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Jonah Goldberg / December 9, 2009

The Real Fat Cat Party

One of the great frustrations of the libertarian-minded right is how Republicans got stuck being “the party of big business.”

The quotation marks around the term are at least somewhat necessary, because in many respects, it’s not true.

The notion that big business is “right wing” has always been more sloppy agitprop than serious analysis. It’s true that historically, big business is against socialism and communism – and understandably so. Socialism and communism were once close to synonymous with expropriation of wealth and the nationalization of industry. What businessman or industrialist wouldn’t be against that? But many of those same industrialists saw nothing wrong with cutting deals with statist regimes. For example, the Swope Plan, put forward by Gerard Swope, president of General Electric, laid out the infrastructure for much of the early New Deal.

Yet the debate is always framed as if the choice is between “government intervention” on the one hand and free-market capitalism on the other. From 30,000 feet, that division is fine with me. My objection is the glib and easy association of big business with the free-market guys. (Milton Friedman was no champion of public-private partnerships and industrial policy.)

This identification allows self-described progressive Democrats to run against big business when they are in fact in bed with the fat cats.

For instance, the standard line from the Democrats is that the plutocrats and corporate mustache-twirlers oppose health care reform because, in President Obama’s words, they “profit financially or politically from the status quo.” That sounds reasonable, and in some cases it is reasonable. But it makes it sound as if Obama is bravely battling “malefactors of great wealth.”

But that’s not really how it works, as Timothy Carney documents in his powerful new book, “Obamanomics.” In 2008, Obama raked in more donations from the health sector than John McCain and the rest of the Republican field combined. Drug makers gave Obama $3.58 for every dollar they gave McCain. Pfizer gave to Obama at a 4-1 rate, as did the hospital and nursing home industries. In 2008, the insurance industry gave more money to House Democrats than House Republicans. HMOs give to Democrats over Republicans by a margin of 60 to 40.

So far, the health care industry has mostly been trying to cut insider deals with the government, not fighting to defend the status quo. Discussions between Big Pharma and the White House have been more like pillow talk than a shouting match.

This pattern is hardly unique to health care. The U.S. Climate Action Partnership, led by GE, includes many other Fortune 500 companies, including Goldman Sachs – the company that has profited mightily from Obama’s brand of hope and change. CAP is an aggressive supporter of the Democrats’ climate change scheme. Why? Because GE and friends stand to make billions from carbon pricing, thanks largely to investments in technologies that cannot survive in a free market without massive subsidies from Uncle Sam. GE chief Jeffrey Immelt cheerleads big government as “an industry policy champion, a financier and a key partner.”

Going back to U.S. Steel and the railroads, the story of big business in America is often as not the story of fat cats rigging the system. And the story of progressivism is the same tale. The New Deal codes were mostly written by big business to squeeze out smaller competitors. The progressives fought for these reforms on the grounds that it’s easier to steer a few giant oxen than a thousand cats.

But health care is the most troubling example of the trend. Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson notes that while everyone has been debating the government takeover of health care, what’s really transpired is health care’s takeover of government – thanks to what he calls the “medical industrial complex.” Already 1 in 4 federal outlays are for health care; government pays, directly or indirectly, for half of all health care costs; and the entire industry is heavily regulated. Obama’s answer to this state of affairs is more – much more – of the same, on the phantasmagorical grounds that it will cut costs.

My biggest objection is not to what isn’t true about the claim that the right is the handmaiden to big business, it’s to what is true. Too many Republicans think being pro-business is the same as being pro-market. They defend the status quo against bad reforms and think they’ve defended economic freedom. The status quo stinks. And the sooner Republicans learn that, the sooner they’ll deserve to win again.

© 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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