The March/April Cato Policy Report covered a January 2010 Cato Book Forum on Timothy P. Carney’s Obamanomics. Carney summarized his book and there were responses from Uwe Reinhardt, a Professor at Princeton noted for advocacy of strong government intervention in health care, and Ross Douthat, a (first-year) New York Times columnist, a self-styled conservative who (from scanning his columns) seems a weak one. The result was three tirades about how big business runs government. It is surprising in the twenty-first century to see outside of WhiteHouse.gov, movies, and television dramas such naïve attacks on the power of big business. This is not the libertarianism that I know. However, superficially plausible dominance theories are too convenient not to revive frequently, regardless of enormous refutations. Thus, some key, familiar points need recollection.
The charge of big-business dominance has at least three flaws. First, it is a myth. Politicians created the massive growth of government with more input from intellectuals than from business executives. Second, it reverses causation; government ensnares industry. Third, it is absurd since big business, however defined, consists of diverse, often conflicting companies.
Much, including the most problematic, expansion of government, has almost nothing to do with big business and is certainly not what any big (or small) firms would want. The entitlements explosion is in social security, government-employee pensions, Medicaid, and Medicare. The first is notoriously a shifting of savings from private firms to an entirely government-run program with a rigid reliance on treasury paper debt whose repayment is dubious. Other government pension plans do invest in the private sector so they rely somewhat on private firms. Again, this only displaces what individuals would have done for themselves, despite the fears of libertarian interventionists.
The messes that are Medicaid and Medicare do involve among many others big businesses in pharmacy and medical insurance. In the latter case, the non-profit Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies are major, often dominant factors. The other, more important participants are the large number of separate medical providers and hospitals. The final involved sector is much of American business. To lessen the impact of World-War II wage and price controls, the U.S. government extended to medical insurance the legal fiction used for Social Security that part of insurance costs could be called “employer contributions” and not considered income subject to personal income tax. Basic economic theory amply confirmed by empirical research shows that these payments are labor costs and lead to reduced direct compensation.
The result is a system in which payment is widely separated from decisions about medical procedures. Physicians err on the side of ordering additional tests because they know that neither they nor the patient directly incur the costs. (The fear of lawsuits may increase that bias, but it is unclear that tort reform without reform of insurance provision would make a big difference.) The prime fault of Obama care is that it reinforces, rather than lessens, the separation of patient from payee. This again is hardly an ideal for business.
Even more obviously, another great problem area, education, suffers from a government takeover so ancient and thorough that only specialists are aware of its existence. The federal government increasingly intervenes into pre-college education. Since World War II, all government has greatly expanded its role in higher education to the extent that the great private universities are heavily government dependent. Congress tacked on to the health-care bill the total government takeover of college loans. Only a lunatic would postulate that any of this is due to a big-business conspiracy to control minds, particularly given the massive leftward tilt of academia.
The largest non-entitlement component of the federal government, defense, does notoriously, in part, involve an excessively cozy relationship with suppliers. However, spending for equipment is dwarfed by direct and indirect personnel costs. The spending on equipment, like many government decisions, is distorted by Congressional obsession with bringing jobs to their districts. No big-business excuse applies to nondefense discretionary spending. In short, it is a mockery to assert big business is the primary source of excessive government spending.
Second, politicians, rather than business executives, generate the dependence on government. What was described as a craven sellout to big pharma was actually part of the ruthless blackmail through which the Obama administration silenced a wide range of the potential criticism of its health-care monstrosity. Aside from all the normal government tools of torture such as the Internal Revenue Service, the antitrust agencies, and the Environmental Protection Agency, drug companies are subject to special and critical government scrutiny. The companies must endure the cumbersome, slow, expensive, ineffective Food and Drug Administration approval process. The industry relies on patent protection and re-importation bans to secure profits sufficient to recover research costs bloated by regulation.
The “big” drug and insurance companies were far from the only frightened firms. Despite widespread physician concerns, the American Medical Association abandoned its long-time opposition. More strikingly, AARP, the relentlessly wrong-headed self-created representative of seniors, flooded its publications with distorted pro-legislation articles.
This is unfortunately typical of the pressures companies face. Anyone who argues that lobbying is improper fails to recognize the excessive power that government possesses. It becomes essential to resist in every legitimate way widespread unbridled pressure. As Obama and his admirers constantly demonstrate, response to outrageous interventionist claims is regularly defamed. Efforts are made to discredit and even ban critics. In such a situation, limiting lobbying and other forms of response is an outrageous threat to constitutional government.
Famously, Microsoft did not take lobbying seriously until hit by dubious antitrust suits. In the energy sector, clearly pressures to go green and not oppose global-warming policies caused enormous fawning by a distressingly wide range of companies. Many leading retailers have jumped on green initiatives such as the long-life-bulb bandwagon arising because legislators responded to three decades of public resistance by forcing use of these bulbs. Exxon, after slander over its support, far smaller than that of the U.S. government, of research skeptical of global-warming concerns, has added a green tinge to its advertising, albeit not as blatantly as BP and Chevron. General Electric became a sell-out due to its involvement in financing, medical equipment, and power generating devices. The major banks and brokers faced and suffered badly from the political pressures to lend heavily to potential homebuyers with questionable financial situations.
At best, we can admit that big business is no less, but not no more, likely than any interest group to seek to twist the web of government control in its favor. A prime example of the defects is that Obama regularly assumes away trade-union influence in his attacks on interest groups. One of my great teachers, M.A. Adelman, forcefully argued that it is the voting power of interest groups that matters. He reached that conclusion in studying the antitrust attack on A&P that was driven by the extensive anti-chain store outlook of the thirties. His student Peter Pashigian showed that similarly automobile dealers secured protection from automobile manufacturers. When Adelman turned to oil, he found that “small” oil producers were sheltered at great cost to consumers from competition, domestic as well as imported, by big oil. A long-time concern about banking was the legislation limiting bank consolidation. A well-known, but regularly neglected part of this is the unreality of the big versus small company distinction. In most of these cases, the protected were rich local notables. In contrast, through pension funds and mutual funds increasingly, big companies are ultimately owned by much less affluent people.
Finally, a pro-big-business or even a general pro-business outlook is a nonsense concept. Big businesses conflict, not just with small business, but with each other. Protection of the once-big business of steel production was at the expense of the manufacturers of automobiles and other durable goods and their customers. The oil industry disagreed with the automobile industry on the best policy, given the inevitability of action, to reduce gasoline consumption legislatively. Large retailers relentlessly turn to imports when domestic producers, big and small, become too expensive.
This last point is key to understanding what libertarian economics is about. Decades before tea parties, libertarians were for limited government that involves among other things free markets. We want the market to decide winners and losers. We feel that private monopoly is so rare and difficult to detect and reform or regulate that we oppose purportedly anti-monopoly policies.
The real danger is the unopposed monopoly power of government. The need is protection from politicians unaware of the limits of prudent, constitutional government. The heath-care debate provided many examples. The quintessence of the disgraceful process of passing Obamacare was Nancy Pelosi, yielding a grossly oversized gavel, leading an unnecessarily confrontational walk up the Capitol steps through a wall of peaceful protestors, instead of taking the underground access that is available. Less dramatic, but more chilling, was the consistent dismissal by the law’s proponents of constitutional flaws in the bill. It suggests a variant on what Jimmy Durante’s character in Jumbo said when caught with an elephant, “Constitution, what Constitution?” As Cato has validly argued, what we need is less, not more, restrictions on speech and stringent term limits.
Richard L. Gordon
Pennsylvania State University