Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Rule of Law in a Monopoly Society

Cell phone image of a bleeding passenger, since
identified as Dr. David Dao, being dragged off
a United Airlines flight
The great British critic GK Chesterton wrote, between the World Wars, that for most people, most times, there is no difference between Communist and Capitalist regimes. In the aggregate, no matter the system, we work for someone else, under conditions we didn't choose. We don't own our own tools, and therefore lack leverage to negotiate for better work. And in both systems, bureaucrats control our lives. Whether corporate or state bureaucrats makes little practical difference.

On Monday, we witnessed two examples of American bureaucrats so high-handed, they unified Right and Left in outrage against the corporate state. You’ve already seen cell-phone footage of United Airlines “security officers” forcibly ejecting a medical doctor from a flight he’d already legally boarded. The crew arbitrarily selected him to relinquish his seat, but citing his waiting patients, he refused. So security slammed him bodily against the bulkhead and dragged him, bleeding, down the aisle.

Almost simultaneously, the Lake County, Florida, sheriff’s department released a PR video in which the sheriff threatens imminent crackdowns on heroin dealers. Surrounded by four armed and armored deputies with balaclavas over their faces, he cast an image many viewers found eerily similar to Daesh (ISIS) propaganda videos. Sheriff Grinnell’s aggressive rhetoric sounds exactly like Jihadi John threatening vengeance on journalists, Christians, apostates, and the kitchen sink. Turn the sound off, the illusion becomes complete.

Frustratingly, both actions are completely legal. Courts have ruled that any orders given by airline pilots, however capricious, however illegal on land, have force of law. United is facing PR blowback, but they’ve destroyed baggage and killed pets before. Their overwhelming market dominance exempts them from consequences. And legal precedent permits sheriffs to threaten, lie, coerce, and bully with relative impunity. Sheriff Grinnell's video looks terrible, but is nevertheless protected by existing Supreme Court precedent.

Smarter commentators than I struggle to create meaningful definitions of the word “bureaucracy.” I won’t attempt to settle all debates here. For our purposes, let’s define a bureaucracy as a hierarchical institution that deputizes some people to enforce rules, but doesn’t accord them discretion to interpret those rules. Law officers, like Sheriff Grinnell, or their civilian analogues, like the United security officers, have rules to enforce. Only their superiors (judges, bosses) can amend those rules.

Bureaucracies require a functional monopoly. Sheriff Grinnell has complete authority to enforce law in Lake County, Florida, endowed with this authority by the civil government, and elected by the county’s citizens. Despite the myths of unarmed civilian crimefighters like Batman or Phoenix Jones, real authority to combat lawlessness is vested in the government. Even private security officers, like United’s, or real-life civilian crimefighters, like the Guardian Angels, eventually turn their arrests over to the police.

Likewise, United basically has a similar monopoly in commercial flight. Thought other airlines exist, economists will mention something called the 3-30 Rule: when three suppliers control thirty percent of a market, that market is no longer free. United, American, and Southwest Airlines, though nominal competitors, functionally have monopoly authority. They can do anything, because we cannot go elsewhere. That’s why United successfully shrugs off bad publicity, like United Breaks Guitar, because we cannot stop them.

Sheriff Peyton Grinnell
(Orlando Sentinel photo)
As always, whenever people who posess power exercise it over the powerless, apologists have come out defending the actions others consider deplorable. Without authority over their county, or their plane, how can these authorities do their jobs? This claim isn’t without merit, from the powerful side of the spectrum. This centralization of authority—commercial authority, legal authority, or whatever—certainly benefits whoever controls that authority. Americans believe only time stands between us and becoming powerful.

Except that transit of power never quite happens. According to the National Sheriffs’ Association, there are 3,081 sheriff's’ offices in America. Even if each elected sheriff served one term and retired, there aren’t enough offices for every qualified law officer in America, much less every person living under the law. And even if even if every qualified pilot owned an airliner personally, who would do booking? Publicity? Serve drinks? Power is, by nature, distributed unequally.

Our answer to this abuse isn’t fighting power with power. As Chairman Mao demonstrated, when power models reverse, the names change, but structures remain steadfast. Our society’s opponent isn’t a militarized police force or a monopolistic airline. It’s the power they represent, the domination of citizens by massive bureaucratic organizations. Our solution isn’t installing new bureaucrats, it’s empowering ordinary citizens. I don’t know how to do that yet. But the time has come to try.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post. I read an article ( detailing United's legal culpability in this case, which was mostly overlooked by the public and press. The fact that so many of us assume that the airline has a legal right to behave as they did is indicative of how resigned we have become to authoritarian oppression. Maybe the first step in empowering ordinary citizens is re-learning which levers of power we still possess.