Corporate Power, Progressives, and Government Protection

Why does the left use corporate as a shibboleth without compare? Honestly, what qualities of corporations make progressives hate them so much? Let’s take a look at the nouns that writers on the left pair with corporate: corporate power, corporate greed, corporate corruption. Power by itself can’t be bad. We know progressives are happy when their own political party holds power. No, corporations use their power to advance greedy aims. Because their purpose – profit – is evil, because they oppress their workers, pollute the environment, evade taxes, buy and manipulate politicians, cheat customers, endanger people with unsafe products, over-consume natural resources, and pay their executives too much, they are bad, bad, bad. To limit their bad effects, we have to make them weak. To make them weak, we have to tax them, for money yields power. Beyond taxation, we must monitor, regulate, derogate, reprimand, fine and prosecute them.

Where do these ideas come from? One argument holds they come from Karl Marx and more generally from the socialists. That might be true in Europe, but here in the United States Marx didn’t have that kind of influence. You might say here in the United States these ideas came from Theodore Roosevelt. I know, the argument sounds a little odd: the evidence for it is scattered and somewhat obscure. Moreover, Roosevelt had plenty of help to promote these ideas during the Progressive Era. But in fact, our attitudes about corporations formed not long after some corporations – notably Standard Oil and the railroad trusts – became powerful. Corporations grew large enough to become powerful not so long before the advent of the Progressive Era. The fourth president on Mount Rushmore, TR, became president during this time of corporate growth. He was America’s first Progressive president.

Contemporary criticisms of corporate power sound like a broken car alarm where the horn honks again and again. Let’s take a quick example. Suppose a couple starts a small business. They incorporate, higher some employees, work their tails off for a decade or more and at last force it to make a little money for them. Are they evil because they started a for-profit corporation? Of course not, the Progressives say. Size is what counts – you can’t have pernicious corporate power without large size. Alright then, let’s take General Motors: large and powerful in its day, now large and conspicuously weak and dependent because it has difficulty making a profit. Is that our example of bad corporate power? No, no, says the Progressive, you want to constrain corporations that are large and healthy. Those are the ones that can do so much damage. The healthy corporations have power.

Like Microsoft? Is that why the government pursued Microsoft, because it was large and healthy? That’s exactly right! You can’t let any corporation get too large or powerful. You let it get too big, and it can challenge the government itself. No private business organization should be powerful enough to do that.

I guess that argument speaks for itself: no private business organization should be powerful enough to challenge the government. That tells you why Progressive attitudes about corporations have endured for such a long time. When you honestly believe that government protects you, protects you moreover from business firms that have so many ways to threaten you, you hope that no corporation has sufficient power to challenge your protector. You want your protector to have the upper hand in the struggle, all the time. You want your protector to make the greed and the power go away.

Let’s make a brief comparison between General Motors and BP before we close. As BP struggled to contain the oil gusher at the bottom of the gulf, President Obama assured Americans that we – the government – “will keep our boot on its neck.” What sense does an image like that make, if not within the framework of corporation as villain and government as protector? In the middle of a crisis, why would you talk like that unless you see large corporations as the source of bad things?

Around the same time, the U. S. government applied the too big to fail standard to General Motors. Here lay a sick company – it had been in poor health for a long time. Now it’s financial health was so poor that jobs were at stake, not only at GM but throughout the automobile industry. In the balance  between evil corporate power and good corporate jobs, good corporate jobs (with benefits) held the stronger hand in this instance. In the government’s estimation, a sick corporation is safer and more deserving of help than a healthy one.

At this point Obama would say, the oil spill was a bad thing, and GM was too big to fail. I don’t care to argue those points. I only want to highlight the contrasting treatment these two companies in trouble received from the U. S. government. In both cases, Washington was aggressive, both in wringing money from BP and in forcing money on GM. In both cases, government made a point of maintaining the initiative. In the contest between government and large corporations, you don’t want large corporations to fight back. You don’t want to deal with CEOs like Bill Gates. You want everyone – from insecure, fearful citizens to angry, contemptuous progressives – to depend on you for protection and catharsis.

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