To the Editors:
I think it’s delightful that Mobil Oil Corporation runs ads in The New York Review of Books delivering sappy little sermonettes that manage to be both plaintive and patronizing at the same time. Mobil Oil’s hang-up seems to be that it isn’t loved by liberals.
I don’t consider myself a liberal but since Mobil Oil has undertaken to catch my eye by inserting itself into the pages of the NYR I welcome the opportunity to tell it why I distrust it. Business in general I have no argument with. It is only excessively large enterprises like Mobil Oil that I deplore. The Founding Fathers, who certainly weren’t anti-business, feared all such concentrations of money-power because the lessons of history taught them that mankind being inherently selfish undue power would be abused; that is to say used to the detriment of those with less power.
If Mobil Oil has not been or is not now engaged somewhere in the world in activity of a dubious moral nature (or outright illegality) it is a striking exception to the rule that excessive power will be abused. But for it to try to associate itself with my local hardware store as a legitimate business enterprise is an affront to my intelligence and a canard on the hardware store which I have every reason to believe is honestly and competently run.
Even more offensive are the pronouncements by Mobil and her sisters (the ubiquitous Exxon comes readily to mind) that their greatest concern is doing good for me and my fellow citizens. Greed and a degree of duplicity I long ago came to accept as inevitable elements in the world but it distresses me to have them camouflaged as benign concern for the commonweal.
The inference that Mobil’s profits make possible Aid to Dependent Children and other social programs is a shining example of corporate megalomania. I suppose that in the nineteenth century factories had to exist and to employ children in order that there should be a need for laws forbidding child labor but I have never heard of credit being given the factories for the passage of such laws.
Since the days of the Robber Barons much thought and ingenuity have been devoted to curbing the disposition of Big Business to milk the American people. That the battle is quite evidently an unending one would be no surprise to the framers of our Constitution. In the words of one of the more conservative members of the Federal Convention, Gouverneur Morris, “The Rich will strive to establish their dominion and enslave the rest. They always did. They always will.”
Even if it were to be granted that Mobil Oil genuinely wished to effect my best interests, I would remain stubbornly unconvinced that it could possibly comprehend those interests.
The individuals who make up Mobil Oil are no better and I trust no worse than the liberal intellectuals who presumably constitute the greater part of the readership of NYR. But it is certain that they have vastly more power and that they thus are potentially far more dangerous. Business is business. I am neither for it nor against as long as it obeys the laws and does not engage in excessively exploitative activity. Mobil and its sisters are much too big for my taste but as long as they mind their P’s and Q’s I am prepared to tolerate them, especially in view of the fact that I apparently have no choice. It is typically and almost touchingly American that Mobil is not satisfied with being enormous and rich and tolerated; it also wishes to be trusted and (can it be?) loved. Never!
Meantime I suppose there is no harm in Mobil’s enriching NYR. The only harm its ads can do is to our notion of the quality of intelligence at the upper executive levels of Mobil Oil. But then naivete and intelligence are not mutually exclusive. We must have faith that Mobil’s capacity to produce oil is superior to its pedagogy.
Santa Cruz, California
August 17, 1978