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).
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.