Conservatives need to wake up to the threat of big business

The Week 3 weeks ago

Conservatives want small government. Progressives distrust corporate control and influence. Both want to remake the world, but only one side has put forward any kind of coherent agenda that addresses one of the root causes of alienation among ordinary Americans — and it's not conservatives.

Over the past four years, Americans have made their distrust in institutions and the traditional governing class crystal clear. In the 2016 presidential campaign, Republicans fielded their most crowded and perhaps most talented primary candidates in decades, and yet the outsider iconoclast Donald Trump steamrolled over every one of them. Senate backbencher and avowed socialist Bernie Sanders nearly derailed Hillary Clinton's bid for the nomination, a warning sign that the establishment had worn out its welcome in both parties. President Trump's eventual win left conservatives shell-shocked. But voters embraced him for a reason: They felt powerless and impotent against a governing class that had stopped listening to them.

Whether or not voters wanted to "drain the swamp" or "occupy Wall Street," the populist impulse to claw back control crosses the entire spectrum. Conservatives have long argued this point when it comes to the federal government, that it is too far removed from those governed and therefore unaccountable. The solution proffered consistently since Ronald Reagan's presidency was to shrink the federal government and return most of its responsibilities to state and local governments, where individuals could maximize their influence and control.

Unfortunately, conservatives never connected the dots to one of the main supports for larger federal control: big business and its rent-seeking behavior. They stuck with their laissez-faire policies, especially in regard to mergers and acquisitions, calculated in an era before widespread consolidation wiped out local and regional businesses. As that economic wealth consolidated into fewer and fewer hands, their influence and reliance on big government grew at the expense of those who finally revolted in the last election cycle.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson warned conservatives of their blind spot in July. Speaking at the National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C., Carlson warned that the progressives had a point about the corrosion of capitalism after a generation of consolidation, and what that meant for individual liberty. The main threat to Americans' ability to live as they choose now "comes not from the government but from the private sector."

If conservatives missed that argument, it has not been lost on progressives. Last week's Democratic presidential debate featured an extended colloquy on whether the existence of billionaires was immoral and what could be done to eliminate them. Several candidates want to impose a punitive wealth tax to strip them of their assets; others, especially Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, want to aggressively pursue anti-trust legislation to break up the Silicon Valley tech giants. Warren has pledged to use executive power to employ that policy.

Progressive activists have also focused on corporate America as a target for their iconoclasm. Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes has launched a $10 million "anti-monopoly fund," backed by other activists such as George Soros, the Ford Foundation, and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Hughes wants to move anti-trust policy "from the margins to the mainstream," telling The Washington Post that it doesn't take an economics major to figure out that "corporations and the wealthy have had a heavy hand in setting a lot of economic [policy] over the past several decades."

That speaks directly to the fear and frustration that animates the populist movements on both sides of the political divide. However, these progressive projects have a critical core contradiction to them: They all would increase the power of the federal government to overpower the corporate influence, in some cases by essentially nationalizing an industry (health care, and potentially energy production as well).

This provides an opening for conservatives to address both political and economic consolidation. Unlike the progressive movement, which relies on an ever-increasing centralized regulatory state, conservatives can more naturally embrace subsidiarity as a political tenet. Adopting aggressive anti-trust enforcement, which would necessarily be retroactive, will cross some powerful GOP supporters. However, it will eventually stop the vicious cycle of crony capitalism by forcing divestments into smaller companies, which will then alleviate the pressure for rent-seeking regulation and tax policies designed to stifle competition.

Only then can conservatives push to reduce federal oversight, allowing state and local governments to work with state- and locally-owned businesses. That will result in a return of political and economic authority from Washington and its distrusted elites to the voters and consumers who revolted in 2016. It will also have the salutary effect of reducing the stakes in national elections, and encouraging newly empowered Americans to be more engaged in their own communities, now that they are in control again. Perhaps then our national politics might also return to a norm of reasoned debate and experienced candidates — at least those experienced candidates who understand that voters won't let their empowerment slip away so easily the next time after having fought hard enough to regain it, both from the Beltway and Wall Street.

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