Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Answer to Regina Barna re Corporate Rights and the Role of Government

In August, the Hunterdon County Democrat published my letter The rights of fossil fuel producers. The letter rebutted opposition to a proposed natural gas pipeline carrying “fracked” gas through Hunterdon County. In a September 30, 2014 letter, “Corporate Rights,” defending environmentalism,  Regina Barna quoted from my letter:

It is somewhat ridiculous to equate the rights of a large corporation with the rights of the common man, while depicting environmentalists as the antagonists in the fight against the "good life" provided by the fossil fuel industry. The balance of power is always tipped in the favor of the powerful corporations. In a recent letter to the editor published in the Hunterdon County Democrat, Michael Laferrara [sic] wrote that, "The government's proper job is to equally protect everyone's fundamental moral right to freely produce, contract and trade." I am not sure what government he is looking at, but it certainly is not what this country is founded on.

I am thinking more in the line of: "All men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness," which is in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. The government's proper role is to ensure equality, to balance the playing field, to see that the rich and powerful do not take advantage of the average citizen, or what Theodore Roosevelt called the "common man."

I left these comments:

There is nothing “ridiculous” about corporate rights. Corporations are voluntary associations of individuals, each of whom possess rights. Protecting the rights of corporations is protecting the rights of the individuals who comprise it. Corporate rights are indispensable to our fundamental individual liberties. If corporations don’t have rights, then neither do the individuals comprising any group, including the group stopthepipe2014. Both are voluntary associations of individuals. If individuals lose their rights when joining a group, then what becomes of freedom of association, a fundamental First Amendment right? (I addressed corporate rights thoroughly in my HCD letter of 8/7/14. Since it’s not available online, I’ve reprinted it below [Please see my “Corporate Personhood” Clarified.])

The Declaration of Independence is precisely what I had in mind in my letter The rights of fossil fuel producers. The “fundamental moral right to freely produce, contract and trade” is integral to the “unalienable Rights [of] Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Liberty means freedom of action. Work and trade are actions vital to the support, maintenance, and furtherance (happiness) of one’s life. If the furtherance of one’s life by one’s own hand is not what those unalienable rights protect, then what exactly does the Declaration mean?

“The government's proper role is to ensure equality?” Wrong! The very next sentence in the Declaration states, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.”  Equality before the law is a means of securing the rights. Equality is not the purpose. The government’s only proper purpose is to protect the rights of all individuals. Under these principles, government favors no one—rich, poor, or “common”. Equality of rights before the law, the only kind of equality consistent with the Declaration and with just government, is the only valid context for “leveling the playing field.”

“Leveling the playing field” doesn’t mean violating the rights of the next guy. It simply means protecting everyone’s rights. For example, in a current HCD article, Rick Epstein reports:

“It was made clear that if the federal government OKs the pipeline, anyone who does not make a deal to sell an easement to PennEast would be compelled to yield at a price to be determined by the authorities.”

Clearly, this is an example of improper governmental power (eminent domain). If rights were protected equally at all times (a level playing field), no landowner, “common” or otherwise, would be “compelled to yield” to government on behalf of PennEast. I stand with anyone who fights eminent domain, wherever it rears its head. On a level playing field, no corporation or individual, no matter how rich, would have the power to compel anyone. If PennEast can not get the voluntary consent of every landowner its pipeline crosses, it must either alter the course or abandon the project. Likewise, if a corporation pollutes another’s property, the government, as rights protector, must step in and force the polluter to pay restitution, and criminally prosecute the polluter, if applicable. Individual rights are the best protection the “common man” has in any society.

But neither does the “common man” have the right to gang up on “the rich,” if equality means anything. No one has the right to initiate government power (the power of the gun) against others. No one can claim ownership of “the environment” by arbitrarily declaring herself the representative of “all of us” for the purpose of trampling the rights of others to work and trade. Nor does any individual have a right to speak for all about what’s “necessary to enjoy a quality of life.” You may not need the nat-gas, but someone else may. Each of us has a right to decide for ourselves what products we need, and contract voluntarily with the producer. That’s a level playing field. We are not a nation of warring community tribes, each xenophobically fighting to protect its “little piece of this earth.” The collectivist flag is the leitmotif of the individual rights violator.

Of course, pollution is not good, and it should be cleaned up as and when technological advances make feasable. Objective, balanced laws against pollution are part of a proper rights-protecting government. But considering the misery of pre-industrial life, pollution pales almost into insignificance compared to the life-giving value of industrialization. By the explicit acknowledgement of its own ideological leaders, environmentalism is not about cleaner industrialization; it is anti-industrialization. So, yes, true environmentalists—regardless of what rank-and-file “environmentalists” believe—are antagonists against the good life. As evidence, I give you the expressed reasons behind the anti-pipeline movement in NJ. For more, I refer you to my comments on another letter by this writer, Shale Gas is Bad Idea, which I posted under my NJ.com screen name “Zemack”.

Barna’s statement “The balance of power is always tipped in the favor of the powerful corporations” is also another example of the equivocation between economic and political power. A corporation, no matter how wealthy, cannot use its financial clout to violate rights (initiate force). It’s true that economic power—dollar power—varies widely across society. But Money is a benign, benevolent, and productive power; a fundamental good.

What is not benign is the power of the gun. It’s true that corporations often employ government force to violate rights. But that is not the power of money. That’s political power. “The rich and powerful [can] not take advantage of the average citizen” in a fully free, capitalist society. To the extent they are powerful, it’s the power to create life-benefitting values. Only in a mixed—i.e. politically corrupted—economy can money buy the force necessary to do harm.

Government can not and should not “level the playing field” in economics. It should, however, “level the playing field” in politics, and the only way to do that is through the protection of individual rights, equally, and at all times.

Related Reading:

The Dollar and the Gun—Harry Binswanger

Election 2014: Eminent Domain and the "Limits of Rights"

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