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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

When and Why Did Republicans Turn against Business?

What is the deal with all the strange attacks on business coming from Republicans and conservatives?

What is the deal with all the strange attacks on the tech sector coming from Republicans and conservatives? It began in 2015, about the time of the rise of Trump in the GOP. Today, the hostility from the right toward tech giants such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook–and Silicon Valley in general–is growing more open and aggressive. 

For example, some activists have pushed the idea that these companies should be forced to declare themselves editorially neutral or else lose all protections from liability for posts by their users, a move that would expose such companies to an amazing thicket of litigation. 

In the old days, it was the Democrats. They were constantly badgering business with mandates, taxes and regulations. The Republicans, on the other hand, favored leaving the merchant class alone. Except, of course when they wanted to subsidize business with free loans, direct grants and government contracts. Everyone took this arrangement for granted, more or less.

The right to do business unimpeded by target central government attacks is essential to free enterprise. But times are changing. The rise of the Trump movement kicked in gear a new outlook on business. Indeed, there were odd moments in his campaign when he directly targeted business. He blasted Amazon for killing local business and threatened antitrust regulation against America’s most innovative company. (It is creating 50,000 new jobs at its new second headquarters). He called for a boycott of Apple because the company wouldn’t unlock its phones for the government to snoop on. He blasted American companies for outsourcing jobs.


I’ve expected this since the outset of the campaign. Trump was not running to be our head of state, a good manager of the public sector alone. No, he was making a bid to be the CEO of the entire country. That means all of its enterprises, too. Like any good boss, he would approve and disapprove of lines of production as he saw fit.

This is not the free market or even the conservative idea of what the president does. Gone is the idea of leaving people alone. So much for the old French slogan “laissez faire.” That meant that the best thing that government can do for business is not to interfere. Neither to hurt or to “help.” The goal was to build a wall between government and enterprise. Then business could thrive and neither would corrupt the other.

That was the idea anyway. It has never been perfectly implemented, not in European or American history. But it has certainly been an aspiration.

Today, matters are different. The conservative pundit class is getting in on the act.

  • Fox News harbinger Tucker Carlson has been blasting away at Google as “the most powerful company in the history of the world.”
  • Steve Bannon has floated the idea that Facebook and Google should be treated like public utilities: that is, nationalized like the oil companies in Venezuela. 
  • Breitbart constantly editorializes against the tech industry, as Politico points out, listing “Tech” just after “Big Government,” “Big Journalism” and “Big Hollywood.”
  • The Republican tax plan would eliminate deductions for state and local taxes. That is going to hit Silicon Valley extremely hard, along with businesses and taxpayers in all the so-called Blue States.

Some conservatives love this. They perceive the politics of the high-tech sector to be left wing, in contrast to the Heartland states and the South that forms the base of Republican support.

But the right to do business unimpeded by target central government attacks is essential to free enterprise. We do not want a system where any politician, bureaucrat or political party targets people based on what they think or to which candidates they make donations.

Why the Hate?

What is going on here? Part of it is just old-fashioned industrial revanchism. Some people want to use government to hold back technological progress. That will supposedly save jobs and restore American greatness. But it has never worked. Not once in history. New ideas produce new techniques, new products, new services and new types of employment. The force of the state can slow such progress down but it never stops it. Not even tanks and guns are powerful enough to stop an idea.

Along with this comes a nativist suspicion of “globalism.” Now, that word can be used in two ways:

  • To denounce imperial foreign policies, and treaties that restrict Americans’ freedom. It’s good to be against those. And
  • To denounce free trade. It’s extremely dangerous to be against that. Since Adam Smith, we have known that it’s smart to refine the division of labor. It creates more wealth for everyone to send low-skill tasks to places where labor is cheap. Refuse to do that, and your products just get more expensive and un-competitive. And consumers pay more for less. Nobody wins, in the long run.

More sympathetically, one might observe that the attacks on powerful tech companies are consistent with a suspicion of mighty and centralized institutions. But how does it make sense to beat them back using an even more mighty and centralized institution like government? And say what you want about Facebook, Google, Apple. Their bigness is due to their superior services and products that consumers like to buy.

Rampant Politicization

Whatever your views on the culture war, we all have an interest in protecting the value of freedom and free enterprise. There has always been tension within conservative and Republican ranks over this. Does the “culture war” intersect with free enterprise? If so, how much? Right now, the culture war is eating away at the principle of limited government. Some people don’t like the opinions of the management of large companies so they are targeting them with threats of state coercion.

Whatever your views on the culture war, we all have an interest in protecting the value of freedom and free enterprise. Part of that is freedom to hold a political position different from that being pushed by the current ruling class. Whomever is president. And remember, sooner or later, the other party will be in charge. It will inherit all the shiny new levers of government coercion you put in place for “your” guy.

If Republicans and conservatives forget that, they will soon find themselves in the same position as their opposition; that is, willing and anxious to use government power for ends they prefer. They’ll just become nothing more than a symptom of the main problem in public life today: the rampant politicization of nearly everything.

A version of this piece ran on