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December 9, 2012

Caught in the big squeeze

The economist in me gives me pause for concern about big institutions of any sort. I believe those who founded our country shared that concern. In response to the perceived tyranny of the British Empire, our founders produced a constitution that empowered the individual, offered liberties that became a global pinnacle, and provided checks on institutions that might otherwise become too big.

The original checks were on government itself. These checks were later extended to Gilded Age trusts and holding companies through our antitrust laws. However, we have witnessed in our lifetime the erosion of these constraints to monopolies.

The most important freedom is our ability to express ourselves freely. I lamented recently that this freedom ought not be without cost. The principle of freedom of expression was to foster a marketplace for knowledge, ideas and debate. The First Amendment was created in an era in which this meant we had equal access to the primary public forum — the town square.

Even once we had broadcast technologies, expression was not cheap, and not without oversight. Only since the Internet could all individuals express themselves, almost without any form of censorship, and often devoid of the civility that we use when we express ourselves in person.

Then, with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, our biggest institutions and deepest pockets were granted almost unbounded access to the media. Our individual voice became proportional to the size of our wallet.

I am confident our founders would not have approved of such a near monopolization of public discourse.

We have also seen big business grow in parallel to the growth of bigger government. Some even argue that we need bigger government or big unions to check the power of big business, in what to me appears to be a Cold War arms race-like mentality. As businesses become too big to fail and are able to privatize their gains as we socialize their losses, it appears that, more than ever before, big business is in cahoots with big government, while government is sometimes in bed with big unions. 

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