The other day, at our local bookstore, we passed a book. And then doubled back.
The book is titled Who Owns America?: A Declaration of Independence. Sounded like it was written by people we should know. But on further investigation, we recognized none of the names on the cover.
Who Owns America? was written by 21 "conservative" decentralists. And it was first published in 1936.
Re-released this year, with a new introduction by Seton Hall University History Professor Edward S. Shapiro, Who Owns America? (ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware, 1999), is highly critical of large corporate institutions that controlled the political economy in 1930s America. Its publisher believes the book is as relevant today as the day it was published.
Edited by Pulitizer Prize winning Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Herbert Agar and southern poet Allen Tate, Who Owns America? puts forth the type of scathing critique that you just can't find in today's political debates.
Like today's corporatist conservatives -- George Will, James Glassman and Charles Krauthammer -- the conservatives who wrote Who Owns America? believed that the specter of big government threatened individual freedom and the ideal America.
But unlike the corporatists of today, Agar, Tate and their colleagues understood that public authority was the only antidote to the excesses of big corporate power.
Agar, Tate and their colleagues argued that to attain the conservative goal of less government, you'd first have to limit the size and power of the large corporate institutions that were roaming the land.
Typical of the 1930s conservatives writing in this volume is the pro-decentralist economist Richard Ransom.
"The permanent lease on life which corporations possess tends more and more to concentrate within a few hands the ownership and control of general property," wrote Ransom in a chapter titled Corporate and Individual Persons."The disproportionate distribution of the national wealth is very evidently due in large part to the corporate tendency to mass larger and larger aggregates of ownership which are held together by corporate permanence and corporate inertia. ..."
Ransom's solution to the problem of corporate control of the national wealth? Federal chartering of corporations doing interstate business.
And what should the states do about excessive corporate power? The states should limit the "profitable business life of the corporations which they charter."
And how could the states accomplish this end?
"This could perhaps be done by means of heavy selective inheritance taxation on the transfer of corporate shares or assets," Ransom answers.
And what would this achieve?
"Such a shorter term of corporate life, either accomplished indirectly as suggested here or accomplished by more immediate means, will produce a more direct personal responsibility in corporate managements," Ransom says.
Once interstate corporations are federally chartered, Ransom proposes that the personal liability of stockholders should be extended to an amount at least equal to twice the proportionate investment of each stockholder (currently, you can only lose what you put in.)
Can you imagine Will or Krauthammer contemplating these thoughts?
Lyle Lanier, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, wrote a chapter titled "Big Business in the Property State," in which he observed that "the American people have long recognized the danger to democracy of economic power concentrated in the hands of big corporations."
Lawmakers passed the antitrust laws at the turn of the century, "but these laws have been impotent to stem the rising tide of big business organization," Lanier wrote.
Industrial capitalism, Lanier wrote, "has followed a course of development which is both self-destructive and dangerous to democratic institutions."
Lanier, like his co-authors, finds hope in a Jeffersonian ideal of small business and small farmers.
The publication of this volume today makes George Will, James Glassman and their conservative contemporaries look like empty suits compared those who wrote Who Owns America?.
Big corporations still roam the land and still threaten a fragile democracy. But there is no Agar on the right to challenge them.
Needless to say, we cannot and do not agree with everything written by these 21 self-proclaimed "conservatives" of the 1930s.
But we do agree with the conservative sentiment put forth in the book, as summarized by Agar, that corporate concentration and democracy are at odds.
"When democracy goes down before monopoly capitalism," Agar writes, "the result has been a greedy tyranny, preserving all the vices of capitalism and extinguishing its virtues."