Saturday, November 5, 2011

Big Government vs. Big Business

From some quarters, you hear a lot about the evils of big business.  You hear a lot about the evils of big government from others.  While the two sides might not sound like it, they’re complaining about the same thing:  human nature.  In their myopia, the two competing sides focus merely on different manifestations of the same problem, not on different problems.
That’s why it’s hopelessly naïve to think that giving more power to government to control big business can work.  If big business requires oversight, regulation, and restraint, so does big government, and for the same reason:  Human nature cannot be trusted and everyone has it, whether they work for big business, big government, both, or neither.
We all are what C. S. Lewis called "the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve," which means we come from a long line of inveterate sinners.  It’s a deep-seated moral defect we pick up from our parents and pass on to our children.  Look in the mirror, friend, and see what’s wrong with big business and big government.
We all are morally debilitated, and the worse we are the less we know it.  We all are driven by fallen appetites, and those appetites are wickedly self-seeking and predictably self-aggrandizing.  While we might be capable of reason, because of our wayward appetites and our natural acquisitiveness, we are rarely ever reasonable.  No, you are not an exception.
Human nature doesn’t magically transform into something virtuous when it gains financial or political power.  Neither financial success nor elective office turns us into saints.  We are still ourselves.  We can’t be trusted to do what’s right just because we won the game of business or the game of government.  Rather, winning those games gives our sin freer reign to acquire its wicked desires.  Winning neither creates nor cures those desires.  Greed, for example, is not a motivation merely for those in the marketplace; it’s also a motivation for those in government, who lust after power, notoriety, fame, sex, and, of course, money.  Nevertheless, the champions of the free market and the champions of big government continue to see their side as the solution rather than seeing the common human nature lurking behind both sides as the problem.
Human nature is a fallen force, a force that requires constraint by another force.  But if the force you employ to check human nature is human nature as well, you have not solved the problem.  You merely transferred it.  You press down on the pillow in one place, business, and it bulges up in another, government -- because it’s the same pillow.
But, sadly, it’s our only option:  a fallen force fighting itself.  We have but one pillow, one nature.  Therefore, the solution, if that word is not too wildly optimistic, is always going to be imperfect.  But it’s the best we can do.  We can’t succeed by backing one team or the other; we must cheer both, which means that no matter what happens, we win and we lose.
First, cheer for this:  Cheer for greater competition in the marketplace, which is always the consumer’s best friend.  Competition leads to better products, better service, better selection, and better prices because those who don’t compete go out of business.  They must compete for your dollars or fail.
In other words, human nature in government can best check human nature in the marketplace not by regulation but by maintaining a free and open entry into the market and, with it, greater competition.  Government’s task is to keep open the doors of marketplace entry, and to keep shut the doors of fraud, deceit, and theft.  Government’s task is not to pick winners and losers, and not to bail out some or to relegate others to financial oblivion.  The human nature at work in government does best to check the human nature in the marketplace (1) by keeping open the entry gates that existing businesses want closed, (2) by thwarting crooks, and (3) by maintaining sound currency -- none of which is the same as either ganging up on the winners or taking sides with them. 
Second, cheer also for this:  Cheer for a government that is not a marketplace commodity, paid for by the highest bidder.  Ironically, perhaps, that’s done best by letting money flow freely.  Just as we check the excesses of human nature in the market by keeping the doors of entry open, we check the excesses of human nature in government by keeping the doors of political donation open for all contributors to all candidates.  Because it is literally impossible to regulate and to calculate all political donations effectively, and because trying to do so will serve only to discourage the honest donor and reward the insidious, the very best we can do is to open wide the doors of political contribution and to work for the fullest possible disclosure of those contributions.  Let folks give whatever they wish to whomever they wish.  Just let them do it in daylight, which, as we know, is a disinfectant.
Daylight lets you see.  You can see what others are doing.  They can see you.  When everyone knows what everyone else is doing, everyone can act in ways they perceive to be the best possible, always under the scrutiny of others.  For example, when Acme Corporation sees that Bravo Corporation gave X dollars to candidate Smith, Acme can respond accordingly by giving money to candidate Smith too, or by giving money to candidate Jones, which ever serves Acme's purposes best.  Either way, the intended effect of Bravo’s money is softened and shrunk.  Other money has done it.
Human nature sees to it that competing corporations always work for their own advantage by trying to shape the pillow to their liking, generally intending to set at naught the efforts of their competitors, who do the same.  In the full light of day, both sides see that they are investing mountains of money in order to fund an ongoing standoff.  They might not want to do so, but they must, which is good because it keeps the playing field as even as can be managed.  They will do so because they are human beings, and human beings are self-seekers.  They will find a way to invest their money to fullest effect.  They don’t regulate themselves.  Human nature can’t do that.  They offset themselves.  Given who we human beings are, both in government and in business, it’s the best we can do.
In short, freedom of entry and competition are your friends not only in the marketplace but in the public square too.  Keep it free; keep it open.  Let everybody press on the pillow.
But let's say you still want to regulate political donations.  then think of this:  If you wish to limit or even to ban corporate donations, remember that corporations are comprised of human beings, sometimes very many of them, and all of them like you.  Like you, none of the human beings who run the corporations, or the millions who own stock in them, ought to be deprived of their right to political speech and political action, which is what donating is.  Just like we must not try to regulate the number of words, statements, or actions you invest in political causes, we must not regulate the number of dollars you invest, which are political speech and action too.
And if you think that politicians will effectively work to block donations to politicians, you aren’t paying attention.  Human nature dictates that the selfishness rampant in government will never ban corporate donations to government.  It cannot be done.  Even if it could, it would not be fair or good.
Put it this way:  You need as little government control in the market, and as little market control in the government, as possible.  Domination of either business by government or of government by business is not how you get it.  You get it by freedom.  You get it by letting folks pursue their own best interest in response to other folks doing the same thing in the full light of day.
Human nature won’t let you get any more delicate or precise than that.  


Mitchell Powell said...

Dr. Bauman,

This weekend, I had the pleasure of meeting some students from Hillsdale at the Collegiate Network / Intercollegiate Studies Institute annual Editors Conference. I was so struck by two things that I felt I should let you know.

First, in terms of intelligence and ability to talk about worldview and culture, these kids were uniformly some of the brightest I'd ever had the good fortune to talk to. They easily blew the Harvard and Yale students I met down there out of the water -- and that's saying something, because those kids were no slouches themselves.

Second, they without exception had nothing but good to say about you, and looked up to you as a shining example of how teaching should be done.

I've never been there, and I've never heard you teach, but clearly you and Hillsdale must be doing something right.

Dr. Michael Bauman said...


How very kind of you to say such nice things about Hillsdale students and me. I sincerely appreciate it. Thank you.

They are, indeed, first rate. It's been my pleasure to teach them here since 1988. I'm hoping to continue for many more years.

Thanks again for your kindness and good will.

Best to you on all counts.