Big Business 101: How Not to Compete

This week at The Christian Science Monitor, Dr. Jeff Cornwall, a Belmont University business professor, discussed a new American Express poll, which found “that 81 percent of Americans say that small businesses place a greater emphasis on service than large companies do.” The “Customer Service Barometer” that AmEx conducted found that generally small businesses are outcompeting their mountainous, multinational counterparts, and for all of the reasons we might expect.

Big Business has a tin ear for customer feedback, a result of lifeless, bureaucratic hierarchies that make effective communication impossible — or nearly so. But if Big Business is so completely obtuse next to its smarter and more dexterous competitors, why are the big guys continuing to grow at the expense of the “mom and pop” store of our Norman Rockwell dreams?

That’s easy enough: The state shelters Big Business from competition at every opportunity, lavishing it with special advantages that the little guy can’t reach.

It is striking that so many Americans readily assume that the institutional culture of government is anti-Big Business, especially in light of how often the revolving door between the “public” and “private” sectors is noted. The prevailing account would have us forget that Washington, DC’s grandees are frequently the same people who sit on the boards of some of the country’s most powerful corporations.

Apparently ruthless, avaricious capitalists in the latter posts, we’re taught that they transform quite promptly, upon assuming public office, into altruistic custodians of the commonweal. Notwithstanding the ahistorical image of the state as a check on commercial power, though, members of the ruling class do not recognize the public/private breach as they cross it.

When shifting back and forth among their capacities as “public servants” and corporate directors, elites retain their worldviews and assumptions about what works and the way society ought to look. It stands to reason, then, that the state should act obligingly toward Big Business, and that accordingly Big Business should be amenable when the time comes to, say, spy on citizens.

None of this should be taken to suggest that some shadowy group is actively and deliberately conspiring to enslave us to the corporate state. Although that has indeed been the result, no purposive scheming has been necessary to effect it — to allow elites to tamper with the economic order for their benefit.

It shouldn’t surprise us that people who proceeded through the same educational and workplace hierarchies, absorbing the same dogmas, would share the same managerialist ethic. Neither should we be astonished that so many of the liberal reforms putatively aimed at constraining business have in fact empowered business and cultivated monopolies.

“False consciousness of the nature of American liberalism,” wrote James Weinstein, “has been one of the most powerful ideological weapons that American capitalism has had in maintaining its hegemony.” Americans who unwarily give credence to the version of history that casts the progressive state as working at cross purposes to Big Business interests play into the hands of both.

Today’s monopolists are perfectly situated to take advantage of the fiction that the omnipotent state is the last bulwark against corporate domination. Each time a new law or implementing regulation is instituted — in a process in which business lobbyists are most intimately involved — the corporate media waxes lyrical about “the common good.” The established cartels walk away with even more market power, and we all thank goodness that Congress and the federal government’s alphabet soup agencies are there to protect us.

Market anarchism would turn economic life over to the voluntary exchanges of individuals left free from coercion. Without special favors and unfair head starts, commerce would be the nimble mechanism it ought to be. Rather than increasing their power and influence, true free markets liberate us from slow, stupid corporations.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory