Is Big Government or Big Business the Bigger Threat?

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.

Presented by

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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