‘Down With Big Business’
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
That was the title of one of the Wall Street Journal’s most famous editorials — on why the “very biggest businesses are such unreliable allies in the fight to preserve a free enterprise economy.” It was one of the editorials cited by the Pulitzer Prize board when in 1980 it awarded the Journal’s storied editor at the time, Robert Bartley, journalism’s highest award.
We re-read the editorial in the wake of the collapse of two of President Trump’s business councils. The latest crisis isn’t directly comparable to the maneuverings of big business that incurred The Great Bartley’s wrath. His brilliant successor, Paul Gigot, reckons — and far be it from us to gainsay it — that the loss of the support of the business class today is much more serious than the crises of 1979.
What bothered Bartley was the tendency toward collusion on regulation that was all too common between big businesses and government. The biggest businesses — the Journal cited General Motors — could handle government regulation. Smaller businesses got ground down and even taken over, as the Journal predicted in the case of Bartley’s hypothetical XYZ Bumperlight Lens Co..
“Historically,” the Journal wrote, “capitalist economies have prospered through competition, innovation and particularly a sensitive price mechanism transmitting unimaginably efficient signals for less production here and more investment there. If you freeze the system you will lose its thrust toward progress. But in many ways GM’s life will be easier. So don’t look to big business for unequivocal defenses of capitalism.”
Or, we would add, for steadfast, foul-weather friendship. It’s breath-taking how rapidly business leaders who knew all about Mr. Trump when they were invited into the councils of his government suddenly fell away from him over his floundering on Charlottesville. What, after all, is the purpose of joining a business council for a controversial president only to abandon him when the going gets rough?
Then there is the question of the probity of these councils in the first place. This was marked ahead of the rest of the press by the editor of the Future of Capitalism blog, Ira Stoll. “The businesses who get picked for these council memberships tend to be ones that are already successful and have invested in lobbying or politics, rather than small businesses with growth potential,” Mr. Stoll writes.
Mr. Stoll characterizers the “whole council idea” as Mr. Trump’s “adaptation of a bad idea from the Obama administration.” It had launched a President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board that morphed into the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. “The council members wind up getting invited to fancy state dinners,” Mr. Stoll writes, and sometimes get to travel overseas with the president or commerce secretary promoting trade.
The “whole thing” is, in Mr. Stoll’s view, “a racket.” He reckons that it would be “better for manufacturing and competitiveness if the executives were home running their companies, trying to make them more innovative and efficient, rather than in Washington serving as presidential props and trying to wheedle government contracts, subsidies, or foreign trade concessions.”
So the collapse of the presidential business councils may be the one upside of the strife at Charlottesville. Which is an ironical turn for the administration of the first president never to have held office save at the helm of a major multinational business. It’s going to be fun to see the alt-left try to make common cause with the businesses who backed out of Mr. Trump’s councils. It may be that business makes even stranger bedfellows than politics.