April 17, 2015 10:46AM

Big Governments Are Vastly More Dangerous to the Citizenry than Big Corporations

It's hard to prove or disprove statements of broad social sweep, but we do know one thing: Nicholas Nassim Taleb will not defend his assertion that big corporations are "vastly more dangerous" than big governments.

With notable frequency, people assume that I'm a reader of Taleb's books. Evidently my thinking and his align in important ways. It's made me mildly interested in reading him, though time constraints (or time mismanagement) have not yet allowed it.

My minor affinity with Taleb caused me to focus just a little more than I otherwise would have on a tweet of his the other day.

Big corporations are vastly more dangerous to the citizenry than big government, but with good news: corps end up committing suicide.

— Nassim NicholنTaleb (@nntaleb) April 15, 2015

That premise really caught my eye. What is the relative danger posed by governments and corporations? Are corporations "vastly more dangerous"?

I'd thought that the jury was pretty much in on that question. With hundreds of millions killed outright by government action in the 20th century alone, the quantum of death and destruction wrought by governments is almost certainly greater than corporations' destructive work.

Like any tool, corporations are dangerous. Death and injury is a byproduct of their delivery of food, shelter, transportation, entertainment, and every other want and need of consumers, because they often miscalculate risk or just make stupid mistakes.

(I should note that corporations are just a way of organizing people. Their existence isn't demanded by any principle, and they arguably violate libertarian principle by acting as government transfer of risk from owners to consumers. But by historical accident they do exist, and they are an organizational conduit through which much productive human action passes.)

Governments are dangerous, too, to the point where it sometimes appears that unpleasant byproducts are the intended product. According to liberal theory, we enter into political society for protection from each other and outsiders. The day-to-day operation of government in the United States is pretty good relative to other countries and other historical eras. But Americans today are caged in droves and killed with regularity as a byproduct of the war on drugs, for example. People around the world are episodically slaughtered in the millions by literal wars entered into by governments.

Is there any comparable danger produced by corporations?

There are ways of attributing the acts of governments to corporations. The lamentable military-industrial complex is responsible for a vastly greater war-making machine than our society needs, I think. That's just an extreme example of crony capitalism. But an essential condition of such violent potential and actual violence is government. Corporations cannot and do not tax, conscript, and kill under claim of legal authority to do so. Only governments do that. That's somewhat definitional, and in practice I think it's nearly beyond dispute that governments are the more dangerous for it.

It could be that Taleb is thinking in terms of a stylized sense of "danger" rather than literal risk of mortality and morbidity. So I was being genuine when I tweeted:

Can't fathom how @nntaleb concludes "Big corporations are vastly more dangerous to the citizenry than big government."

— Jim Harper (@Jim_Harper) April 15, 2015

Taleb responded by calling me a lover of big corporations, dishonest, and a lobbyist/prostitute. I have personal foibles, though I think they're different from the ones in Taleb's catalog, and my character issues reveal nothing about the relative danger posed by corporations and governments. The question is important because it implies which institution we should more urgently seek to fetter for purposes of public protection.

The good evidence about the danger of governments is not an argument that they don't supply some benefits. The utter absence of evidence that corporations are more dangerous leaves as an ineluctable conclusion, I think, that governments are the more dangerous of the two social institutions.