The Evolving Fear of 'Big Government' and 'Big Business'

Americans have long, and a times, foolishly feared "bigness."

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I've got in front of me a fascinating little document, published in 1952 and now apparently out of out print, called Big Business: A New Era.

It was written by David Lilienthal, who was a fairly distinguished public servant and a classic sort of mid-century consensus liberal. He was awarded the Public Welfare Award by the National Academy of Sciences for his management of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, for instance.

Anyway, the argument Lilienthal presented in the book was that big businesses are here to stay; they do more good for individuals and small businesses than you think; and because of the countervailing forces of trade unions and government regulation, citizens needn't fear them as much as they once did.

To read it is to feel simultaneously that you're in a time warp—he writes of an electronics industry "in knee pants," for instance—but also that nothing much has changed. There's a chapter with the heading "Concentration of Power: 'Too Big to Handle' "—a forerunner, of course, of our era's "Too Big to Fail" financial institutions.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Should the Dodd-Frank Act Be Repealed?]

What's interesting to me is a very familiar-sounding fear that Lilienthal attempts to allay: the interrelatedness of Big Business and socialism. We hear this all the time in conservative media. (See, for example, Timothy Carney's critique of President Obama's "corporatist" policies in advance of the State of the Union Address.)

Lilienthal wrote:

The argument is that Big Business will lead inevitably to "statism," defined as wholesale public ownership of large businesses. That contention is that by breaking up or inhibiting Big Business, we can provide an antidote against this danger of galloping socialism.

Look carefully: Lilienthal was objecting to the specter of Big Business growing so large and all-powerful that the public would demand companies be taken over in order to protect consumers and the general welfare. He was, in essence, arguing with the Woodrow Wilsons of his time—those who believed that big companies needed to be broken up by government in order to preserve free-market competition and small-scale enterprise.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

The conservative critique of "corporatism" sounds a lot like this, but it rests on an altogether different premise. In the "trustbuster" era, it was assumed that businesses grew big—sometimes into monopolies—due to an absence of government intervention. Today's conservatives are arguing something different: that Big Business is the result of cooperation between business and government; that "Big Government" and "Big Business" conspire to "steal your money," as Carney's book on this subject charges.

The Thomas Franks on the left, meanwhile, agree about this nefarious conspiracy—but they favor putting teeth in regulations so that they actually work in favor or ordinary citizens, not erasing them from the books. Frank sees the Tea Party as having harnessed populist anger at corporations while calling for a return to the kind of free-market vacuum in which corporations grew so big and powerful in the first place.

What to make of this?

For now, I'll just repeat the old William Faulkner saw: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

  • See a collection of political cartoons on the Tea Party.
  • Read the U.S. News debate on the Balanced Budget Amendment.
  • See an opinion slide show of 10 wasteful stimulus projects.