Is Big Government Dangerous?

| Tue Aug. 2, 2005 5:37 PM EDT

Arnold Kling isn't happy with those who argue "that the market power of corporations is something to be feared, while the coercive power of government is not." I don't know many people who argue both points—the true Stalinists are in pretty short supply these days—but perhaps he means liberals who often prefer a regulated economy to an unregulated one. Well, then. His big argument, it seems, is this:

The best statement of the philosophical case against antitrust is in philosopher Harry Binswanger's essay, "Antitrust: 'Free Competition' at Gunpoint." Binswanger draws a fundamental distinction between economic power and political power. Economic power, he notes, is simply the power to produce and trade, whereas political power is the power of the government and necessarily rests on the use of force or threat of force.
That isn't really the best statement of the philosophical case, is it? Are there still people who believe that economic power is "simply the power to produce and trade"? That it has nothing to do with, say, the power to enter into contracts enforced and upheld by the government, which necessarily rests on the use of force or the threat of force? Where, pray tell, does he think property rights come from? Or the limited liability corporation? Or bankruptcy law? Am I missing something?

The flip-side of this, meanwhile, is that much political power just isn't particularly threatening in any meaningful way. Somewhere in the world, a trust fund exists for highway projects. If I choose to drive, I have to drop a few bucks into it. I can choose not to, though. Then the highway agency build roads and other stuff. It's all big government, and sometimes it generates waste, fraud, and abuse, but the idea that whatever government agency builds highways has "power" over me in a way that, say, Verizon doesn't just seems a bit odd. The same goes for Social Security, which often gets blasted as some monstrous state apparatus. Really, though, it's just an agency that collects money in and sends checks out. On the other hand, when the president of the United States decides he can override the law and hold without trial anyone he deems an "enemy combatant," well, sure, that's the sort of political power one should fear, but that sort of thing doesn't seem so incompatible with the rise of corporate power, now does it?