Why are we scared of the government, but not big business?

As our nation collectively processes the tragedy of the Sandy Hook shootings, we’ve collectively turned our attention–both positive and negative–to the issue of what type of guns ought to be available to the general public and who ought to be able own them. I’ve explained my own opposition to gun ownership and proposed a solution that would allow individuals to own weapons while also requiring significant limitation on the what and how of their ownership and use.

A number of readers communicated their disagreement with my proposals. What each of these correspondents have in common is their understanding of the nature of civil government. To a man (no women wrote), each argued that civil government is a necessary evil and understood the power that the government wields to be a negative and oppressive thing in that it limits individual freedoms. The government is, in other words, to be frightened of because of its coercive power–it is Leviathan, a power stronger than other powers (cf. Hobbes, Leviathan).

Leviathan – see Job 41

For the sake of argument, let’s agree to this understanding of the role and nature of civil government.

What continues to perplex me is that most individuals–not necessarily my correspondents–seem to be deeply concerned about the ability of government to vitiate their individual freedom (defined as the ability to choose between two or more options rather than the ability to choose the good, a modern understanding to be sure) while simultaneously unconcerned about the power of large corporations to do precisely the same thing. In a sense, it seems, these individuals are still living in the 18th century–a time when corporations where in their infancy.

If there’s a leviathan today, it’s as likely to be a major global corporation like Google or Wal-Mart as it is to be a government.

Is it not the case that both the government and corporations have a significant amount of control on your life? I would answer this question in the affirmative. However, the type of control exerted is different. The government’s control is overt and backed by the potential for the use of force–“hard power.” That being said, in my 37 years I have never been coerced by the governments of either the United States or the United Kingdom to do something against my will. I could, of course, happen one day.

Corporations coerce in a different way. Corporations use “soft power” like advertising and sales to attempt to manipulate the buying behaviors of the public. Consider the ways in which we purchase food in the United States. The means of food production are so thoroughly “owned” by corporations that it is incredibly difficult opt out of the system. The system is rigged to award purchasing unhealthy, genetically-modified food.

The evidence would even suggest that some corporations use illegal activities like bribery to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace. In my view, that the power of a corporation is subtle makes it rather more dangerous than the overt power of the government.

Why are we, as a nation, so enamored with the narrative of fear of government tyranny and ambivalent to a similar degree of control by corporations?

Could it be that we have allowed ourselves to be captured by the consumerist vision that posits the government as something that extracts money from us and thereby limits our ability to consume?

Could it be that we are unaware of the degree of power businesses have over us because we’re too busy working or being entertained to seriously consider it?

Is there an alternative vision that we could pursue? A vision that limits government and business, scaling them down to a local, personal, and knowable level? 

To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, capitalism is too few capitalists rather than too many.

4 Replies to “Why are we scared of the government, but not big business?”

  1. Interesting post. I think there is a time coming that is fast approaching where businesses are too big to allow for a real choice in the marketplace. I don’t know that we are there yet, but I see it coming. Big business can buy up, push out, or price out the competition. That is something that is concerning that may throw a wrench into the constitutional framework to which we try to adhere.

    I do not, however, accept that “soft power” is an equivalent threat to a free society. Being subject to advertisements is part of a free society where we encourage an exchange of ideas. Your final point is more telling: I want people to be more discerning than they are.

    As someone who likes to follow laws, the bigger disconnect is that there is a governing documents for the role of government (the Constitution) that is the supreme law of the land. Governing corporations is a matter of opinion and projection.


    1. Jon – thanks for posting. Part of my problem is that consumerism/consumer capitalism actually works to undermine the proper function of a free society. A good society is built on traditions, a shared morality, and practices that form the community. Consumerism tends to change and undermine that foundation, which makes it difficult for there to be a discerning populace because we’re cut off from the sources of wisdom from our forebears.


      1. Jeff, the major problems in society, today, stem from a major disconnect within government and the populus on matters of morality and even the rule of law. At a time when we have government forces such as the Department of Education dedicated to controlling, but not improving, education; over 30 “czars” usurping normal cabinet department power; a tax-evading Treasury Secretary; an Attorney General who refuses to enforce laws and sues states which do enforce laws, it is difficult to see threats to liberty posed by corporations of any scope meaningful by comparison. Yes, corporations attempt to influence government and occasionally succeed. The name of the solar power company which received a $500 million gift in exchange for its owners’ political contributions escapes me at the moment, but the owners took the money and let the corporation fail. They should be prosecuted, but will not. Not because of corporate power, but because of political power and greed. If you do not like regular supermarket food, then do not buy it. There are organic sources. Yes, it costs me more to buy it, but it should cost more because production methods are less efficient and more expensive. Corporations have competitors while governments are monoplies. At worst, governments are belligerent monopilists with guns.


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