Countering Corporate Power to Advance a More Equitable Society

Anthony Biglan
16 min readMay 21, 2024


A growing social movement is underway in America. Progressive organizations are working hard to safeguard democracy, end discrimination, reduce poverty, and defend the rights of marginalized groups, such as the LGBT community, people of color, and immigrants. However, the success of these efforts will be limited if we remain blind to the fundamental role corporations play in creating and perpetuating all these problems.

Unregulated corporations inflict a multitude of harms, including marketing harmful products, exploiting consumers, impoverishing workers, polluting communities, and — most importantly — exerting undue influence over our political landscape. Their political power lies at the heart of the problem, since it prevents the laws and policies that would reduce inequities, health disparities, and premature death.

Consider that corporate marketing of harmful products accounts for more than a million deaths a year in the United States. Cigarette marketing gets youth addicted to cigarettes, which ultimately results in 480,000 premature deaths a year.[1] Alcohol use contributes to 140,000 deaths[2] and the alcohol industry markets heavily to youth. The marketing of unhealthful food normalizes harmful eating habits, which contribute to more than 500,000 deaths per year.[3] The epidemic of drug overdose deaths began in 1999[4] because of the marketing of OxyContin[5] by Purdue Pharma. There were 105,000 drug overdose deaths[6] in the twelve months ending in September 2023. Prescription opioids are involved in 40 percent of all deaths from opioids.[7]

Each of these industries denies that their marketing is responsible for the illness and deaths that result from the consumption of their products. But having served as an expert witness in U.S. vs. Philip Morris et al. and subsequently studied the evidence across all these industries, I can assure you that these companies are aware of the harm they are doing and the role their marketing plays.

Meanwhile, economic inequality has increased dramatically in the past fifty years. CEOs were paid twenty-one times more than the typical worker in 1965, but by 2022, they earned 344 times what the average worker did. This is the result of corporate success in thwarting wage increases and stifling unionization efforts, as well as the failure of government to prevent such excesses.

Many people have been convinced that the success of large corporations in keeping wages low and regulation minimal has been a boon to consumers. But international comparisons show large disparities in the cost of a college education, mobile phone services, health care, and prescription drugs. For example, the cost of health care in the United States is twice what it is in Germany (the second most expensive country) and four times its cost in South Korea. Those extra costs aren’t buying us better outcomes; the United States has the highest rate of premature death among developed countries.[8]

Then there are the predatory practices of large corporations. Consider the Kafkaesque ordeal faced by my wife, Georgia, when she was ensnared in a cycle of unwarranted late fees imposed by Pottery Barn and its affiliated credit card partner. Despite repeated promises that they would remove the late fees, each month they added an additional late fee. She eventually paid the fees to end the problem, but her credit rating suffered. How many people have done the same thing, rather than spending the time and money to deal with these injustices? Companies’ late fees are constrained by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which limits such fines to $29 — the exact amount Pottery Barn kept charging Georgia. Late fees are simply another profit center for the business.

The root of our problems is the control that corporations have taken of our political system over the past fifty years. In the 1970s, public opinion was decidedly anti-business. How, then, did we end up on a playing field tilted so far in the other direction?

In 1972, there were more than 1900 bombings by numerous anti-war and anti-capitalist organizations in the United States.[9] In a memo to the U. S. Chamber of Commerce, Lewis Powell, a prominent lawyer who would soon be appointed to the Supreme court, articulated the threat to business and outlined a strategic plan for countering it. He argued that the risk came from critics of capitalism — articulate and influential academics, journalists, and pundits. Powell suggested that the business community needed a counterweight to the criticism of capitalism.

Independent and uncoordinated activity by individual corporations, as important as this is, will not be sufficient. Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.[10]

Powell called for action in all the major sectors of society, and wealthy conservatives heeded his advice. They realized that they themselves would not be credible advocates, so, as Jane Mayer has documented in Dark Money,[11] they funded university programs in law schools, economics, the social sciences, and journalism, and thus shaped the assumptions, opinions, and careers of a generation of lawyers, scholars, economists, journalists, pundits, and politicians. They funded the creation of the Federalist Society, which nurture the careers of thousands of lawyers including six current members of the Supreme Court.

William Simon, one of the architects of the conservative ascendancy, argued, “Ideas are weapons — indeed the only weapon with which other ideas can be fought.”[12] The conservative movement found the ideas it needed in the writ­ings of Scottish philosopher, Adam Smith. In 1776, Smith published a book titled An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Here is his famous view of the owner of an industry:

By directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.[13]

Smith’s analysis offers an important insight: in a competitive market­place, people will be motivated to make a better or cheaper product because of the financial rewards for doing so. If you doubt this, you should turn in your cell phone. However, in the hands of advocates for free-market ideology, Smith’s metaphor morphed into a philosophy that makes the achievement of wealth the paramount value in society.

The seed of this value grew into several core principles that are still with us today:

· People are rational actors whose self-interested choices naturally benefit society as a whole (greed is good).

· Huge salaries are justified because high earners contribute more to the economy.

· Poor people are poor because they have failed to take initiative.

· Government regulation should be kept to a minimum.

Over the past half-century, we have conducted a natural experiment. Milton Friedman, the 1976 Nobel laureate in economics, convinced corporate leaders that the only goal of corporations should be profit maximization.[14] He argued that free-market capitalism is the only system that can provide both “widely shared prosperity and human freedom.” It has given us neither.

Free-market ideology has cor­rupted every aspect of American life. Its advocates have captured our government, allowing the unregulated marketing that is killing Americans, the growth of monopolies, and the hollowing out of the middle class. Our health-care system focuses on providing profitable treatments for diseases we could prevent if we chose to. Our universities have joined the culture of material aggrandizement. As their endow­ments and presidential salaries have ballooned, their athletic depart­ments have become a major industry, their tuition has increased, and student debt has mounted. Meanwhile, our universities are doing little to solve the problems the nation now faces.

Nor has free-market ideology increased our freedom. The United States criminal legal system has set international records for the incar­ceration of our citizens, while the mantra of privatization has created a prison-industrial complex whose profits depend on our failure to prevent crime and recidivism. Religions, which have tradi­tionally been the foundation for communitarian values, have too fre­quently embraced beliefs, values, and policies that promote culture wars and drive people to support policies that undermine their wellbeing.

Our media are dominated by monopolies whose platforms foster anger, ignorance, division, and psychological distress. Our efforts to combat climate change are undermined by a well-funded network of fossil fuel compa­nies and their lobbyists, who have thus far succeeded in preventing any curtailment of their business, even though continued emissions of planet-warming gases may render our planet uninhabitable.

In his call for a singular focus on profits, Friedman added the caveat that companies should stay “within the rules of the game.” But he and his compatriots have utterly changed those rules. Thanks to the steady advocacy for minimal regulation, including the erosion of limits on what can be spent on political candidates, corporations now have nearly unlimited freedom to fund the election of policymakers who will do their bidding.

Given the success of the stealthy advocacy for free-market economics, it is easy to believe that our current situation is the inevitable consequence of natural forces, when in fact it is the result of a carefully executed strategy.

Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson has shown the value of thinking about these developments from an evolutionary perspective. Just as the nature of a species and the behavior of an organism are shaped by consequences, the practices of organizations are selected by their consequences. And free-market advocacy has established a single selecting consequence: profits. The single-minded pursuit of profit has not only selected practices that harm us; it has selected all of the lobbying, public relations, and judicial and political practices that have made it easier and easier for corporations to control policy and prevent threats to their profit-making.

Fortunately, evolution does not travel in just one direction. It is always sensitive to consequences. By changing those consequences, we can change organizational practices, including those of corporations.

So, how do we evolve a system that works for everyone? First, we need to question the values we hold as citizens and community members. Should we accept the current situation, in which corporations have near-total control over policy-making and use it to maximize their profits even when doing so undermines health and wellbeing? Do we want our society dominated by the value of pursuing individual wealth? Or do we want a society built on ensuring the wellbeing of every person, where our organizations and communities are caring, compassionate, and focused on helping one another?

Second, we need to educate ourselves about the science of human wellbeing. While free-market economists were busy promoting self-aggrandizing values in business, research in the bio-behavioral sciences has shown that individuals and groups are most likely to thrive if they live in environments that minimize toxic social behavior and persistently reinforce all kinds of prosocial behavior.

In my book The Nurture Effect,[15] I describe how families, schools, and communities can create nurturing environments that prevent the most common and costly problems of human behavior by replacing aversive interactions with patient and caring support for prosocial behavior. Numerous family programs are helping parents replace harsh discipline with patient and skilled support for developing children’s prosocial behavior. Thousands of schools across the country have reduced problem behavior by replacing punitive practices with positive support for cooperation and respect. A revolution in clinical psychology is helping millions of people around the world articulate their most deeply held values, which are invariably prosocial rather than self-aggrandizing. And movements such as B Corps and Conscious Capitalism are increasing the number of corporations that make the wellbeing of customers, employees, and communities’ important goals. By establishing nurturance as vital to human wellbeing, we form the basis for pushing back against the claim that corporations must be free to do whatever enhances their profits.

Third, we need to make nurturance a matter of public health. Recent developments in medicine are focusing on ameliorating disparities in health and longevity. However, they do this mostly by trying to reduce inequities in the availability of health care and treatment of chronic diseases once people are sickened. This does not address the role non-nurturing environments play in causing chronic, life-threatening diseases. Poverty, inequality, and discrimination are stressors that promote unhealthy behaviors such as substance use and conflict and directly contribute to chronic and fatal diseases.

For this reason, public health needs to monitor not only the incidence and prevalence of chronic disease, but the prevalence of nurturing environments. What proportion of families are living in conditions that minimize conflict, support skillful parenting, and help prevent the psychological, behavioral, and health problems that shorten lives? What proportion of our schools have the conditions that lead to most of their students succeeding academically and arriving at adulthood with the skills, values, and habits that enable them to live in caring relationships with others? What proportion of our workplaces offer employees adequate pay, a minimum of aversive treatment, and enjoyable work? And ultimately, are we reducing the disparities in life expectancy that result from the stressful environments we currently allow millions of Americans to experience?

Let us demand that every corporation measure its worth not only in terms of its profits, but in terms of whether it is contributing to or undermining the health and wellbeing of Americans.

Just as the careful monitoring of smoking in the population guided the implementation of policies and programs that steadily reduced tobacco use, we can have a chart on the wall that shows every community how nurturing its families, schools, and workplaces are. Nurturance is not simply nice; it is a basic component of public health.

Fourth, we must leverage the force of evolution to create policies that select beneficial corporate practices. No doubt this is our biggest challenge. Layer upon layer of laws and judicial decisions has enshrined the corporation as the arbiter of public policy. Steeped in free-market theory, the Supreme Court has granted corporations the right to spend money on any political goal they might choose. That same right protects the corporate world from many other policies that might be imposed upon them. A higher minimum wage? Policies that enable unions to freely organize? Regulation of corporations’ ability to gouge customers? All of these are thwarted by corporate control of government policy-making.

Shaping corporate practices is our most powerful opportunity. As we increasingly recognize that corporate control of policy is the linchpin of the immiseration of the population, we can steadily and effectively chip away at corporate policy hegemony.

To accomplish this, we need to work both from the top down and from the bottom up. Bottom-up strategy consists of the laws and policies that could be passed at the local, state, and federal levels to address a single facet of the problem. A local minimum wage. An ordinance requiring businesses to assess worker satisfaction. A law that makes it easier to establish B corps, which pursue not only profits, but the wellbeing of customers, employees, and the community. Increasing fines for pollution to eliminate any profit from those polluting practices. A tax on unhealthful food.

The bottom-up strategy has worked well in efforts to reduce smoking. Clean indoor air laws not only encouraged smokers to quit; they changed the norms regarding smoking, which made it easier to get other laws passed, such as increases in taxation of cigarettes and restrictions on marketing.

But a bottom-up approach will not be adequate on its own. We need a top-down strategy as well: one that strikes at the heart of unrestrained corporate influence.

We must attack the Supreme Court’s reasoning in the series of decisions that whittled the concept of corruption down to just quid pro quo corruption. Quid pro quo means that a person giving money to a candidate or officeholder does so with the express understanding that the politician will take a specific action in return. For example, “I will give you $1,000 for your campaign if you agree to vote for Senate Bill 554.” This kind of direct exchange is forbidden, but corporations are still permitted to create political action committees (PACs) to support candidates. We are supposed to believe that if a business spends millions of dollars supporting your election, this will in no way influence you to vote for the corporation’s interests.

The most recent decision undermining limits on corruption came in 2014, in McCutcheon v. Federal Elections Commission. The issue in this case was whether it was unconstitutional to limit how many candidates a person can give money to. The plaintiff, Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon, sued to overturn this limit. The cap under existing law was $117,000 in a period of two years. McCutcheon’s lawyers argued that such restrictions limited McCutcheon’s right to free speech. The district court ruled against McCutcheon, arguing that the limits were justified by the need to curtail corruption or the appearance of corruption. However, in a five-to-four decision, the Supreme Court agreed with McCutcheon that the law was unconstitutional. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts opined:

In assessing the First Amendment interests at stake, the proper focus is on an individual’s right to engage in political speech, not a collective conception of the public good. The whole point of the First Amendment is to protect individual speech that the majority might prefer to restrict, or that legislators or judges might not view as useful to the democratic process.

But why is the proper focus the First Amendment? Undoubtedly, free speech is fundamental to our democracy. Protecting the right of people to advocate for their beliefs and interests is essential to our freedom. However, a collective conception of the public good is an equally important founding principle of our democracy.

The Declaration of Independence asserts that we have “certain unalienable Rights” and that “among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The preamble of our Constitution states that its purposes include establishing justice, ensuring domestic tranquility, promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty. Surely, we can measure the value of free speech in terms of its contribution to these outcomes, rather than placing it above them.

By prioritizing free speech over the common good, Roberts tipped the scale of our social values decisively in favor of the wealthy. To do so, he had to defy a mountain of empirical evidence that human behavior is influenced by its consequences. Despite this evidence, he asked us to believe that a politician who receives hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the Koch brothers does not realize they oppose laws that would reduce fossil fuel use, and they expect him (or her) to vote accordingly.

Extending the rights of free speech to corporations — entities that hardly existed when our country declared independence and our forefathers wrote the Constitution — was certainly not in the minds of our founders. Thus, the McCutcheon decision is contrary to a principal dear to many conservative justices: that we should interpret the Constitution in terms of the original meaning of its words.

So how do we advance a top-down approach? In the same way that conservatives advanced their agenda: by funding programs in universities to train a new generation of economists, lawyers, public health experts, journalists and behavioral scientists who document the harm of the current form of rapacious capitalism and the beauty of a society that makes nurturing the wellbeing of every sector of the population our preeminent value.

With a combined top-down/bottom-up approach, we can begin to chip away at the decades-long iron grip of corporate influence over politics in the United States and clear the path for the policies that will advance everyone’s well-being. If this seems daunting, keep in mind that the tobacco industry spent hundreds of millions trying to counter the tobacco control movement, yet we have gone from 42.6 percent of Americans smoking in 1965[16] to just 11.5 percent in 2021.[17]

The corporate ascendancy of the past fifty years was powerful largely because of the level of coordination among its advocates. So, lastly, we must forge an alliance among all the organizations that are working to promote programs and policies that enhance one aspect or another of human wellbeing. These organizations often operate as if they have nothing in common, when in fact they are interdependent both in their aims and in their effectiveness. We must be strategic enough to recognize and harness the potential of this interconnection, and we must be patient enough to play the long game, just as the conservatives did.

All the efforts to address inequities in American society are furthering values of compassion, kindness, and shared wellbeing. Each effort will gain strength by making these values explicit and by linking to all the other efforts. And in every case, our advocacy for nurturing everyone’s wellbeing needs to be contrasted with the way in which corporations’ single-minded pursuit of profits is inconsistent with our values and harmful to millions. Together, patiently, and strategically, we can create a nation in which everyone experiences justice, peace, well-being, and freedom.

If you agree with this analysis and would like to contribute to building a social movement to end corporate corruption, share this essay as widely as possible and join Values to Action.


[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2021. Health Effects of Cigarette Smoking.

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2022. “Deaths from Excessive Alcohol Use in the United States.” Accessed 2/20/24.

[3] Center for Science in the Public Interest. 2024. “Why Good Nutrition Is Important.” Accessed 2/20/24.

[4] National Institute on Drug Abuse. 2023. “Drug Overdose Death Rates.” Accessed 2/20/24.

[5] Van Zee, A. 2009. The Promotion and Marketing of Oxycontin: Commercial Triumph, Public Health Tragedy. American Journal of Public Health 99 (2): 221–27. Accessed 2/20/24.

[6] Ahmad, F. B., J. A. Cisewski, L. M. Rossen, and P. Sutton. 2024. “Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts.” National Center for Health Statistics. Accessed 2/20/24.

[7] Hadland S. E., A. Rivera-Aguirre, B. D. L. Marshall, and M. Cerdá. 2019. “Association of Pharmaceutical Industry Marketing of Opioid Products With Mortality From Opioid-Related Overdoses.” JAMA Network Open 2(1):e186007. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.6007.

[8] Ellis, D. 2023. “US Mortality Rates Far Higher Than Peer Nations, Leading to Millions of ‘Missing Americans.’” News-Medical Life Sciences. Accessed 2/20/24.

[9] Burrough, B. 2015. Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence. New York: Penguin.

[10] Powell, L. F. 1971. Attack of American Free Enterprise System.

[11] Mayer, J. 2016. Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. New York: Penguin Random House.

[12] Quoted in Mayer 2016.

[13] Powell, L. F. 1971. Attack of American Free Enterprise System.

[14] Friedman, M., and R. Friedman. 1980. Free to Choose: A Personal Statement. 1st ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

[15] Biglan, A. 2015. The Nurture Effect: How the Science of Human Behavior Can Improve Our Lives and Our World. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

[16] American Lung Association. 2024. Overall Tobacco Trends. Accesses 2/20/24.

[17] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2023. “Current Cigarette Smoking Among U.S. Adults Aged 18 Years and Older.” Accessed 2/20/24.



Anthony Biglan

Anthony Biglan, PhD, is the author of Rebooting Capitalism: How we can forge a society that works for everyone.