Global Policy Forum

Big = Bad, Unless it Doesn't

An Op-ed By Benjamin R. Barber
New York Times
April 16, 1998

In his 1996 State of the Union Message, President Clinton proclaimed the end of big government. Those who applauded did so with a certain ambivalence. Was it the end of bigness they welcomed? Or the of government? The answer is now clear. Big is better, as long as it is in the private sector. Big government - that is to say government - is out (except for old-time pork barrel like the highway bill), but big business and big banking are in. Way in.

The predatory mergers and acquisitions were the bane of the late 80's the boon of the late 90's. Bertelsmann A.G. swallows Random House. Boeing and McDonnell Douglas marry. Rupert Murdoch buys the Dodgers. Citicorp and Travelers Group unite. Nationsbank and BankAmerica merge, with Banc One and First Chicago just behind them. Microsoft bundless its way into a monopoly grip on the software industry. And there are cheers.

How has it come to pass in just a few years that grand scale and monopoly control, apparently the causes government's every last vice, are ticket to economic efficiency for business and banking? Why must government, as the democratic institutions of the publics pursuit of common good (prudently constrained by its democratic accountability), be downsized, its powers privatized even as corporations conglomerate and amass power (utterly unconstrained by any democratic accountability) at a pace that makes the Gilded Age's cartelism look like tortoises at play?

The sure prescriptions of public philosophy have been turned topsy-turvy. Traditionally, monopoly has been the very definition of good government: a democratic state's legitimacy depends on its monopoly over law and force. And monopoly has been the very essence of bad business: capitalism's legitimacy depends on pluralism and competition, the absence of monopolies and cartels. In recent years, the recipe has been conveniently rewritten.

In this striking reversal can be all of the ideological hypocrisies of the myth of privatization, of which the celebration of big business is but an instance. Privatization pretends to save government from its top-heaviness by sliding down the scale and empowering the local and the parochial. In truth it only shifts power from public to the private sector, leaving it as centralized and hegemonic as before, but liberated from democratic constraints like elections.

Privatization is not about limiting government; it is about terminating democracy. To leave health care a product of private negotiation among for-profit insurers, H.M.O.'s, hospitals and doctors not only marginalizes ordinary patients but also drains power from citizens by removing health care from the public agenda. It takes responsible public institutions accountable to all of us out of play and yields power to private institutions pledged only to maximizing profits.

Government cannot do everything, and it often benefits from decentralizing. But to discharge many of its prime responsibilities, it must be large. How else can it keep Microsoft competitors viable, keep Citicorp from destroying its rivals, keep intact inner-city neighborhoods where already unprofitable banking services will only be further eroded by conglomeration?

Government has to be big, but big here does not mean bloated or bureauratic; it means muscular and efficient. It means powerful as in "sovereign," encompassing as in "national" and public as in "the commonweal." In a word, it means democratic and thus powerful, and that the second be entreprenurial and competitive and thus free of gargantuism. Anything else is hypocrisy: private greed parading as public philosophy.

Benjamin R. Barber, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, is the author of "A Place for Us; How to Make Society Civil and Democracy Strong."


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