Should Populists Praise Big Companies?


It should be enough to say that since Microsoft is the property of Bill Gates and its other owners, they may do with the company as they please, including setting terms for the use and sale of its products. Yet critics maintain that such a large company is a threat to smaller competitors and therefore the government ought to restrict or even break up the company. But the size of Microsoft, which started with a handful of workers and now employs 30,000, is in fact crucial to why it deserves the support of all individuals who call themselves populists.

Edmund Burke's defense of large property holdings is mostappropriate tothis case. In 1790 the great British political thinker was referring toproperty in the form of huge, inherited estates when he said, "it never canbe safe . . . unless it be, out of all proportion, predominant in therepresentation." Otherwise, "it is not rightly protected." Of course,during the century prior to Burke's words a rising commercial class had beenlimiting the powers of kings by means of political and constitutionalsafeguards. Soon that class, with its newly won freedom, would initiate theindustrial revolution, creating wealth that dwarfed that of old aristocrats.

Burke justified massive holdings on the grounds that "thecharacteristicessence of property . . . is to be unequal. The great masses thereforewhich excite envy, and tempt rapacity, must be put out of the possibility ofdanger. Then they form a natural rampart about the lesser properties in alltheir gradations."

Burke understood three important truths about property. First,propertyrights are important not only for the rich but also for those who hold smallproperty and for innovators on the road to wealth. Second, propertyprovokes jealousy, from both covetous mobs and political elites who seetheir power challenged. And third, holders of large property are best ableto protect general property rights, which in turn protects small holders andthose in the process of making new fortunes.

The lesson of Burke's principles in today's world is clear: If thefederalgovernment can crush Bill Gates, it can crush any of us, making none of ussafe. The checks on political power established in Burke's time are beingeroded in our own. The U.S. Constitution requires that federal laws bepassed by Congress. Yet in past decades Congress has delegated broad,open-ended powers to unelected bureaucrats in federal agencies who burdenpeople with regulations but who are not accountable to the people.

Today political elites can use government power to crush anyinterests orenterprises not to their liking, in spite of any law that might protectthem. The tobacco industry in all likelihood could have prevailed in courtagainst the government, but it might have gone bankrupt in the process andthus was forced to give in. Gun manufacturers now face a similar assault.

Why should average citizens care about the fates of huge, unpopularindustries? Because thousands of citizens on a daily basis face similarabuses from federal bureaucrats who, for example, bar citizens from buildingor farming on their own property because, dry though it is, it istechnically a "wetland," or who force struggling entrepreneurs to offeremployee benefits that they cannot afford, driving those entrepreneurs outof business. Small-scale entrepreneurs and property holders are frequentlyunable to defend themselves against governments with unlimited resources,which are extracted from us through taxes. As Burke observed, property's"defensive power is weakened as it is diffused."

That is why the rich can do us all a true service by defending theirrights,because they are ours rights as well. Unfortunately, as Paul Weaverdocuments in The Suicidal Corporation, many businessmen are too willing tocompromise with government, sometimes out of short-term expediency, othertimes to secure government favors. It is interesting that 10 years agoMicrosoft had no Washington office, while today it spends $4.7 millionannually on lobbying to fight for its survival. It is not the size ofcorporate bank accounts but rather political power that corrupts civilsociety.

Bill Gates' business is a blessing to Americans. The incrediblewealthcreated by him and his colleagues includes the half-a-trillion-dollar valueof Microsoft, the value of all the software it has ever sold, and thebenefits in time and money saved from the billions of uses of that software.If Gates wishes to make one more gift to the American people, he can fightvigorously against his government persecutors. When he fights for hisfreedom, he is fighting for our freedom as well.