Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Licence to Bill

When someone sets up a practice or an organisation that can charge others for what it purports to offer, what may appear to be a private matter becomes a public issue. What if the body in question deceives people about what is available and charges exorbitant prices? What if the goods and services offered are directly harmful or have dangerous side-effects? How can society protect itself if such an organisation threatens to undermine its stability?

The practice of granting a conditional licence to operate a business originated from the sovereign power setting out the terms for private actors to make gains for themselves in return for benefits rendered to the public realm. In England, the practice could be traced back to Henry VIII who would grant individuals a licence (or charter) to form a company to carry out certain activities (from trade to exploration) that would enable them to take advantage of conditions made possible by past or future actions of the state. The licence was conditional upon the company in question serving the interest of the country, and could expire when its time limit had been reached or be revoked if in practice it led to damages to the common good.

In the US, after independence from Britain was obtained, individual states adopted a similar approach to the granting of corporate charters to individuals wishing to set up companies that would give themselves protection while carrying out transactions with others. These charters forbade activities that would go beyond what were necessary to fulfil their chartered purpose; and the permission granted would be revoked if the companies abused their power or caused public harm. By the late 19th century, however, large companies were able to use their growing influence to undermine the model. Following the Supreme Court case of Santa Clara County v Southern Pacific Railroad (1886), which ruled that corporations should be treated no differently from individual citizens, state power to make corporations publicly accountable began to wane (Grossman & Adams, 1993).

It is time to revive the use of conditional licences because corporations can do so much that can affect the lives of others, but cannot be adequately held in check by the general rules that apply to individuals. Legislatures should begin to draw up licences to operate that will set specific conditions that large corporations must comply with if they are to continue to wield the powers they have.

Any failure to fulfil any of the conditions set out in the relevant licence should lead to clear cut penalties, including in the case of serious violations, the complete revocation of the licence. Major tax evasion, for example, should not be followed by behind the scene bargaining over how much to pay back, but should mean that the full unpaid amount must be handed over plus a penalty that is equivalent to, for example, twice or three times what is owed so it is a genuine deterrent. Threats to proceed with environmental degradation should be met with an immediate suspension of any previously granted right to operate in the threatened area.

Note: For more on this Licence model and other recommendations to strengthen public accountability and civic parity in a democracy, see Chapter 10 of my book, Time to Save Democracy. Find out more at: https://policy.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/time-to-save-democracy

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

The Unholy Alliance

In the 1920s, many wealthy business people and substantial landowners gave financial support to far-right agitators, which enabled fascist extremists to take power in the 1930s. Why did they do that? Some of them realised that prevailing policies left many people in dire poverty, and believed far-right ideologues would be the ones to prevent any socialist government from tackling social injustice by tilting the balance in favour of the poor. Some were enticed by vast government contracts promised by far-right politicians if they should win office. Others simply shared a kindred spirit with demagogues who were racist, sexist, jingoistic, homophobic, full of petty prejudice, and driven by hateful intolerance. The result was the end of the rule of law, the beginning of a dark reign of terror, arbitrary arrests and executions, and the invasion of other countries.

A century later, will the 2020s take us down the same horrific path again? The signs are ominous. With wealth inequalities rising back to the level last witnessed in the 1920s, and far-right sympathisers (and many enthusiastic advocates) holding power or gaining influence across Russia, the US, and many countries in Europe and Latin America, the unholy alliance of plutocracy, bigotry and authoritarianism is clearly on the march.

The vast majority of people would recoil from the agenda behind this vile alliance, if they could see through its façade of fake patriotism and empty promises. And exposing their lies is the key to halting their advance.

Responsible politicians, community leaders, civic educators, should make it their priority to highlight at every opportunity the following:

People’s Livelihood: beware of empty promises, because for all the talk of more jobs and better pay, the unholy alliance will just defend the mistreatment of workers, make employment even more precarious, and drastically cut public service so that people will be left extremely vulnerable to homelessness, hunger, and unable to access healthcare.

Real Friends & Foes: the unholy alliance will pretend to be friends of the people, when their actions are always designed to increase their own wealth and power at the expense of others; and the scapegoats they relentlessly attack – such as migrant workers, progressive politicians, trade unions, dedicated public servants – are the ones who help make life better for everyone.

Protection by the Rule of Law: leaders of the unholy alliance will always dismiss rules and regulations as misguided or biased, except when they can use them to safeguard their own position; and they are determined to brush aside due process and impartial scrutiny so that they can intimidate and attack anyone they consider a threat (or an inconvenience) to them.

Weaponised Uncertainties: it needs to be much more widely understood that a common unholy alliance tactic is to stir up problems, dismiss evidence for solutions, and use the ensuing uncertainties to exploit people’s sense of insecurity. They promote anti-vaccine propaganda, accelerate climate change, destabilise the economy, launch wars, so they can benefit from the chaos they cause.

The unholy alliance of the 1920s and 1930s led to the Second World War. It was eventually defeated, but in recent years it has been coming together again in the guise of xenophobic ‘populism’. To avoid another global catastrophe, its true intent must be exposed and its advocates held to account.