The American populace believes more and more that perhaps Chicken Little was onto something. The busing controversy flares; corruption and cheating plague the land; a capitol sex scandal reveals that Congressmen abuse power for fun as well as profit; and our international hopes, in Italy and elsewhere, begin to rest on the cooperation of "moderate" Communists. Yet I suggest that today's most crucial joust, in terms of the ability of the Republic to linger on, is the epic struggle of American Business versus American Government. Allow a war correspondent to sound out some late developments.
The latter party to this slug-fest has bolstered its forces rather impressively in recent years with a battery of new Federal agencies. FEA, OSHA, EPA, EEOC, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission have come on strong to reinforce the efforts of such stalwarts as the ICC, CAB, FCC, FDA, SEC, and FTC. Yet the most recent news from the front involves the belated retaliation of business. No longer are the federales shooting it out with unarmed women and children—the businessmen are firing back! Indeed, with full-page ads in the Wall Street Journal ($27,972) and Newsweek ($22,650) television commercials ($59,000 a prime time half-minute), and notes to stockholders, the business community has taken to a counter-offensive of considerable proportion. But when the guns are quiet and the dust has stilled, who will be the victor? Perhaps a reasonable projection can be gleaned from a survey of the relative abilities of the respective warriors.
One would think that in any battle of the wits the government—being huge, monolithic, noncompetitive, bureaucratic, and dull—will lose out to the productive paradigms of profit-seeking efficiency found in the world of private enterprise. Yet such conventional wisdom is questionable. There are certain impressive feats of skill that governments can and do perform regularly. Government is both prompt and ingenious at securing phenomenal pay raises for its employees, for instance. And, being astute exploiters of human psychology, the State is a master of negotiation between vested interests, also known as the art of dealmaking. The politicos display a ripe sense of mathematical sleight of hand in their practice of pension-fund arithmetic—the trick of transferring huge amounts of future income from taxpayers to government job-holders while the former think the latter are selflessly enmeshed in altruistic public service. And, according to certain rumors, the government officials are even quite prolific in the intricate and challenging practice of amour.
Before leaving the list of efficacious government enterprises, one should not miss the most obvious and proud State ability, namely, the exercise of killing large numbers of people in short periods of time within basically stationary geographical boundaries. Commonly known as the art of war, government thrives in this theatre of operation in accord with sound economic principle, for there exists a fair amount of lively competition. When beefs between rulers reach the point of humiliation, respective governments openly compete for the largest casualty totals and, as in so many of the aforementioned categories, far outstrip the piker efforts of private capitalists.
So government must be accorded a fighting chance with private enterprise—or even better. For in this rare contest, a draw is as good as a win for the interests of State. A draw represents a no-man's land where business, unsure of its rights or opportunities, can make no plans, no investments. In not knowing the outcome, business must, in short, take its football, go home, and wait for a place to play.
A recent poll found that 68 percent of U.S. executives are worried about the capacity of the corporate structure politically to survive another 25 years. Thus alarmed, they are standing up for their interests. It is a sight both awesome and chagrining. The business community, which handles billion-dollar mergers, computer technology, commodity futures, double-entry bookkeeping, union negotiations, Alaskan pipelines, congressional payoffs, and the New York Stock Exchange—all in professional, even elegant, style—is stark naked in the cold, chilling arena of intellectual warfare. Pinned to their corporate offices, desks, and telephones for the bulk of their working lives, the executives that call the corporate shots feel (and, in fact, are) touchingly isolated from their adversaries in the ivory towers. For it is not the government per se that has led the antibusiness march of the past several decades; the front-line soldiers have been volunteers from the ranks of or have bought their ammunition from the intellectual elite. Estranged from the man of ideas, the business leadership adopted the snail philosophy on philosophy and sank into its shell.
Well the captains of industry, who eschewed the "intellectualoids," have found that ideas—philosophical ideas—are far from irrelevant for American business. Indeed, it is only within a social climate favoring certain ideas that anything approaching free enterprise can be seen to exist. But in their long time-out from this intellectual debate, the businessmen have, let's say, gotten rusty. And worse: they have become flabby capitalists, soft to the crux of the challenge. At heart they have accepted the vital thrust of their opponents' harangue.
A striking example of the depth of the corporate dilemma is to be found, not in the New Republic or in Ramparts, but in the ads of the fighting businessmen themselves. An unquestioned leader in this war to make the nation safe for capitalism has been the prestigious Mobil Oil Corporation. Multinational petroleum producer and PBS patron of the arts, Mobil has launched a self-acknowledged free-enterprise campaign. (As one of their opening acts, the Mobil people sought to push free enterprise by lobbying against decontrol of oil prices.…Mobil receives valuable subsidies under the present FEA entitlements program.) The most visible salvo in this offensive has been the regular publication of straightforward articles about the economy and the current state of affairs in paid newspaper advertisements around the country. I recently caught two such article-advertisements in the space of a week (one in the Los Angeles Times, one in the Wall St. Journal). I was petrified.
The first ad, "FDR, JFK, GNP, and Social Progress," was graced by a lordly setting. It began, not "Once upon a time," but:
It was cold in Washington that March day in 1933. And the man stood there in the chill and he raised his hand and took the oath. And he held his head high, and he said to a nation gnawed by fear and no longer sure of itself:
"…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."
And then Franklin Roosevelt addressed himself to the job of helping to convert retreat into advance.
My eyes nearly in tears, my heart filled with emotion, my thoughts effervescent with gratitude for this giant who cared so deeply for the common folk, I read on relentlessly to find out how, exactly, this prince saved his paupers from the wallows of unemployment and depression.
While priming the pump with deficit spending, Mr. Roosevelt sought also to stimulate the private sector as the best way to create lasting jobs and to provide income to people. That would, of course, also provide the wherewithal for some long-overdue social programs the nation was about to undertake.
Right on, Mobil Oil! That's telling those no-good Keynesian, left-wing, bureaucratic dupes! Sock it to 'em some more—harder, harder:
the United States still has much to do in reducing infant mortality, in providing better for its old people, in improving and expanding health-delivery services to the point where we can manage a program of national health insurance.
Zowie! You're standing up for free enterprise, and more power to you! For a final, complete, and unequivocal blow, Mobil polishes off the meddling politicians with the stirring summation:
Many more people than realize it have an ownership stake in the health of the U.S. private sector. They should keep in mind, as President Roosevelt and President Kennedy did, that only a private sector that does well can hope to do good.
Now if that doesn't make them think twice about government intervening in the economy, I don't what will. After all, this capitalist giant has informed the public that the policies of FDR and JFK (the only politicos discussed) are just what the private sector of this country needs for its vim and vigor. And, moreover, that what the country itself needs is the WPA, CCC, NRA (until it was declared unconstitutional), AAA (that is, paying farmers tax monies not to grow crops), Social Security (4 trillion dollars in debt), massive deficit spending (the interest on which now clips us for about $40 billion annually), and socialized medicine. Bourgeois heresies, the left will say.
How fitting it was for Mobil to encore the very next week with an ad labeled: "Government—the Big Growth Industry." Here the target is the mushrooming of the nefarious State, a monster of immense proportion.
This Bicentennial year is an appropriate time to recall that 186 of our country's first 200 years elapsed before the budget of the federal government reached $100 billion, in 1962. Thereafter only nine years elapsed before the federal budget reached $200 billion, in 1971, and only four additional years before it climbed to $300 billion. Now the only question seems to be how greatly it will exceed $400 billion in fiscal 1977.…Taxes of one sort or another…are the biggest single item in the family budget.
No kidding? You really might be onto something there. Yet I seem to recall something else in that Bicentennial year, namely, Mobil Oil Corporation whooping it up for Mssrs. Roosevelt and Kennedy just a week before. That's strange because in 1932 the Federal government had 621,000 employees and spent $4 billion annually. By 1946 there were 2,729,000 civilian employees, and the budget was elevated to $65 billion annually. In the 1961-64 epoch government spending increased 21 percent. Did Mobilites FDR and JFK have nothing to do with either phenomenon? Perhaps; perhaps they were too busy stimulating their private sectors.
In the next passage, however, we gain our most telling clue, for in it we gain access to the innermost reaches of the corporate cerebrum. Listen carefully.
Private business serves the mass market, of course, trying to give the people as a whole what they want or need. Oddly enough, at the present juncture of history this puts business in the role of the great democratizer, in contrast to elitists who tend to want to decide unilaterally what is good for the people.
Oddly enough? You mean it's strange and extraordinary that a private-enterprise system should reflect the wishes and desires of the people? What do you think capitalism is all about, Mr. Businessman? Is it just a quirk of history that makes free enterprise the "great democratizer"?
Mobil Oil says, Yes! They not only concede, they pay thousands to spread the gospel that, "oddly enough," capitalism is antielitist. In reality, then, they believe their intellectual antagonists and think of themselves as privileged in the grotesque, feudal sense of that word. They accept free enterprise as biased toward the rich and powerful. They perceive Mr. Marx as essentially correct and identify themselves as a class of exploiters pressed to throw off—or, better yet, buy off—the proletariat.
The only salvation for the capitalist leeches—their raison d'etre—is the expedient, efficient nature of the exploitation system in responding to the needs of the masses. In spite of the foul, antisocial, and reactionary nature of private enterprise, this economic neatness, Mobil hopes, will sell us on the existence of the monster. Economic argument could not halt the Crusades. Mobil obviously believes that the masses have since become educated and erudite.
In concluding their magnum opus on the growth of government (they omitted their previous call for national health insurance which, according to the Rand Corporation's latest studies, will cost between $30 and $120 billion yearly) the Mobil copywriters summed up their plea for fiscal austerity:
In our view, the proper and most productive role of government lies in the sphere of the political, in the best sense of that word—not reaching for more power, but in balancing off various national needs, formulating policies, setting objectives, establishing appropriate incentives to the private sector to achieve those objectives, monitoring progress toward objectives, and, perhaps most important, providing leadership.
Today's quiz, ladies and gentlemen, is to name one living Washington officionado who, given the above laundry list of government duties and powers (including the ubiquitous "providing leadership" phrase) would not be able to double to size of the Federal establishment inside of 24 months. (If you come up with the answer—any answer—you win!)
THE CHALLENGE AHEAD
It is a sad saga, businessmen fighting the battle of ideas. And it is most embarrassing if you're one of those rooting, by and large, for the businesspersons. So the prospects of the Business versus Government debacle look quite grim for the Horatio Alger fans in the crowd. The private sector becomes more and more private, while the society at large grows more and more public.
The surrender has not, however, been signed, sealed, and delivered. My natural inclination toward cynicism and despair to the contrary, Business can rejuvenate by getting off its knees and walking upright for a change. If, as we always say, the business community could learn to bury its dead and to face up to the demands of the intellectual challenge, the battle would assume new, more favorable, proportions. Business still owns the media, the universities, and the foundations of this country, and they have the receipts to prove it. It is time they took possession. Not by throwing out the rascals of the opposition, but by hurling forth the heroes in agreement. The freethinkers of the age, more than anxious for a chance at lighting a spark, would respond instantly and brilliantly to a corporate invitation to take the reins in the battle of ideas. In this great debate of our modern age, businessmen have proven that they are in no shape to walk alone. They must seek to promote the idea-creators and idea-pushers who have an intellectual stake in the essence of private enterprise—those thinkers who understand, for example, that it is no accident that capitalism is today, as in ages past, the "great democratizer." Only in the clear, crisp, clever, nay exquisite, enunciation of free enterprise may proponents of liberty brake the stampede and diffuse its power.
The war, meanwhile, rages on. This partisan analyst quivers. Will corporate capitalism grasp its proper ammunition? Or will it continue to shoot blanks and toss boomerangs? Western Civilization is more than casually interested in the answer.
Thomas Hazlett holds a bachelor's degree in economics. In addition to his work for a Los Angeles PR firm, he does political commentaries four times weekly on radio station KPOL.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Big Business Comes Out of Its Corner...Fighting?".