Magazine article U.S. Catholic

States Should Mind Their Own Business

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

States Should Mind Their Own Business

Article excerpt

Can state and local governments help push American corporations out of Burma?

SOMETIMES IT IS BETTER TO HAVE THE PEOPLE OF the world on your side than the governments of the world," 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Daw Aung San Sun Kyi once said. The Burmese opposition leader, confined under house arrest for much of the last decade, is going to need a lot more people on her side since a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision made it more difficult for state and local governments to take sides in international struggles for liberty and democracy.

The court struck down Massachusetts' "Burma Law," which had added a surcharge to bids from corporations doing business in Burma--now known as Myanmar--effectively cutting them off from the state's $2 billion in annual contracts. Legislators in Massachusetts wanted to take a stand against the terror and oppression maintained by the military "emergency" committee that seized control of Burma in 1988.

The National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), a Washington, D.C.based lobby representing 600 companies that do business abroad, had challenged the law as an unconstitutional interference with federal authority over foreign policy. But the powerful corporations that targeted the Burma Law are not really interested in what it says about business in Burma. Most multinationals--with the unpleasant exception of oil giant UNOCAL--have already written off Burma as a public relations nightmare. They're looking to the future.

States spend $730 billion a year on procurement from private companies. In recent decades they have used that purchasing power to take positions on a variety of political issues. While it will be difficult for this opinion to be broadly interpreted, it does provide an opening that could be exploited by corporate giants who don't like anyone telling them how, where, or with whom they can do business. The decision could undermine the political infrastructure of civic and legislative activism that has in the past been successful in campaigns against apartheid in South Africa and the exclusion of the Catholic nationalist community in Northern Ireland.

The concept of subsidiarity is enshrined in Catholic social teaching and is usually called into play when government tramples the political expression of the individual. …

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