Why Small Is Better
Americans fear big government for good reason — they know all about unaccountable bureaucracies.


Lee Habeeb

In what may be the most important poll in recent memory, Gallup asked Americans in December what they considered “the biggest threat to the country in the future”: big government, big business, or big labor. Seventy-two percent selected “big government,” a record high in the nearly 50 years that Gallup has been asking the question. You won’t be surprised that 92 percent of Republicans pointed to government; what’s striking is that 72 percent of independents and 56 percent of Democrats also did.

When is the last time you saw 72 percent of Americans agree on anything? The percentage, which has been increasing no matter which political party is in power, has risen in direct correlation to the growth of our government. The bigger it gets, the poll screamed at us, the worse the majority of Americans feel about it.

This represents an epic opportunity for those of us who believe in free enterprise and limited government. But how do we turn that poll into a story that makes sense to ordinary Americans? It’s easy, actually: Talk about bureaucracies of all kinds, small and large.

Tell them the story of Mark, who runs his own food business. It’s located in Bergenfield, N.J., in a parking lot behind the main drag in town. His customers have been lining up five days a week for decades, because Mark makes some of the best hot dogs in the state. The dirty-water variety (so named because the dogs sit in warm, murky water all day), they’re cooked to perfection and adorned with homemade toppings that make grown men and women moan. Mark knows his customers by name and knows their orders, too. He even knows what kind of jokes make them laugh.

The owner of a local hot-dog stand — like the owner of a great local restaurant, bar, or hair salon — probably knows his customers pretty darn well. But when that hot-dog vendor expands to two hot-dog carts and then more, things can go terribly wrong. As the business grows, the owner can lose sight of his customers and focus instead on management issues. He can get lost in the swamp of company politics and sacrifice his common sense on the altar of corporate policy. And life working in such bureaucratically oriented organizations can seem utterly pointless. Isn’t that what The Office so brilliantly captured?

Some companies survive bigness. A few get better. Walmart wouldn’t be Walmart, with all its purchasing and distribution power, without the volume of business it does. But if Walmart loses sight of its customers, it could become road kill. American business history is littered with once-great companies that are great no longer. In a land where the consumers are in charge, other companies can lure them away. Sears, for instance, once ruled the retail world. By the 1960s, nearly one out of 200 U.S. workers received a Sears paycheck, and one out of every three carried a Sears credit card. But the retail giant was beaten by an unlikely adversary from an unlikely place: Sam Walton, who started his empire with one store in Rogers, Ark., in 1962.

Small has been beating big since the beginning of human history. Somewhere on a battlefield in ancient Palestine over 3,000 years ago, a young shepherd with five smooth stones and a slingshot challenged a giant warrior to a fight few thought he could win. His name was David and his opponent was Goliath. If there were odds-makers in the deserts of the Middle East like those we have in America’s desert city called Las Vegas, the shepherd would have been an underdog facing 100-to-1 odds.

The handicappers would have been wrong, though, because they would have missed some crucial information: David had been preparing for his opponent his whole life, he’d been practicing hours a day with those stones and slingshot, and he’d developed deadly accuracy. David had the advantage over Goliath, though no one — not even David — knew it. Goliath was the real underdog, because he was thoroughly unprepared to counter the skills of his much smaller opponent.