LA Review of Books: Maximum Profits and Maximum Power: Talking to Zephyr Teachout
When does a high-performing firm inevitably start pursuing political power? When do the goods or services it buys or sells start bringing along their own forms of coercive governance? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Zephyr Teachout. This present conversation focuses on Teachout’s book Break ‘Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom from Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money. Teachout is an attorney, political activist, and antitrust and corruption expert. Her 2018 campaign for New York Attorney General was endorsed by Bernie Sanders, The New York Times, and many others. Teachout participated on the team of lawyers who sued Donald Trump for violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause. She serves on the Open Markets Institute’s board of directors, and teaches law at Fordham University.
ANDY FITCH: Could we start with what Break ‘Em Up characterizes as a collective delusion plaguing many political scientists and economists over the past few decades — the presumption that private corporations single-mindedly pursue profits, more or less indifferent to political power? And could we take up by contrast, for instance, a prevailing business-school culture actively training entrepreneurs and investors to seek out industries and markets prone to monopolizing, entry-blocking concentrations?
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Well right now, we face an exciting and also scary moment, with people asking fundamental questions about democracy and the shape of power and what corporate law and antitrust law should look like. Both on left and right we have this questioning of assumptions about corporate actors purely seeking profits, and not wanting to get distracted by struggles for power. I mean, first of all, that whole perspective flies in the face of human history, right? Just read any Shakespeare play. Or have a friend. Or live in the world. You’ll quickly acquaint yourself with this incredible will to power.
Corporate leaders and big financiers haven’t magically overcome those impulses. They don’t just obsessively make as much money as possible (although they do make too much, contributing to today’s gross inequalities). They also of course seek power. You couldn’t separate the pursuit of maximum profits and maximum power if you tried. These people certainly do not try. And once you shift the lens just a bit and understand Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg as not solely profit-seeking but also power-seeking, many of their decisions make much more sense. They’ve built these institutions we now rely on, and use their hold over these institutions to keep expanding their domains, picking up more power, and further maximizing profits.
They also clearly get some joy out of the power itself, out of others seeing them exert power and make policy decisions affecting us all. They’ve placed themselves right smack at the center of our democracy. They’ve established this alternate form of government that keeps encroaching on our public sector.
Until the 1970s, a broad consensus of Americans recognized concentrated power as a genuine democratic threat. We acknowledged that corporate moguls, left to their own devices, didn’t just want to take our money, but to take control. We need to restore that sense of government always pushing back against concentrated power. Similarly, we can’t just keep deferring to a professional class of economists, applying abstract models that offer a nonsense view of human nature, and of our social motivations. We need to grapple realistically with our basic will to power on one hand. We also need to tap and to support our very real capacities for compassion and care for each other.