In 1962, the conservative philosopher Milton Friedman wrote a classic essay titled “Capitalism and Freedom.” Friedman argued that a capitalist system is inherently more conducive to democracy because it disperses resources. “One way to think of a market system is as part of a broader system of checks and balances,” he argued,
“as a system under which economic power can be a check to political power instead of an addition to it.” Under a socialist government, by which he meant a centrally planned economy, a political critic “has to persuade a government mill to sell him the paper, a government printing press to print it, a government post office to distribute it among the people, a government agency to rent him a hall in which to talk and so on.”
Even if, like me, you find Friedman’s argument far too simplistic, it is worth reckoning with his analysis of the link between political and economic power. A government powerful enough to monopolize all economic power could make it functionally impossible for dissidents to publicize their ideas. One flaw in Friedman’s thought experiment is that the real world is more complicated than the simple market-versus-state dichotomy he imagined. A rich irony is that we are getting a glimpse of the nightmare he envisioned coming to life under the decidedly non-socialistic presidency of Donald Trump.
Last week, after Axios reported that President Trump is “obsessed” with Amazon — whose owner, Jeff Bezos, also owns the Washington Post — the company immediately lost $53 billion of its value. The thing about markets is that they have no ethics or morality. They are not going to mount a principled resistance to a budding tyrant who threatens to punish independent media. They are also not susceptible to the complacent case that he’s not actually a danger to democracy and can’t, or won’t, really lay a finger on his critics. No, the markets learned that Trump wants to attack Amazon’s owner and immediately assessed the financial value of that threat as somewhere in the mid-eleven-figure range.
Trump has initially discussed attacking Amazon through anti-trust regulation or taxes, weapons that can be slow or difficult. Gabriel Sherman provides more detail about Trump’s plans for Bezos, which have advanced considerably. Trump wants the Post Office to increase Amazon’s shipping rates. Additionally, “Advisers are also encouraging Trump to cancel Amazon’s pending multi-billion contract with the Pentagon to provide cloud computing services, sources say. Another line of attack would be to encourage attorneys general in red states to open investigations into Amazon’s business practices.”
Why hasn’t the free market prevented such a plan from even being considered? Because, in a modern economy, virtually no businesses can completely ignore the power of government, and very few media companies can ignore larger business concerns. The state does not need to have full control of the economy to pose a serious threat to Amazon’s well-being. Trump is contemplating prosaic government government functions like the defense budget, the post office, and good old federalist-state government to bring Bezos to heel.
To be sure, Trump’s threats have not yet had any measurable effect on the Post’s coverage. But before we laugh off his campaign as an ineffectual tantrum, it is worth contemplating just why Trump has not yet fulfilled his rather sinister intentions.
Amazon is a massive firm, and the Post a tiny one. This would seem to lend the Post some protection — Bezos is not likely to worry very much about any financial losses the Post may sustain as a minuscule outpost in his business empire. Trump is shrewd enough to grasp that the threat to Amazon is the way to hit Bezos in his wallet. Bezos probably cares enough about his reputation among his peers, most of whom presumably do not admire Trump, to be willing to sustain the damage to his large business rather than give in to Trump by either selling off the Post or suppressing its coverage of the administration.
But this means that the survival of a vital source of independent reporting hangs upon a billionaire’s willingness to sustain financial losses over a matter of principle. No offense to Bezos or other capitalists, but the moral conscience of a billionaire is a precarious branch upon which to fasten something so weighty as the freedom of the press. What if Trump became more popular with Bezos’s social circle? What if he wins a second term?
Bezos’s predicament is hardly unique. Trump’s Justice Department and Federal Communications Commission are likely to hand down a favorable ruling that would allow unprecedented expansion for Sinclair Broadcast Group, which has turned its 173 stations into what is essentially state media. (Sinclair’s employees were forced to submit to ritual on-air denunciations on independent media, and were held in line by contracts that would require them to pay back wages, up to 40 percent of their last year’s compensation, if they quit.) “If anybody didn’t understand that the green light was on for the Sinclair deal, I think it’s crystal clear now,” former Democratic FCC commissioner Michael Copps tells Politico. The Department of Justice blocked a merger that would have benefited Time Warner, the parent company of CNN, another Trump target. DOJ insists Trump’s hatred of CNN, and his public opposition to its merger, played no role in the decision. But DOJ is plainly buckling to the president’s will in at least some instances, like its renewed investigations of the Clinton Foundation and the Obama administration.
Does Time Warner truly believe politics played no role? If I ran Time Warner, and my sole objective was to maximize the returns to my shareholders, I would either dump CNN or let the Trump administration know I would be installing some new conservative-leaning editors. Of course, maximizing returns to shareholders is the way capitalism is supposed to work. The fate of free media at the moment depends on that dynamic not working.
As Friedman’s dystopia comes to life, it would be nice to imagine that the movement that cites him as an inspiration might move itself to protest. The reality has proven more bracing. Those conservatives not actively supporting Trump’s authoritarian impulses have constructed a fantasy world in which they don’t exist. Sherman reports that, while Trump’s previous economic adviser, Gary Cohn, held back his bloodlust against Bezos, his replacement Larry Kudlow agrees Amazon is “a problem.” The Wall Street Journal today has an editorial criticizing Trump’s position on Amazon, which seems positive, except that the editorial is dedicated to upholding the pretense that Trump’s position is completely earnest. The words “Bezos” and “Washington Post” do not appear anywhere in the editorial. Instead it asserts that the president’s passions were stirred by policy arguments about postal shipping rates. “The source for Mr. Trump’s tweets,” conclude the sleuths at the Journal, “appears to be an op-ed by Josh Sandbulte that ran in our pages last summer, which argues that Amazon free rides on the post office with its last-mile delivery deal.” Right, that’s probably it.
Friedman convinced generations of conservatives that their drive to scale back the state was a bulwark of democracy. “The direct importance of economic freedom,” he wrote, “is in many cases of at least comparable importance to the indirect importance of economic freedom as a means of political freedom.” But the reality of the movement he helped shape is that economic freedom is being purchased at the expense of political freedom.