What Rendered Ancient Tyrants Detestable: The Rule of Law and the Constitution of Corporate Power

Hague Journal on the Rule of Law (2018)

Posted: 7 May 2018

Date Written: April 19, 2018


The phrase “corporate tyranny” might seem to be nothing more than empty rhetoric, a muscular slogan with a plausible ring, but one lacking principled roots in the great tradition of political language which it echoes. In this Article, I aim to show that, on the contrary, it is indeed meaningful to apply the term tyranny in connection with contemporary corporate power — meaningful, that is, according to the criteria governing the use of that term within the limited government tradition’s Rule of Law discourse. I also aim to demonstrate that, according to traditional criteria, certain terms used to lament the harms occasioned by manipulative state power — namely, arbitrariness, slavishness and corruption — might plausibly be employed against the large business corporation. The implications are significant. If the present constitution of corporate power were shown to be hospitable to those ills, then the legitimacy of corporate power would have been called into question on distinctive Rule of Law grounds. The notion that economic power is a limited government problem was a central and recurrent theme in public debates in the United States from the American Revolution until the middle of the twentieth century. Since then, however, the notion of “limited government” has become synonymous with the limitation of state, rather than “private”, power; indeed, “limited government” has become a byword for the social philosophy that professes a belief in “small government” — a philosophy which, in effect, supports corporate power. In the light of that received wisdom, it is not surprising that there has been little scholarly inquiry into whether, and if so, how, the underlying moral commitments of the limited government tradition are incompatible with certain forms of contemporary corporate power. Within the confines of this Article, there is not the space to do more than demonstrate that further inquiry in this area would be worthwhile.

Suggested Citation

Sempill, Julian, What Rendered Ancient Tyrants Detestable: The Rule of Law and the Constitution of Corporate Power (April 19, 2018). Hague Journal on the Rule of Law (2018), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3165879

Julian Sempill (Contact Author)

Melbourne Law School ( email )

University Square
185 Pelham Street, Carlton
Victoria, Victoria 3010

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