How can we be free from corporate domination?

Philosopher Philip Pettit warns that we are holding corporations ‘less effectively to their responsibilities than we hold individuals to theirs’

Time was we used to sing freedom songs against foreign governments and the “colonial yoke”. But today, across the western world, it is financial corporations, or that elite bracket known as “the 1 per cent”, that seem to be the most dominant force in our lives.

Political philosopher Philip Pettit shares some of that concern. He is originally from Ballygar, Co Galway, and is based at Princeton University. His latest book, Just Freedom: A Moral Compass for a Complex World, explores the competing rights of individuals and group agents.

There's something of an alarm bell to today's idea, which he provides: Corporations represent a powerful challenge today to the freedom of individuals.

You promote the concept of ‘freedom as non-domination’. 

Has this some echoes in republican thinking in Ireland? Philip Pettit: “You actually get that concept


very clearly in the letters and some of the other writings of Wolfe Tone. He writes that he could never live with the permission of superiors. His idea is that, even if the authorities chose to be nice to him, he would always depend on that.

“So it is there already in Wolfe Tone, and, of course, it’s there in a very popular thought: the idea that, if you’ve got to tug the forelock, or bend the knee, or curry favour, then that means you’re not free.”

Can you be free if you are dependent on charity to meet your basic needs?

“My own view is that one is not really [free]. There is a long republican tradition according to which you are not free if there is a dominus or a lord in your life, if there’s someone who is a master of what you are able to do.”

How do you balance the rights of individuals against the rights of corporations?

“I’ve got a simple bottom line: we should design our institutions, our laws, our norms in such a way that it is for the best from the point of view of individual human beings, considered as equals within the society, that makes possible the flourishing of individuals within the society, where they are each of equal concern to the system. No one is privileged and no one is in an elite.

“Now that basic bottom line argues for giving individual human beings rights; we call them basic liberties. It also argues for giving rights to corporations, but a much narrower range of rights.

“But with both individuals and corporations, within the domain of rights they have, each of them [should be exposed] to being held responsible within the boundaries allowed them and for not trespassing on the welfare of others. Both corporations and individuals should be held responsible in their own right.”

By giving rights to both individuals and corporations is there a danger neither will be held accountable when a harm is done to society?

“Well if you give rights to both sides, of course equally, you give responsibilities to both sides. If you give banks the sorts of rights we have been giving them – and, after all, we have been increasing the rights of the banks worldwide over the last 10-20 years – then you have to be ever stricter in maintaining the required monitoring to make sure they’re not overstepping the rights, and of course holding them responsible when they do overstep.

“You’ve got to create the conditions under which it is always possible for these financial houses to, indeed, be held responsible in their own right, even in the criminal law.”

Do we need to protect ourselves from domination by corporations?

“Corporations are particularly dangerous and worrisome sources of domination for individual human beings. That can be shown in all sorts of ways. For example, if a corporation trespasses against you, in theory you can bring the corporation to the courts.

“Here’s a problem straight away. First of all, the legal costs of corporations are tax-deductible. So there is an advantage they have straight away over you, an individual. Secondly, these corporations have an indefinite lifespan; they don’t have an anxiety about getting the issue settled. A third advantage is: corporate entities are, of course, repeat players within the law; they go back time and again.

“You’re just basically in a position of deep asymmetry of power if you’re dealing with a corporation.

“Equally we know within any country a corporation of any size has usually got huge leverage over those in power, so they can push those in power to make laws that suit them. That gives them a huge advantage in regards to how the law is going to be framed, and I think you find this worldwide.

“We get a great push to reduce corporate taxes, to reduce corporate regulation, to make environmental prerequisites or restrictions on corporations ever laxer.

“I actually think you can’t exaggerate the threat we’re facing. What’s happening is we are loosening up the laws governing corporations. We are giving them ever more rights and, I would add, especially in the US, we are holding them less effectively to their responsibilities than we hold individuals to their responsibilities.”

Philip Pettit delivers a public lecture, The Infrastructure of Democracy, as part of the UCD Garret FitzGerald Summer School at 6pm today in the UCD Student Centre


Ludwig Wittgenstein said, "Whereof we cannot speak we must stay silent", while Frank Ramsey said, "What we can't say we can't say, and we can't whistle it either."

Is true religion, then, the art of staying schtum?

Rudolf Carnap replies: "Metaphysicians are musicians without musical ability."

Twitter @JoeHumphreys42