Is Open Government Anti-Corporate?

by on July 15, 2008 · 10 comments

Via Ellen Miller, I came to a post on techPresident lamenting corporations’ use of their customer databases to lobby Congress. Zephyr Teachout received an email from United Airlines asking her to go to a petition site which asked her to contact her member of Congress about oil speculation.

This is clearly just the beginning, and its a crude one–a few years from now you’ll see more organizing, including international organizing, to leverage corporate databases to influence policies that help corporate wealth. At least as of 2004, the airlines were among the biggest email/database owners in the country (along with casinos). As someone concerned about concentrated power in any form, this is not a great development.

I don’t think this is the unfortunate story Teachout believes it to be. More important than the fact that a corporation is using information at its disposal to advance its public policy agenda is the fact that the corporation feels obligated to communicate with Congress through the intermediary of its customers (and presumably shareholders). That’s a move in the direction of openness and democracy.

Consider the alternative: corporate officials going to Congress for meetings in smoke-filled rooms – or just showing up with bags of cash. No, there’s a dimension of modern politics that requires them to produce actual voters to support the policies they like. That’s good.

Most large corporations are publicly held so the term “corporate wealth” (assumed bad) refers to the wealth of investors and workers (in retirement funds), which is actually good.

Corporations come in every size and shape, so the formula corporate=bad fails to describe the world well. Corporations sometimes lobby for bad policies just like individuals and government agencies do. I have called out corporations with substantive policy agendas that are bad, and there are plenty. But just because an agenda is “corporate,” it isn’t necessarily bad.

Corporations lobby for freedom of speech (booksellers and publishers); they lobby for policies that keep down the cost of food (importers; agribusiness; grocers); they lobby for wind energy; etc. etc. There’s just no shorthand which holds that corporate interests are bad.

BTW, it sounds like the policies United was pitching Teachout are pretty dumb. Oil “speculation” is a hobgoblin that masks real issues of supply and demand. I hope they fail to win the day – not because they’re corporate; because they’re wrong.

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