive bail or fines as well as from cruel and unusual punishment.
Other rights that help
Freedom of the press: There are other rights average Americans do not usually exercise but which still benefit them. For example: freedom of the press. Freedom of the press, A.J. Liebling pointed out, really belongs to the person who owns one. Nonetheless, Thomas Jefferson thought this freedom so important he said, "were it left for me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." His views changed sharply after he became president, which is one of the reasons why a free press is important -- so it will still be there after politicians have changed their minds.
Previous recall notices
At the time the Constitution was adopted many Americans were denied its rights. Blacks, women, people who didn't own land, and the less educated were among those widely and long denied some or all of its protections -- including the right to vote. Pre-Civil War free blacks in the nation's capital, for example, were still subject to apartheid-type codes requiring them to carry passes and to observe a nightly curfew. It was not until 1920 that women were finally allowed to vote. And it was only in 1971 that those 18 to 20 years old were also enfranchised. The history of America in no small part has been the story of fighting to right such wrongs and trying to make the Constitution apply to everyone.
Hidden rights: Two of the most important amendments to the Constitution long attracted little attention. In the past few years that's changed. One of these is the 9th Amendment, which declares that simply listing certain rights in the Constitution does not mean that the people don't have others. In other words, not all your rights come from the Constitution. Some stem from what are sometimes called people's natural rights or from a long history of legal precedents known as common law. For example, the Constitution doesn't address privacy but the common law does. Similarly, the right of juries to judge both the law and the fact comes from outside the Constitution -- from court rulings dating as far back as William Penn's day. .
The other hidden right declares that any powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution "are reserved to the states or to the people." Note that the powers of the United States are those delegated. This is from the 10th Amendment. When you hear the 10th Amendment being discussed, people are talking about the relative power of the federal government, the states, and the people.
So who's really in charge?
You are. Even the powers of the President, Congress, and Supreme Court are there only because they have been delegated by the people and the states. Besides, once the powers are delegated, the Constitution neatly divides them up. The founders wanted to make sure none of the branches of government gained too much power over you.
The most dangerous thing
any politician can say about your rights
When politicians or journalists say that a constitutional right must be balanced by something else, they are really talking about reducing or eliminating that right. In fact, the rights listed in the Constitution are not bargaining chips, but permanent guarantees.
Lately, politicians and the media have also taken to talking about "rights and responsibilities," as though free speech and free religion and not having cops raiding your house without a warrant were privileges we citizens only get when we're well-behaved. Don't believe them. Your constitutional rights, to borrow a phrase from the Declaration of Independence, are "unalienable."
Of course, the country will work a lot better if you vote in every election, help out in your community, and are nice to your neighbors, but it isn't necessary in order to be protected under the Constitution. You can be a grouchy, selfish couch potato making crazy calls to talk shows and still have the same rights as the most faithful volunteer at the local church.
Our rights as seen by
& live politicians
I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. -- James Madison
Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros, responding to criticism of plans to allow public housing searches without a warrant, said that "Beyond ideology, beyond partisanship, beyond fine legal distinctions," there is a demand for an end of violence.
The office of America is to liberate, to abolish kingcraft, priestcraft, caste, monopoly, to pull down the gallows, to burn up the bloody statute-book, to take in the immigrant, to open the doors of the sea and the fields of the earth. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do. -- NYC Mayor Rudi Guiliani
As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression . . .There is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such a twilight that we must be most aware of change in the air -- however slight -- lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness. -- William O. Douglas.
When we got organized as a country and we wrote a fairly radical constitution with a radical bill of rights, giving a radical amount of individual freedom to Americans, it was assumed that the Americans who had that freedom would use it responsibly. . . It assumed that people would basically be raised in coherent families, in coherent communities, and they would work for the common good, as well as for the individual welfare. What's happened in America today is too many people live in areas where there's no family structure, no community structure and no work structure. And so there's a lot of irresponsibility. And so a lot of people say there's too much personal freedom. When personal freedom's being abused, you have to move to limit it. -- President Bill Clinton
Selling city hall
It's the dangest thing I ever saw. As majority leader you can't keep the money from coming in. -- House Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-TX)
There are ways that democracy can be lost other than through a direct assault on the Constitution. One of the most traditional methods for replacing or weakening democracy is to corrupt it.
Corruption isn't necessarily illegal. If I were to make a $1000 contribution to a political committee established to aid some member of Congress, no one would say that I had engaged in bribery. Yet in truth, the only difference between a bribe of $1000 to that congressman and a campaign contribution in the same amount is that the former is legal.
The late Senator Paul Douglas had a good ethical rule for himself. He would only accept gifts he could eat or drink within 24 hours. Thus a pint of whiskey was okay, but a quart was too much.
We not only don't pay enough attention to legal corruption, we tend to put far more emphasis on who is being corrupted than who is doing the corruption.
While it is beyond the scope of this book (or most major religions) to end political corruption, here are a few hints on how you can keep payoffs limited to a little sex and payola, and not have them destroy all our freedoms and rights.
How to keep corruption in check
& out of the Constitution
1. Hit the corrupters at least as hard as the corruptees. The real danger in corruption is what the bribe buys, not the soul of the bought politician (which probably never was in that great a shape anyway).
2. The worst corruption tends to be legal, therefore hardly anyone notices it. Remember that corrupt not only means dishonest, it also means without integrity. In most jurisdictions the latter is not a violation of the law.
3. Just because the corruption is legal doesn't mean you have to accept it. Martin Luther didn't -- and so helped to reform a little church-run protection racket known as indulgences.
4. Simply because corruption is bad, don't assume all reforms are good. Early 20th century housing reformers, for example, would conduct midnight raids on tenements to expose overcrowding and Common Cause helped to give us PACs.
5. If forced to choose between minor corruption and major incompetence, take the former. It's cheaper and easier to live with.
6. Favor corruption that is well distributed-- that gets down to the street over that which only favors a few. Thus: reform zoning policies before you worry about parking tickets.
Economic freedom counts, too
So far, we've mainly been talking about political freedom. But economic freedom is important, too. The American Revolution was an economic as well as a political victory, triumphing over a system in which only the nobility and a few large merchants held economic power.
The definition of economic freedom at the time was quite different from that used by today's corporate chief executive seeking yet another congressional tax break. Early free Americans widely believed that one was entitled to the "fruits of your labor" and no more. They opposed the concentration of property because it would allow property owners to seize political power.
During the entire colonial period only about a half dozen business corporations were chartered. In the first 20 years after the Revolution only about 150 corporations were chartered. Each of these charters required that the corporation be in the public interest.
Early free Americans were not capitalists (the word hadn't even been invented). The Constitution was written for people and not for corporations. Free enterprise was not mentioned in it.
These early Americans were, however, deeply commercial. One reason for this was that commercial activity allowed you to break free of the social and economic restrictions of a British economy based on nobility and monopoly. Americans didn't want to work for such a system; they wanted to work for themselves. And they weren't concerned about competition because there wasn't much.
The rise of the modern corporation in the late 19th century represented a counter-coup against these values of the American Revolution. It dramatically undermined both political and economic freedom, corrupted politicians and ransacked national assets. It replaced the feudalism of the monarchy with the feudalism of the corporation.
Perhaps the most important event occurred 110 years after the launching of the American Revolution. In 1886, the Supreme Court ruled that a corporation was a person under the 14th Amendment and entitled to such constitutional protections as those of free speech.
With this fiction, the Court helped to boost the corporate takeover of America. The 14th Amendment had been clearly written to protect the rights of newly freed slaves. But by the 1930s -- fifty years later -- less than one-half of one percent of 14th Amendment cases coming before the Supreme Court involved blacks and more than fifty percent involved corporations seeking its protection.
As persons, corporations could inject themselves fully into civic life (such as influencing campaigns and politicians) while still repelling public interference in their own affairs. They could construct barriers on civil liberties grounds against efforts to control their rapaciousness and greed. Many of these rights that corporations secured by law came even as blacks and women were still struggling towards full enfranchisement.
How states once
The purposes for which every such corporation shall be established shall be distinctly and definitely specified in the articles of association, and it shall not be lawful for said corporation to appropriate its funds to any other purpose. -- State of Wisconsin, 1864
The charter or acts of association of every corporation hereafter created may be amendable or repealed at the will of the general assembly. -- State of Rhode Island, 1857
[Legislators shall] alter, revoke or annul any charter of a corporate hereafter conferred . . . whenever in their opinion it may be injurious to citizens of the community. -- State of Pennsylvania, constitutional amendment, 1857.
During much of the past century, Americans went along with the rising power of corporations because these companies provided higher incomes and ever-increasing jobs. But about 20 years ago, these two conditions began to disappear. Part of today's political tension stems from a growing concern over the rising power of big corporations even as their social and economic contribution to America declines.
Another easy way to diminish democracy -- and one that has become immensely popular in the 1990s -- is to privatize it. Of course, that's not quite how it's described. Proponents speak of privatizing services or privatizing government, but what they often mean is making a corporate entity out of what was formerly part of democracy.
This trend has occurred with the media hardly noticing the political erosion involved. In fact, in the lexicon of politics and press these days, the citizen has been reduced to a mere consumer or taxpayer, terms that wipe out the fundamental notion of ownership of government by the public. The citizen, it is now widely suggested, only pays and is served; the citizen no longer decides.
Privatization inevitably creates an additional barrier between the citizen and whatever is being done. To be sure, cities have long contracted out services such as trash pickups, and that often works pretty well, but what is now happening is not only the contracting out of services but the contracting out of democratic control. There is an immense difference between letting the Biggo Corporation collect your garbage and letting it teach your kids. When a school system contracts with a private firm to run its schools, it is transferring not only the power to teach and administer but is delegating its own power to decide democratically how these things should happen.
A really simple rule
Ask the following question:
Is this something about which citizens should have a say?
If the answer is yes, don't privatize.
The media has been a major cheerleader of privatization. Daily papers, in particular, like a new form called the "business improvement district." The idea is to designate a special district, usually downtown, in which a special assessment is applied to local businesses and their tenants to support programs such as new lighting, security patrols and planting. There are now some 1000 of these districts across the country with budgets as high as $10 million a year.
In these districts, voting on directors and their policies may be weighted based on tax payments, thus favoring the largest commercial interests even though the owners may not even reside in the city involved. In many cases, owners of major property not only get to decide, they can pass on the fees they approve to their tenants. Residents and/or business tenants tend to have little or no say.
Such districts, in essence, apply the principle of corporate voting -- the more money you have, the more votes you get -- to public decisions. Even in the early days of republic -- when the franchise was limited to property-owning white males -- each voter still only got one ballot.
And after you've taken over downtown,
where are you going now?
Just as the ads say: Disney World.
Disney has outdone downtown business districts by purchasing a whole town. Lake Buena Vista, FL, has only 40 citizens, some 30 million visitors, and only one major business: Disney World. By creating its own jurisdiction, Disney has revived the 19th century notion of the company town and eliminated the need for local democracy. As Joshua Wolfe Shenk wrote in the American Prospect:
At stake is the control of public space. Americans may have so despaired of government that they are ready to concede authority over whole communities to private corporations. But, then, who insures democratic accountability? And where does corporate power end? ~ The "secession of the affluent," as Robert Reich has called the growth of private communities and private governments, is an acceptable solution to our problems only if democracy is irredeemable.
What happens when public space goes private
On public property you have the right of free speech. So does a corporation.
On the corporation's property, only the corporation retains the full right of free speech.
While in the town square, you are protected by not only the Constitution, but by a broad range of other laws such as those insuring civil rights.
While in a shopping mall that frequently replaces the town square your constitutional and legal rights are greatly restricted.
If you live in a town or village -- a real community -- you share with other voters broad powers over what happens and who carries it out.
If you in a developer's "community," nearly all decisions will be made by the developer's company.
In a traditional downtown, decisions are made (including tax policy) by the voters and the people they elect. All of these persons are residents of the town.
In the new privatized business districts sprouting up around the country, decisions (including special assessments ) are made by commercial taxpayers. Residents and tenants may get no vote and the business owners need not live in the community
Letting corporations run wild
- The privatization of democracy is just part of the damage done by a post-1980 era of permissiveness towards corporations. Some of the other results:
- declining real incomes for working Americans despite record corporate profits
- the S&L scandals
- the incorporation and industrialization of health care
- the emigration of jobs and businesses abroad
- the rise of multinationals and a decline of corporate loyalty towards the US.
- the dismantling of union agreements
- the de facto repeal of anti-trust laws
- growing assaults on environmental and health regulations
- the co-optation of the Congress, White House, and both major political parties to the service of major corporations
- deep political corruption fueled by corporate lobbying and contributions.
How to loot local government
The corporate riot hasn't just taken place at the national level. Here are three popular ways corporations loot local governments:
1. Demand large subsidies for a company coming to, or remaining in, a community. Kentucky, for example, kept two businesses in the state by paying them $350,000 per job.
2. Refuse to pay a fair share of improvements required because of a company's presence in a community.
3. Take public property such as water and not pay for it or for the ecological damage that results.
Why has all this happened so easily? One reason is that the politicians themselves have been privatized. If you compare what members of Congress receive in government salary with what they get from business in campaign contributions, you might easily conclude that your representative was a corporate employee. You would not be all that far off.
There is a name for what has happened. It's called corporatism -- a system in which the state exists primarily to advance the interests of its largest corporations, which in turn direct the economy and national priorities.
Just as communism represents an extreme form of socialism, so corporatism represents an extreme form of capitalism.
America did not invent corporatism. That honor really belongs to Mussolini's Italy. Here's how historian Adrian Lyttelton described Mussolini's approach:
Industry was ordered to form 'a common front' in dealing with foreigners. To avoid 'ruinous competition,' and to eliminate inefficient enterprises ~ the values of competition were to be replaced by those of organization: Italian industry would be reshaped and modernized by the cartel and trust.
We had a less flattering term for what the Italians were about: fascism. Although we usually equate fascism with a particularly evil form of political tyranny, its roots were in an economic system. Lyttelton in fact defined fascism as "a product of the transition from the market capitalism of the independent producer to the organized capitalism of the oligopoly."
Several decades ago, a major industrialist was scorned when he said "What's good for GM is good for America. . . ." Today it is national policy.
Restoring economic democracy
This use of the government of all for the enrichment and aggrandizement of few is a revolution. ~ These sovereign powers . . . have been given by you and me, all of us, to our government to be used only for the common and equal benefit. Given by all to be used by all, it is a revolution to have made them the perquisite of a few. -- Henry Demarest Lloyd speaking in the 1890s to a crowd in Cook County, IL.
In the last few years, there has been growing support for a simple and direct notion: that we should correct the egregious error that the Supreme Court made when it declared corporations to be persons. This could be achieved by passing a constitutional amendment inserting some words clarifying that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment is only meant to apply to living human beings.
In America's new economic circumstances, such a change would raise an issue that is no longer academic or quixotic. The battle over such an amendment would force Americans to educate themselves about the corporate ursurpation of our rights. It would help citizens learn the huge difference between economically productive commercialism and corporate feudalism.
Some things to doto stay free
1. Act like a free American
2. Know your rights
3. Know where you will draw the line and take a stand
4. You don't have to like other Americans; you do have to be decent to them.
5. Don't let anyone "balance" your rights with anything. Your rights are inalienable.
6. Don't let your politicians sell democracy to private business.
7. Amend the Constitution to make clear that corporations are not entitled to rights designed for individual citizens.