Is Big Government or Big Business the Bigger Threat?

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After posing that question, Gallup has concluded that even left-leaning Americans fear the state more. But does that really clarify anything?

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In a widely cited poll, Gallup has found that when asked whether big government, big business, or big labor will be the biggest threat to the country in the future, Americans fear big government the most: 64 percent of respondents answered "big government," while 26 percent said "big business."

Says the writeup:

Almost half of Democrats now say big government is the biggest threat to the nation, more than say so about big business, and far more than were concerned about big government in March 2009. The 32% of Democrats concerned about big government at that time -- shortly after President Obama took office -- was down significantly from a reading in 2006, when George W. Bush was president. By contrast, 82% of Republicans and 64% of independents today view big government as the biggest threat, slightly higher percentages than Gallup found in 2009.

This image accompanies the results:

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Says Ezra Klein, "so far as liberalism goes, this is a pretty devastating graph." Peter Wehner thinks similarly:

Given the ferocious assault against business, led by the president, these numbers are somewhat surprising. They re-confirm, I think, that this remains a center-right nation, one instinctively committed to limited government and the free market. And that commitment has only deepened during the Obama Era. We're seeing confidence in government decline to near-record levels, and concern for big government grow to near-record levels, during a period in which liberals have been politically dominant and had their way.

I'm a lot less certain about what's going on here. Big business certainly hasn't inspired a lot of confidence lately, what with Wall Street firms helping to precipitate a financial crisis and near-depression. The defense firms that fuel the military-industrial complex are as much a cause for concern now as when President Eisenhower gave his famous speech on the subject. And every time I read a story about genetically engineered crops, a part of me worries that one of these days agribusiness is going to err in a way that does grave damage to our ability to grow food.

But try as I might, I cannot understand those who say that big business is more likely to pose a bigger threat to the country than big government -- although neither do I see why that judgment should necessarily cut against American liberals and in favor of American conservatives.

I'd have told Gallup that big government is a bigger threat to America than big business because it has a monopoly on force, a growing disrespect for civil liberties, and the ability to endlessly borrow money to the point of bankruptcy. One needn't minimize the harm that big business can do to see that it can't, for example, launch an ill-conceived war that spirals into a global conflict, create a terror-fighting domestic police force with no regard for civil-iberties protections, as Newt Gingrich has proposed, or borrow so recklessly that we wind up like the Greeks. It's hard to name anything in the world of American business that is as reckless, ill-conceived, and corrosive to liberty as the war on drugs as it's currently fought, with local police forces equipping themselves like paramilitary squads and busting into homes with flash grenades.

And despite the legion of big-business abuses in American history, it is obvious that the worst big-government abuses are in a league of their own, whether legalized slavery or the Trail of Tears or Jim Crow or Prohibition or the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

All that said, the fact that I regard the "right" answer as clear doesn't mean I think this is a useful or clarifying question. It's reasonable to imagine, for example, that both Glenn Greenwald, with his concerns about civil liberties, and Mitch Daniels, with his alarm about the federal budget deficit, would say that big government poses a bigger threat to America than big business, but those two men have radically different ideas about the role the federal government should play in American life, its proper scope, and how best to keep it from abusing its power. They'd also regulate big business in very different ways and disagree about how much of a threat it poses.

Or imagine a voter who ranked the threats to America's future as follows: a ruinous war with Iran; the effect of indefinite detention at Guantanamo on the rule of law and America's place in the world; climate change; rapacious capitalism by Wall Street banks; corporate control of the media; growing income inequality. Sounds like a dedicated liberal to me, and one who might well answer the Gallup poll by saying that big government poses a bigger threat than big business. 

Further complicating things is the fact that big business arguably does its most significant damage when it captures government. Think of a defense contractor lobbying for an ill-conceived war or a Wall Street bank persuading Congress to bail it out with billions of taxpayer dollars. In these situations, government wouldn't do damage but for the influence of big business. At the same time, big business wouldn't succeed in its nefarious ends without the unduly checked power of government. Our views about all this probably aren't captured particularly well by a question that insists on choosing one actor or the other as the greater threat.

The graph above also hints at the limits of how Gallup poses the question. We see that the American people have sensibly registered the fact that big labor isn't very powerful anymore. Thus the question is, for most people, a binary choice. This seemed to produce a misleading result after 9/11. Americans responded to an attack on our homeland by remembering the role government plays in keeping us safe, and sharply revising their assessment of how much big government threatens us down. Due to the limits of the question, they were forced to register their increased confidence in government by answering that big business was a bigger threat to America's future, even though nothing about 9/11 caused Americans to feel any more threatened by big business.

I understand why liberals might look at the graph above in dismay, and why conservatives might cheer it. Personally, I'd love to conclude that it portends a civil-libertarian backlash against post-9/11 excesses. Alas, I don't think it clarifies much of anything save that few regard big labor as the biggest threat to America.


Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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