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‘Tyranny’ by Any Other Name

Sohrab Ahmari, author of Tyranny, Inc speaks to a student summit in Tampa. 2021.

Sohrab Ahmari wants conservatives to stand up for the little guy against big business. Despite being an influential voice among traditionalists, however, his book Tyranny, Inc‘s criticism of corporate America reads more like those of a socialist pamphleteer of a century ago than a modern conservative pundit. Even compared to the populist politicians whose names appear among the book’s dust-jacket endorsements — Senators Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) — Ahmari’s anti-capitalism comes off as not so much a proposal for reasonable reforms as a repudiation of the entire modern economy.

The core of the book’s argument is that business decisions that negatively affect workers today are equivalent in their force to the coercive power of government, meaning that Americans in the 21st century are subject to an economic system deserving of the title’s verdict: tyranny. His philosophical and legal argument for this moral equivalence is extremely weak. The book’s chapters collect several anecdotes of unpleasant and disappointing events in the lives of seemingly nice and honorable people, many of which cry out for some kind of equitable redress. But the collection of unfortunate outcomes does not paint the picture of an unchecked economic tyranny, any more than miscarriages of justice in our legal system define a political tyranny.

Despite the book’s focus on alleged financial and employment injustices, the analogy to law enforcement is surprisingly apt. Just as the revolutionaries of the summer of 2020 insisted that we must defund (and even abolish) the police to have a just society, Ahmari would have us throw out the baby of property rights with the dirty bathwater of procedural unfairness. And much like his critical theory doppelgangers on the left, he has decided to boldly redefine the English language to get there. Just as leftists have long insisted that speech they disagree should be redefined as violence, so Ahmari repeatedly insists that the outcome of voluntary legal and financial transactions that he dislikes constitute coercion and tyranny.

The book recounts several examples of ostensible unfairness: aggressive non-disclosure agreements, surprise billing for privatized local government services, suspiciously clever corporate bankruptcy strategies, and a longtime employee of a declining retail giant evicted from the home he expected to live in the rest of his days. Ahmari very smartly personalizes each chapter of alleged corporate abuses with the details of sympathetic individuals who have suffered misfortunes the reader will no doubt find moving. (This reader did.) But even the most heart-rending recitation of regrettable outcomes can’t overwhelm the basic illogic of his wider argument.

The theory that non-disclosure agreements in the workplace, for example, are the moral equivalent of government tyranny stems from Ahmari’s claim that voluntary agreements between unequal parties are inherently unfair. An individual will find it difficult, for example, to hold a large corporation with far greater resources accountable before the law.

But contract law was never expected to exist only between parties of exactly equal stature or wealth. If that were the requirement, hardly any contracts would be possible, because very few sets of potential business partners are so exactly matched. And virtually all employment contracts, in particular, would be logically impossible, since individuals would likely be far less economically influential than any business looking to hire them. Even a sole proprietor about to hire his very first employee would be considered to have more power simply because he’s the boss.

If anything, civil law and contracts were originally meant to protect parties precisely when they weren’t of equal stature and wealth. Two equally matched but feuding pre-modern lords, for example, might be able to fight it out for themselves without the intervention of any further authorities. It was a bourgeois merchant making repayment demands of a titled respondent who would need to depend on the formal terms of a written agreement, enforced by the state.

The deeper problem with the idea that contracts between unequal parties are presumptively invalid, however, can be seen in the limited situations in which that principle has historically been applied. There are, of course, cases in which the law simply doesn’t allow enforceable agreements to exist, even between consenting parties. A fourteen-year-old girl cannot consent to sex with a 30-year-old man, for example. A dementia patient cannot make amendments to their last will and testament, no matter how sunny their disposition or seeming interest in the outcome. We also don’t let children purchase cigarettes, order cocktails, or get tattoos, no matter how much both sides of those potential transactions might be willing to execute them.

The lesson here, however, is that those limitations only exist for individuals who are categorically unable to consent at all. We don’t solve the problem of sexual exploitation by saying that there should be a National Sexual Relations Board whose job it is to second-guess every intergenerational coupling proposed by theoretically consenting parties — we simply say that such agreements are not allowed. By analogy, the natural logic of saying that individual employees are too weak to consent to an employment contract is that they don’t have sufficient moral agency to make such agreements at all. But that doesn’t sound nearly as fun as suggesting that, under the in loco parentis regime of a future Ahmarian republic, we would all earn more money and never get fired.

Ahmari claims that most of this power differential would be solved if everyone in America was a member of a labor union and subject to a contract negotiated via collective bargaining, but he simply isn’t willing to acknowledge that private-sector US workers have been voluntarily navigating away from organized labor for longer than he has been alive. His chronology is also a little convoluted — in most of the book, he claims that the thirty years after the end of World War II were the “golden” decades of shared prosperity for American workers, but the only significant legislative restraint on labor union organizing, the Taft-Hartley Act, was passed by a Republican-led Congress over President Harry Truman’s veto in 1947, just as this ideal age was supposedly beginning.

In defense of the individuals Ahmari profiles, some of the processes that they have been subject to might, in fact, benefit from reform. In his chapter on corporate bankruptcy law, he goes after venue-shopping corporate filers who have engaged in questionable tactics to guarantee themselves a hearing before the most sympathetic possible judge. Perhaps the federal court system ought to change the way it assigns cases to stop this from happening? As it turns out, there is already bipartisan legislation to address this very problem, and — as Ahmari notes — the Southern District of New York (where many large corporate bankruptcy cases are heard) has already changed its procedure. But that’s just the kind of incrementalism that he considers insultingly modest and insufficient to meet the challenge of the day. On the contrary, for Ahmari, only revolution will confront the tyranny of our age.

Or, perhaps more accurately, Ahmari demands a counter-revolution, since he insists that the previous mid-century status quo of virtuous political economy was itself perverted by a wave of neoliberal radicalism that deregulated corporate America and robbed workers of their deserved prosperity. But much like the left-wing academics who make similar claims, he doesn’t reckon with the real-world growth of government spending and the administrative state.

Yes, the US federal government did step back from some direct regulation of market sectors like rail and airlines, starting in the late 1970s (under union-loving Democrat Jimmy Carter, though, not free-market ideologue Ronald Reagan). But those (neo-)liberal reforms have been accompanied by massive expansion of federal authority and rulemaking throughout the economy otherwise. Federal spending and debt levels are higher than ever in recent years. The number of pages in the Federal Register continues to soar, and regulatory compliance costs are at least $2 trillion a year.

It’s especially ironic that Ahmari, in his chapter on the failure of Sears, claims that the deregulatory zeitgeist of recent decades has supposedly created a wild-west world of high finance where anything goes, and the regulators have all been bought off. Perhaps he is unfamiliar with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 or the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, both massive (and massively expensive) expansions of federal regulation of corporate America and the finance industry. The supposed triumph of laissez-faire capitalism will no doubt come as a particular surprise to corporate counsels and CFOs, who are now expected to prepare public reports on everything from how much they plan to spend on carbon credits to the ethnic identities and sexual orientations of their board members.

Ahmari emphasizes the need for greater worker power and goes into detail on examples of alleged injustice — like the privatization of local fire and emergency rescue services. But it isn’t until the very end that he presents his most fundamental point. He’s not just upset that workers must follow their employers’ rules, but that the government doesn’t get to decide for everyone what the norms and conditions of our lives should be. He insists that we need to get more political — that is, resolve more disputes via politics and voting rather than market processes and private negotiation. This is his final, and worst, argument.

Much like the leftists who insist that “true democracy” involves stakeholder voting on any disposition of resources or institutional plans in society, Ahmari wants every important economic decision to be run through government bureaucracies rather than voluntary agreement. That would be just fine if we were a majoritarian democracy in which no individuals had any rights. There are plenty of countries with systems closer to what Ahmari would like to see, after all — countries without the Constitution’s specific and limited delegation of divided powers to the federal government, and the restrictions imposed on its authority by the Bill of Rights. The US federal government, however, doesn’t have plenary authority to micromanage every transaction in society, and creating a new system that does would not be an improvement. The liberal version of true democracy is everyone getting to decide, peaceably, how to manage their own lives — not everyone being perpetually subjected to the whims of 50-percent-plus-one of their fellow men.

Philosophers and psychologists remind us that human beings are often afflicted by status quo bias, that is, assuming that the current state of things is necessarily the best, or only, way of existing. Conservatives, on the other hand, often seem to fall victim to the opposite vice, what we might call status quo horribilis bias, the assumption that the way things are now must be the worst of times, and a sad decline from an earlier age. Yet by virtually any measure, Americans are better off now than in the mid-20th century. Economic output per capita today is over three times what it was during the middle of the alleged post-war golden age. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Strain has pointed out in his most recent book, typical workers have seen an inflation-adjusted increase of 34 percent in purchasing power over the last 30 years — hardly stagnant, as alleged by Ahmari and many other populists.

Critics bewail a shrinking middle class, but conveniently leave out that the main cause is a broadening upper class. Homeownership rates now are higher — and our homes are larger. In 1960, only 7.7 percent of Americans had a college degree, now almost 40 percent have that achievement. The number of households without cars declined by about half between 1960 and 2020. Americans also travel far more widely than we used to — the number of US passports in circulation increased 22-fold (7.3 million to 160.7 million) just between 1989 and 2023. Median household net worth — the kind not skewed by a few wealthy people at the top — has doubled just since 2010.

It’s true that between the late 1970s and mid 1990s median hourly compensation, adjusted for inflation, declined. But between 1996 and 2022, the time when neoliberal tyranny was supposedly at its most intense, the median hourly wage — again, already adjusted for inflation — increased by 15 percent. Social policy scholar Scott Winship has also done extensive work on wage levels and earning power, pointing out that pessimists overstate actual inflation, undervalue increases in the quality of existing goods, leave out the rising value of government benefits, and ignore advantageous tax provisions like the child tax credit. In 2023 Winship and Jeremy Horpedahl of the University of Central Arkansas found that, accounting for all relevant factors, earnings of full-time workers actually increased by 53 percent between 1985 and 2022.

Parents will be especially relieved to know that while the child mortality rate in the golden year of 1950 was 40 per 1,000, by 2020 it was only 7; an 82.5 percent decline in the number of children under 5 dying every year. Given these changes, should we be demanding to return to the material conditions of the 1945 to 1975 era?

Finally, while Ahmari and many economic populists employ the status quo horribilis reasoning of today and pine for the pre-Reagan and pre-Thatcher glory of the past, plenty of cultural critics from those decades would have been just as negative about their own time. The Port Huron Statement of 1962 declared that “Loneliness, estrangement, isolation describe the vast distance between man and man today.” In 1960 NAACP official Herbert Hill wrote that, despite public claims to the contrary, the newly unified AFL-CIO had “failed to eliminate the broad pattern of racial discrimination and segregation in many important affiliated unions.” And, of course, conservatives in the 1950s and 1960s famously made an entire cottage industry of complaining about every social trend from rock ‘n’ roll, juvenile delinquency, and biker gangs to campus radicalism, drug use, and free love.

Even famed Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Barbara Tuchman, a woman with deep knowledge of earlier centuries, claimed in A Distant Mirror (1978) that her own time was similar to the calamitous plague-and-war-haunted 14th century. She wrote that studying that apocalyptic era was “consoling,” in that she considered herself to be living “in a period of similar disarray.” According to Tuchman, “…[the] last decade or two of collapsing assumptions has been a period of unusual discomfort.” It apparently took a century that saw the death of a third of Europe to provide a sufficiently sharp contrast as having been significantly worse. Note she’s not talking about the slaughter of World War II, but merely the social and economic turmoil of post-war America. If Ahmari’s preferred period was truly golden, a lot of otherwise well-informed observers at the time seem to have missed its greatness entirely.

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