Binyamin Appelbaum, Why Are Tech Companies Pretending to Be Governments? NYTimes, May 19, 2021.
Philadelphia spent almost half a million dollars wooing Amazon’s HQ2 campus in a 2018 competition that the company billed as merit-based. So city leaders probably weren’t thrilled to read in a new book that one of the company’s top executives frowned on its bid because he couldn’t abide the Eagles, the city’s football team. [...]
The HQ2 process was an example of an increasingly common feature of American life: big tech companies putting on shows of government-style decision-making about government-scale issues. Recent examples include Facebook’s reliance on an ersatz judiciary to decide whether Donald Trump may resume posting and Uber’s efforts to create different labor standards for that special group of workers known as Uber drivers.
Public outrage tends to focus on the poor quality of these pantomimes. The real injustice runs deeper. In a representative democracy, the process confers legitimacy on the result. A piece of legislation or a court ruling commands compliance because the decision is made by duly empowered representatives acting under the law.
Corporations behave like governments because they want to invest their decisions with that sense of procedural legitimacy. But they do it for the purpose of warding off the government.
The show is a sham, a mockery of democracy. Corporations may be people, but they’re not polities. Their executives are not our representatives. The rules they choose to follow are not laws. And legitimacy cannot be borrowed to justify decisions contrary to the public interest.
Anything goes on the frontier:
The government’s permissive attitude toward technology companies reflects the special place that frontiers have long held in American life and imagination.
New places were embraced as the solution to old ailments. As Greg Grandin writes in his acute 2019 book, “The End of the Myth,” the western frontier “allowed the United States to avoid a true reckoning with its social problems, such as economic inequality, racism, crime and punishment, and violence.” The sense of limitless possibility — and the absence of hierarchy — was an argument against the reallocation of existing resources.
The frontier, however, was also a place where people could take liberties.