Reason’s Nick Gillespie flags Gallup polling data showing 54 percent of Americans believe the “federal government has too much power.” Of all things, this put me in mind of St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, in which the apostle presented us with a lovely paradox: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Don’t get me wrong; I know Paul meant this in the sense that Christians should rely less on their own devices and recognize their spiritual impoverishment outside of Christ.
But I find Paul’s paradox useful when thinking about the size and scope of the federal government. On the one hand, yes: you can look at the overreach at the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Justice and see a central government unaccountably trampling on civil liberties.
On the other hand, look at Apple’s illustrative case of tax avoidance. Charles Duhigg and David Kocieniewski write in the New York Times:
Setting up an office in Reno is just one of many legal methods Apple uses to reduce its worldwide tax bill by billions of dollars each year. As it has in Nevada, Apple has created subsidiaries in low-tax places like Ireland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and the British Virgin Islands — some little more than a letterbox or an anonymous office — that help cut the taxes it pays around the world.
Call me crazy if you like, but I think Robert Reich is exactly right: “global capital, in the form of multinational corporations as well as very wealthy individuals, is gaining enormous bargaining power over nation states.”
Wouldn’t you know it, Gallup polling (from 2011) also shows that an even bigger majority of Americans believe that lobbyists, major corporations, and banks and financial institutions have too much power, along with the federal government.
What this means is that many Americans often feel dwarfed by big institutions and concentrated power, no matter whether those institutions are in the public or private sector. I understand and appreciate the libertarian solution to break up “bigness” wherever it’s found—to sever the bonds between corporate lobbyists, lawmakers, and bureaucrats. However, I think it’s reductive to look at those bonds as having been forged by years of “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” corporatist conspiracy. There will always be unseemly stories to be found on the money-in-politics beat. But as a theory of government, I find it less satisfying.
The truth is, as figures from Teddy Roosevelt to John Kenneth Galbraith recognized, government institutions grew larger as a means of “countervailing” private-sector power that grew endogenously in a free economy.
There is very little that can be done about this, it seems to me. Ideally, as individuals and as private citizens, we like to think we can bring this complex postmodern economy to heel. The reality is that we’re going to have to learn to muddle through it.