America’s 40-Year Experiment With Big Business Is OverRoundup
tags: Joe Biden, regulation, political economy, antitrust
Mr. Lichtenstein is a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy.
On Friday, President Biden signed a sweeping executive order intended to curb corporate dominance, enhance business competition and give consumers and workers more choices and power. The order features 72 initiatives ranging widely in subject matter — net neutrality and cheaper hearing aids, more scrutiny of Big Tech and a crackdown on the high fees charged by ocean shippers.
The president called his order a return to the “antitrust traditions” of the Roosevelt presidencies early in the last century. This may have surprised some listeners, since the order offers no immediate call for the breakup of Facebook or Amazon — none of the trustbusting that is antitrust’s signature idea.
But Mr. Biden’s executive order does something even more important than trustbusting. It returns the United States to the great antimonopoly tradition that has animated social and economic reform almost since the nation’s founding. This tradition worries less about technocratic questions such as whether concentrations of corporate power will lead to lower consumer prices and more about broader social and political concerns about the destructive effects that big business can have on our nation.
In 1773, when American patriots dumped tea from the British East India Company into Boston Harbor, they were protesting not just an unfair tax but also the British crown’s grant of a monopoly to a court favorite. That sentiment flourished in the 19th century, when Americans of all stripes saw concentrations of economic power corrupting both democracy and the free market. Abolitionists drew on the antimonopoly ethos when they denounced the slave power, and Andrew Jackson sought to dismantle the Second Bank of the United States because it sustained the privileges of an Eastern commercial and financial elite.
Threats to democracy became even more pressing with the rise of giant corporations, often called trusts. When Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890, its author, Senator John Sherman of Ohio, declared, “If we will not endure a king as political power, we should not endure a king over the production, transportation and sale of any of the necessities of life.” Forty-five years later, President Franklin Roosevelt echoed that sentiment when he denounced “economic royalists” who had “created a new despotism.” He saw concentrated industrial and financial power as an “industrial dictatorship” that threatened democracy.