Overcoming ‘Economic Coercion’
In such a polarized political climate, this book has a potential to be a coalition-building anomaly among the populist right and labor left...
Catholics since Pope Leo XIII and his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum have recognized that the post-industrial economy left the working class prone to unjust exploitation.
“Some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class: for the ancient workingmen’s guilds were abolished in the last century, and no other protective organization took their place,” wrote Pope Leo.
Sohrab Ahmari’s Tyranny Inc.: How Private Power Crushed American Liberty — and What to Do About It, seeks to address this still-present need.
“Private actors can imperil freedom just as much as overweening governments,” Ahmari notes, and, thus, the government must support workers against these private actors. The laissez-faire impulse dominant today is the same one Leo decried — as vociferously as he decried the socialists.
“We can insist that economic activity isn’t and shouldn’t be divorced from justice, fair play, checks and balances, and other principles we associate with a decent political order,” states Ahmari’s introduction.
He then documents particular examples of “private tyranny” that illuminate structural issues in today’s economic order.
The book follows commonplace (yet incredibly difficult) situations, such as a single mother restaurant worker struggling with untimely scheduling, and it documents the seemingly absurd: a rural family being billed $20,000 from a “private firefighting company” after the company did nothing to prevent their home from burning to the ground. It then narrates the widespread — and once-illegal — union-busting techniques employed through numerous industries today and relays the dangers of the over-financialized modern economy.
Through these examples, Ahmari seeks to demonstrate first that the market is fundamentally coercive. For instance, the single mother could not quit her job without fear of homelessness, nor could the family evade their nonsensical, devastating firefighter bill. Then, while implicitly following the same logic as Rerum Novarum, Ahmari diagnoses how to balance state and corporate coercion— in order to allow for flourishing businesses and support the often-powerless working man.
“Not every instance of coercion is necessarily bad,” Ahmari states. “Rather, the point is to notice that market power is coercive power, often relying on the state’s backing and benefiting those blessed with legal sophistication at the expense of those who lack it.”
Many have regarded the recognizing of the conflict between worker and employer (the asset-less vs. the asset-rich, as Ahmari puts it) as “proto-socialist.” But failing to do so precludes the possibility of addressing the flaws that Leo XIII deemed so urgent at the end of the 19th century. Indeed, “When a system denies this reality, ignoring the power inequalities to which market societies are especially prone, we end up with the sorts of unjust coercion explored in this book,” Ahmari declares.
In this book’s recounting, the economic injustices deplored by Leo XIII reached their climax in the United States in the years before FDR’s New Deal.
The labor law enacted under FDR was the first and best reflection of Catholic social teaching America had seen: It provided bargaining power for the employee against the employer (significantly through the 1935 National Labor Relations Act). It also instituted a federal minimum wage and required employers show “just cause” for terminating contracts, helping level the employer-employee power dynamic.
However, in Ahmari’s telling, these labor laws have been defanged in the past decades, with judges reinterpreting them in favor of corporations rather than employees.
Ahmari calls for a renewal of strong labor law, arguing via rhetorical feint: “Karl Marx, for example, spoke of a ‘conflict now raging,’ as a result of the ‘changed relations between masters and workmen’ and the ‘enormous fortunes of some few individuals, and the utter poverty of the masses.’”
But then he continues, “Actually, those words were penned not by Marx but by Pope Leo XIII in his 1891 encyclical on capital and labor, Rerum novarum.”
Despite the “moral degeneracy” Leo asserted was inspired by this economic hardship, “conservative defenders of the system” often ignore the fact that “cultivating virtue requires tangible, structural supports.” Just as “a child will struggle to master honesty if his parents routinely model dishonesty; a body politic will likewise spurn the virtues if subjected to merciless economic exploitation,” Ahmari concludes.
Such exploitation afflicts laborers regardless of religion or party — restoring the necessary bargaining power to the hands of the asset-less is a pre-condition to helping them attain the economic necessities to live humanely.
In such a polarized political climate, this book has a potential to be a coalition-building anomaly among the populist right and labor left: The work keeps its focus on unjust economic coercion and does not touch upon cultural issues.
This intentional omission recognizes that the political opinions of the laborer are largely irrelevant to questions of economic justice. Indeed, Ahmari notes, “The rich must refrain from cutting down the workmen’s earnings,” whether by “force,” “fraud,” or “usurious dealing.” He then posits refraining from these would be sufficient to avoid “all strife and all its causes?”
Tyranny Inc. certainly carries this sentiment, but these words are not Ahmari’s but are rather Leo XIII’s from Rerum Novarum.
The Catholic social tradition recognizes through Rerum Novarum that “public administration must duly and solicitously provide for the welfare and the comfort of the working classes” that they might strive to be worthy of “the inheritance of the kingdom of Heaven.”
Tyranny Inc. has certainly garnered detractors among the laissez-faire capitalist of today. But through it, Ahmari ignores partisan orthodoxy and offers one of the most persuasive contemporary arguments for a secular economic order that implicitly reflects the earliest social encyclical.
W. Joseph DeReuil studies philosophy at Notre Dame. He previously edited the Irish Rover newspaper, and his writing has appeared in First Things and The American Conservative, among other places.