The Refined and the Crude

The Control of Oil

by John M. Blair
Pantheon, 441 pp., $15.00

Until about thirty years ago the primary object of economic criticism in the United States was the labor union; it resisted innovation, raised costs, subjected the community to the inconvenience of strikes, and was in highly unauthorized possession of an essentially public power. There are still echoes of these attitudes in the contemporary assertions that police, firemen, sanitation workers, and those who live on pensions are getting rich at the public expense. But, overwhelmingly, the modern focus of critical discussion is on the great corporation. There is a continuing cold war between the large corporation and its critics, and the terms of this conflict, which are very little examined by either the participants or others, are worth some thought.

Only people of exceptionally simple view, or with a highly developed capacity either for ignoring circumstance or adjusting belief to their personal pecuniary interest, suppose that the corporate and the general public purpose always coincide. There must be areas of common advantage; were it otherwise, we would hardly survive, for a handful of giant corporations—as a working figure, 2,000 is roughly right—supply around half of all privately produced goods and services. But to imagine that the men who run Exxon, GM, ITT, or Lockheed have only the aims of the average citizen in mind requires either extensive conditioning by standard text-book teaching in economics or a notable capacity for illusion. That so many rise to the requisite self-deception does not make the divergence in interest any less real. It is this divergence that sustains the conflict between the corporation and its critics.

All critics of the corporation—all who speak for the “public interest” or believe that they do—agree that the corporate advantage is enormous. It has great numbers of people on its payroll and at its call. It has access to vast sums of money. It has something yet more important, which is the ability to specify the respectable view. No editor or columnist ever gets accused of irresponsibility or radicalism by taking a position that accords with the needs or wishes of the high members of the corporate technostructure. Any professional economist who does so with some appearance of scholarly competence will, if noticed, enjoy a brief burst of business applause and be eligible for a modest though not trivial subsidy as a consultant, convention oracle, witness in an antitrust case, or, at the highest level, a member of a board of directors. (Oddly, in doing these things he invariably prepares himself for professional oblivion, for it quickly becomes known that his thoughts are in the service of his pay. But that is another story.)

Finally there is the dependence of press and commercial vision on corporate advertising and of politicians and public officials on business subsidy. The Nixon administration, with its paradoxical commitment to reform, made corporate purchase of politicians and political parties so flagrant that what had been an accepted abuse is now limited to what can be had for love or up …

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