The Worst of Both Worlds

August 4, 2002

by John K. Bates

I recently spent some time out of state, commiserating with friends and taking a few days off. One of my friends (I’ll call him Bob) enjoys discussing current events (some would call it arguing), and in many respects Bob and I agree on many issues and in our cynicism of most of the institutions that have power over us. But we differ in one significant respect. I believe very strongly that government, though a necessary evil, is nonetheless always evil and hence should be as small and as non-intrusive as possible. Bob, on the other hand, believes that both government and business are inherently evil, and that of the two, government is the lesser evil because it does not operate on a profit motive. It is an interesting question at the core of our debate: Is business inherently good (and hence needing minimal regulation) or is inherently evil and hence in need of much control?

I seriously doubt that Bob and I will ever reach agreement on this issue. That said, I claim the upper hand in the debate. Americans enjoy, after all, some measure of flexibility when dealing with business. We can choose a different airline or long distance company. We can purchase a different car or computer. We can shop at a different grocery store. Americans have far less choice, on the other hand, with government - especially in today’s “post-federalist” system where one-size-fits-all decrees from Washington are the nom de rigueur. And no business that I know of - not even Microsoft - has the power to imprison an American citizen. We cannot be arrested by G.E., nor can we be taxed by Wal Mart. These powers are enormous - and exclusive to government. For this reason alone government is more of a threat to liberty than business, and hence in a free society is the greater threat to liberty.

That said, I think I can see Bob’s point concerning a disturbing trend in American politics, which is the increasing synergy between business and government. While some have ranted on this topic for years (remember the “military/industrial complex” that some believed was the driving force behind the Vietnam war), and while we have a long ways to go before we become a Japanese-style oligarchy, it is nonetheless disturbing to see the scions of capitalism in bed with politicians who control 40% of our income. It is bad enough when politicians leave us no choice and little recourse in the policies they implement; it is far worse when they conspire with corporations to truncate or eliminate choice and recourse in the marketplace. If markets are to work properly, they must offer reasonable choices. If choice is eliminated, markets inevitably fail to function properly and the consumer suffers.

This writer has noted this concern before, when the Bush administration secretly met with 36 business leaders before he even took office in 2001. That concern, however, was based on appearances of impropriety and the need to conduct government in the open. Looking back, I wonder if my focus was misplaced. For today’s trend is towards a more sinister connection between government and business, where some business leaders seem to think they can break the rules with a wink and a nod from government. This type of collusion is deadly in a market-based economy: If big business plays by different rules, the “little guy” is at a competitive disadvantage and is doomed to failure. Government above all else must maintain a fair competitive field. When it uses its muscle to grant favor to certain businesses (say, those who pony up money to politicians’ campaign coffers), it slants that playing field to the detriment of business in general.

Government/business collusion also increases the power, size, and scope of government. This is especially true when a “conservative” pro-business administration is in office. Since conservatives are usually the ones calling for smaller government, when one of their own is leading the charge towards bigger government (in the name of “helping business” and “growing the economy”) there is no one left to call for smaller government. In this event - and this is clearly the case today - there are two Parties of Big Government, with the only differences between the two being how much will be spent and who will get the goodies. Business, for their part, goes along even if such growth ultimately creates a higher tax burden. What business would not, after all, accept government handouts or weaker enforcement of tax and accounting laws? Business is about profit, and short-term profit at that. Only a fool would turn away the massive enticement of trillions of government dollars.

And so, what? If Bob and I - and if millions of average Americans on some level - agree that there is too much collusion between government and business, is there anything to be done about it? This is the dilemma facing true conservatives today. We are caught between a desire to see the economy grow, to allow business to be free to grow, and smaller government. As massive as government is today, and as complex as the tax and regulatory laws are, the temptation is enormous to manipulate the system to achieve what is a good goal: Helping business grow. There is also the thought that since the Democrats and liberals have for years used government to achieve their goals and help their friends, it is only fair for Republicans and conservatives to do the same. Indeed, one has to wonder if the “all things GOP are good” attitude of many conservative commentators stems exactly from this philosophy.

Yet, they are wrong. Conservatives who support government help for business are no different than liberals who support using government to help other groups. Both philosophies result in massive, always-growing government. They also result in massive businesses without legal checks and balances needed to protect the average American. In other words, we get the worst of both worlds. Big business is bad enough, but at least it is manageable when we have choices and recourse. Big government is far worse, as we are stuck with it. The combination of the two is absolutely caustic to the cause of freedom. Conservatives should get back to focusing on smaller government and let business fend for itself. That is, after all, the American Way.



John K. Bates is a part-time freelance writer who works in the energy engineering field and lives in the Denver, Colorado area. He enjoys many outdoor pursuits and the company of his family of three cats. His columns can also be seen on

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For more of John's articles, visit his archives.

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