Libertarians can sometimes sound like Chicken Little screaming that the sky is falling whenever the government does anything. But President Donald Trump’s battle against Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos shows that they have a point.
Trump is furious with the Washington Post, which is owned by Bezos and has been highly critical of the president, and he wants to punish Bezos by going after Amazon. Trump is reportedly considering raising Amazon’s shipping costs through the U.S. Postal Service, canceling a pending Amazon contract with the Pentagon, pushing red states to investigate Amazon, and generally using antitrust and tax policy to punish Amazon.
The balance of power between Trump and Bezos shows that even if you’re skeptical of libertarians, you shouldn’t dismiss them altogether: Government power can be very dangerous.
Some point out that Jeff Bezos is the richest person in the world. But Bezos’s wealth does not exist in a vacuum; it exists because the government respects his property rights. It’s more relevant to compare Bezos’s power with that of the U.S. government, which Trump has at his disposal. No matter how rich he is, Bezos will always be the underdog.
Other countries show that rich people are no match for the government. In Russia, Vladimir Putin effectively eliminated the oligarchs who did not support him — seizing their wealth and driving them into hiding. In the process, he took control of the economy and the media through oligarchs who supported him. In China, president Xi Jinping used an anti-corruption campaign to drive out his enemies, which cleared the way to his becoming president for life. Just recently, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman imprisoned rich people in a hotel and reportedly had some of them tortured until he could extract their loyalty or their wealth. In all three countries, the story is the same: The only people who are rich and powerful are the people whom the government allows to be rich and powerful.
In America, everyone is supposed to be equal before the law. That is why Trump’s grudge against Bezos is so dangerous. When the government goes after political opponents, it undermines the rule of law.
You might think Amazon is a dangerous monopoly. But even if it is, this isn’t the right way to address it. The government should check corporate power in an unbiased way, not as political retribution.
Trump’s war on Bezos isn’t just about Bezos or Amazon. It’s a proxy war that could determine whether anyone can challenge the president without retribution. If Trump makes an example of Bezos, then other CEOs might fall into line.
Libertarians prize freedom from government coercion above all else. It can be easy to get used to freedom in America, but when you look at history, and at many other countries even today, you realize how precious freedom really is. Democracy is only a very recent phenomenon, and it’s hard to imagine freedom coming to authoritarian countries without major upheaval. Freedom is hard to gain and easy to lose.
At the end of the day, there is no one to step in when the government goes out of bounds. That is why unchecked government power is dangerous, and why we should all be a little libertarian.