The Corner

Business and Government, Sitting in a Tree

Ross Douthat has a very good post on a subject near and dear to my heart, the inherent corporatism of progressive “anti-corporatism.” In response to corporate abuses — abuses that usually involve too chummy a relationship between government and business — progressives invariably conclude that the problem was that government didn’t “clamp down” on business enough. The problem is that it is precisely such chumminess that is so often at the heart of the problem. Here’s how I put it in a column in 2005:

If you think someone is hugging you too hard, what do you do? You push him away. You don’t hug him back. And yet, it is considered the height of enlightened policymaking to say that, in answer to corporate America’s bear hug, Washington should hug back twice as hard.

If you want to know why business takes such an interest in Washington, the answer can be found in your low-flow toilet, in the warning labels adorning your cars, in your 8 zillion page tax returns. It can be found while you wait on hold trying to get a human to answer your questions about your health insurance. And the answer is most certainly somewhere in your box of cereal, made with grains subsidized by Uncle Sam and coated in sugar that has no business being grown in the United States of America. Corporations meddle in Washington because Washington meddles with them.

It is simply naive to believe that a businessman will have no interest in politics when politicians have taken a great interest in him. And it is grotesquely unfair to assume that businesspeople are corrupt simply because they want to support politicians less inclined to hurt them.

Here’s Ross (after a long, valuable, excerpt from Reihan) with a nice nod to Animal Farm:

The point is that the more intertwined industry and government become, the harder it is to discern who’s “taking over” whom — and the less it matters, because the taxpayer is taking it on the chin either way. Or to put it another way: The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which …

And since, I made this argument in my book, I thought I’d throw in a gratuitous excerpt, below the fold:

This is the hidden history of big business from the railroads of the nineteenth century, to the meatpacking industry under Teddy Roosevelt, to the outrageous cartel of “Big Tobacco” today: supposedly right-wing corporations work hand in glove with progressive politicians and bureaucrats in both parties to exclude small businesses, limit competition, ensure market share and prices, and generally work as government by proxy. Many of JFK’s “action-intellectuals” were businessmen who believed that government should be run by postpartisan experts who could bring the efficiencies of business to government by blurring the lines between business and government. Big business rallied behind LBJ, not the objectively free-enterprise Barry Goldwater. Free marketeers often decry Richard Nixon’s wage and price controls, but what is usually forgotten is that big business cheered them. The day after Nixon announced his corporatist scheme, the president of the National Association of Manufacturers declared, “The bold move taken by the President to strengthen the American economy deserves the support and cooperation of all groups.”39 Jimmy Carter’s supposedly prescient efforts to tackle the energy crisis led to the creation of the Energy Department, which became—and remains— a piggy bank for corporate interests. Archer Daniels Midland has managed to reap billions from the environmental dream of “green” alternative fuels like ethanol.

Indeed, we are all Crolyites now. It was Croly’s insight that if you aren’t going to expropriate private businesses, but instead want to use business to implement your social agenda, then you should want businesses themselves to be as big as possible. What’s easier, strapping five thousand cats to a wagon or a couple of giant oxen? Al Gore’s rhetoric about the need to “tame Big Oil” and the like is apposite. He doesn’t want to nationalize “Big Oil”; he wants to yoke it to his own agenda. Likewise, Hillary Clinton’s proposed health-care reforms, as well as most of the proposals put forward by leading Democrats (and a great many Republicans), involve the fusion of big government and big business. The economic ideas in Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village are breathlessly corporatist. “A number of our most powerful telecommunications and computer companies have joined forces with the government in a project to connect every classroom in America to the Internet,” she gushes. “Socially minded corporate philosophies are the avenue to future prosperity and social stability.”40 It doesn’t take a Rosetta stone to decipher what liberals mean by “socially minded corporate philosophies.”

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