Is Jeff Bezos a "Robber Baron?"

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

A Washington Post story reports that Amazon is "doubling down on lobbying." One of these lobbying efforts involves its efforts to use drones for deliveries:

Amazon dreams of delivering packages to customers doorsteps via unmanned aircraft, even though the proposed rules by the Federal Aviation Administration for commercial drone use wouldn't allow for the type of flights the company hopes to make.

"The FAA has a tough job -- so I think we can acknowledge that right away," [CEO Jeff] Bezos said when asked about his experience working with the agency at the town hall. "What's happening with drones is going to cause a lot of new rules to be written, and they're going to have to be done very carefully."

While Bezos said the agency has "very good intentions," he also argued their approach perhaps may be a little "backward."
As an opponent of government regulation of industry, it strikes me as ludicrous that Amazon is having to get permission to implement such a plan. It's as if the bad publicity and potential for liability attendant on operating carelessly would not be incentives enough for Amazon to proceed with due caution.

On top of that, most people, not thinking clearly about regulation, view it as necessary at least up to some point. Many of these same people will simultaneously concede that a company like Amazon will have no choice but to lobby -- and yet regard such efforts as shady. This situation reminds me of that of the railroads in the 1870's, which Ayn Rand once discussed:
The best illustration of the general confusion on the subject of business and government can be found in [Stewart] Holbrook's The Story of American Railroads. On page 231, Mr. Holbrook writes:
Almost from the first, too, the railroads had to undergo the harassments of politicians and their catchpoles, or to pay blackmail in one way or another. The method was almost sure-fire; the politico, usually a member of a state legislature, thought up some law or regulation that would be costly or awkward to the railroads in his state. He then put this into the form of a bill, talked loudly about it, about how it must pass if the sovereign people were to be protected against the monster railroad, and then waited for some hireling of the railroad to dissuade him by a method as old as man. There is record of as many as thirty-five bills that would harass railroads being introduced at one sitting of one legislature.
And the same Mr. Holbrook in the same book just four pages later (pages 235-236) writes:
In short, by 1870, to pick an arbitrary date, railroads had become, as only too many orators of the day pointed out, a law unto themselves. They had bought United States senators and congressmen, just as they bought rails and locomotives -- with cash. They owned whole legislatures, and often the state courts .... To call the roads of 1870 corrupt is none too strong a term.
The connection between these two statements and the conclusion to be drawn from them has, apparently, never occurred to Mr. Holbrook. It is the railroads that he blames and calls "corrupt." Yet what could the railroads do, except try to "own whole legislatures," if these legislatures held the power of life or death over them? What could the railroads do, except resort to bribery, if they wished to exist at all? Who was to blame and who was "corrupt" -- the businessmen who had to pay "protection money" for the right to remain in business -- or the politicians who held the power to sell that right? (from "Notes on the History of American Free Enterprise," in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, by Ayn Rand)
This doesn't mean that some railroads didn't use bribery for less-than-honorable ends or that there aren't modern "businessmen" who use bribery to gain advantages they could not earn in a free market. (See yesterday's post.) But it does mean that it is wrong to blame capitalism or "money" for a situation in which we all have to clamor for favors from the government, and those who can, do. We cannot get "the money" out of politics until we get the politics out of our economy.

-- CAV

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