Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Dangerous Tendencies

Here's another passage from Terry Bouton's Taming Democracy, on the topic of public attitudes towards corporations in the 1780s (with the Bank of North America as the particular case in point):
. . . people worried that the bank would eventually destroy democracy. Thousands of Pennsylvanians complained in their petitions that bankers [...] had begun "to acquire influence in our public councils, and an ascendancy in the government, subversive of the dearest rights of the people." They were worried that "a small number" of "monied men" and "perhaps a single stockholder" could eventually use the bank's growing economic might to begin "actually governing" the state as a shadow government. Others spoke of how it was "highly dangerous" and "Contrary to [the] spirit of a republican government" to have an "institution" that was "placed out of the reach of the legislature," noting that not even "the former government" had been willing to create a private "influence" so "powerful and alarming."

It was not that these people thought bankers were somehow innately sinister; instead, they worried about [...] the "nature of the institution." As a profit-driven company, the bank operated under "natural principles" of doing whatever it took to make money. [...]

The belief that profit-driven corporations pose a grave threat to democracy led many people to declare that they should all be made illegal. Echoing the phrases in popular petitions, some state legislatures said for-profit corporations were "totally destructive of that equality which ought to prevail in a republic." "The accumulation of enormous wealth in the hands of" a company with corporate status, they declared, "will necessarily produce a degree of influence and power which cannot be entrusted in the hands of any set of men whatsoever without endangering the public safety." Others spoke of the "dangerous tendencies" of for-profit corporations or talked about corporate power as "an engine of destruction" that enabled "a few men to take advantage of their wealth." Even one of the state's leading writers on economics argued that any institution chartered for "its own immediate profit [was] incompatible with the interest of the State." "So powerful and uncontroulable a combination of property in private hands," this economist declared, could only lead to "an undue exercise of influence" over economic and political life--just as private corporations like the Bank of England had an "injurious" hold over the British Parliament.

This anti-corporate belief was so strong that, during the postwar decades, few government actions prompted the kind of swift, widespread, and visceral public condemnation as did the attempts of state leaders to grant corporate status. (pp. 111-112) (Elisions are mine; bracketed words are Bouton's.)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Might one consider the Pennsylvania Regulators, along with the Hudson River Valley, North Carolina, and South Carolina Regulators of the 1760s & 1770s, the Massachusetts Regulators of Shays' Rebellion in 1786-1787, and the Maine Regulators of the 1780s-1808, the original American Populists? Does wealth inequality in America today call for another Regulator/Populist political movement?

May 11, 2008 1:54 PM  

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