Politics & Policy

The King’s Critics Lose Their Heads

Who’s really to blame when corporations flee our capricious regime?

Not since the execution of Charles I has so much vitriol been hurled at a monarch who was deemed to have erred. This week, having announced that it intends to buy Canadian donut giant Tim Hortons — then to escape America’s punitive tax regime for the more welcoming Ontario — the fast-food chain Burger King has been excommunicated from polite society, being transmuted overnight from a beloved staple of the American highway into a flame-broiled Benedict Arnold. “Consumers,” Senator Sherrod Brown advised on Monday, “should turn to Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers or White Castle sliders,” for Burger King’s courtiers have “abandoned their country.”

If one were wondering what it might take to turn those skeptical of national borders into raging nativists, one now has one’s answer: Opt out of Leviathan’s scheme. By wishing to arrange a better deal for itself, petitioners at MoveOn.org charge, “dirty” and “treasonous” Burger King has revealed itself to be sorely lacking in “patriotism.” Channeling President Obama, one signatory perniciously suggests that “traitors should be shot!”; another that the federal government ought to summarily remove executives’ passports; yet another that the state might considering punishing the company with vindictive ex post facto legislation. Janet Schott, from Wentzville, Mo., sums up the sensibility: “Count me as one less customer if you cross the border,” she promises. “Do your American duty.”

To inject lofty concepts such as “duty” into a debate such as this is to betray both a political tone-deafness and a chronic lack of understanding as to why governments are instituted among men. Indeed, one cannot help but wonder whom the dissenters imagine to be the hero of this story. Presuming for the sake of argument that the average American taxpayer will receive with horror the news that a private company is attempting to pay as few taxes as it possibly can while staying within the law, the fact remains that Burger King’s antagonists — the IRS, the federal government, President Obama — are all infinitely more unpopular than it is. From the days of Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham, the tax collector has been a universally loathed figure within the English-speaking world. (The United States, you will recall, got its start courtesy of a metastasizing tax rebellion.) Certainly, corporations represent less-sympathetic characters than do individuals. Dow Chemical, let’s say, is unlikely to inspire the same reaction as did Sam Adams. But in a fight between an outfit that serves hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, and coffee at a low price, and a government department that forcibly takes your hard-earned property and does its level best to make your life hell each and every April, who’s the bigger bad guy?

At its root, this is a tale of government at its worst — of what happens when the retrenchment of the state comes to be seen as a quirky and a fringe idea rather than as the obvious solution to what ails us. Venom or no venom, it will remain the case that the primary cause of Burger King’s planned exile is the excess of the state, which has, by virtue of a punitive and uncompetitive tax regime, made the United States an unattractive place for global businesses to call their home. In a rational world, that state would respond to the mess that it has created by adjusting the incentives. In this world, alas, it will likely do no such thing. Instead, it will use its influence and its power to bully and, eventually, to coerce — adding legislation to legislation, piling force atop of force, and applying in the economic sphere that favorite injunction of the uncreative general: “push on, boys, for this time the line will break.” President Obama is quick to describe those who are fleeing as “deserters” but slow to explore what might be prompting the desertion. “Sorry,” it seems, has no place in Leviathan’s narrow lexicon. Contrition and regret remain alien concepts. “If we just pass one more law,” our mandarins think, “the contraption will finally work.”

There was a point in American history at which the federal government could realistically expect to crush competition between states and to impose upon the country a set of uniform rules from which nobody could hope to escape. Globalization and technology have brought that era to close, restoring to civil society the sacred right of exit and rendering nation states as competitors in a world market. While Washington remains unyieldingly intrusive, Burger King will be unable to radically reduce its liabilities by moving from California to Tennessee. But it can now find succor outside of America’s borders. The wise response to its having so publicly chosen to do so is not to send the military to the 49th parallel, nor to recruit in anger the collection of simpleton activists that hangs around on MoveOn.org; but to issue a simple and vital inquiry, the better to grasp the contours of the problem: “tell us, if you will, what it was that made you want to leave?”

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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