Saturday, January 16, 2021
Imagine that you are a resident in a low-population county in 1950. You run afoul of the small group of families who are effectively in charge. Your political and legal rights are unimpaired. You are free to vote and you are free to sue in municipal and county and state courts. The police treat you with unfailing courtesy and respect.
But strange things start to happen. The only newspaper in the county refuses to take ads for your business. The only bank in the county announces that it is closing your account and calling in your mortgage. Your car breaks down and the only garage and service shop in the county refuses to repair it. The only general store in the county refuses your patronage and the few restaurants in the county turn you away at the door. After you lose your business to the newspaper advertising boycott, you try to get a job, but discover that you have been blacklisted by all of the employers in the county. Nobody will hire you.
Are you free, in this scenario, just because there is no official interference with your voting rights and your civil rights? Private power is power, no less than government power. You can be immobilized, impoverished, humiliated, tormented, and perhaps driven to suicide by hostile businesses and banks in an otherwise functioning liberal democracy, just as surely as by the police or military in a dictatorship.
The United States in 2021 is a continental nation-state with nearly 330 million people. And yet its social system today, in disturbing respects, resembles that of my imaginary county in 1950. Instead of one general store, there is Amazon with its dominant online position. Instead of one local newspaper, there is Google, which serves as the 21st century version of the old Yellow Pages. Instead of one county bank, there are a handful of giant banks and credit card companies. As in the old Texas county, if one essential firm spurns you there may be no alternatives in that industry who want your business, as a practical matter. If one or all of these national monopolies and oligopolies turns against you, for whatever reason, your business or your reputation or your life can be destroyed.