John Edwards has imbibed the political equivalent of strontium-90, or one of those other slow-acting poisons mostly used by the KGB in old spy thrillers; it kills you before you even know it. So while Edwards is out there on the stump, relying upon enough canned rage to fill a fallout shelter, all I can think when I see him is, "I see dead people." Whether he takes the electoral dirt nap in South Carolina or Nevada is unknowable, but go down for the long count he will.
But Edwards' "ideas" live on. The conviction that government - headed by a passionate "fighter" - must crack down on big corporations and "special interests" runs like raging river through the political landscape, from the ideological backwaters of the Naderite-Kucinich frontier to the steppes of Lou Dobbsia to the mainstream of Hillaryville and McCaintown and out toward Mike Huckaburgh and the far horizon of Pat Buchanistan.
But Edwards, for all his handsome simplicity, articulates this vision the most passionately. In the last New Hampshire Democratic debate, Edwards attacked Hillary Clinton for her willingness to work with "entrenched interests." He went on: "Whether you're talking about oil companies, drug companies, gas companies, whoever - these entrenched interests are literally stealing our children's future. They have a stranglehold on this democracy ..."
Edwards then explained: "Teddy Roosevelt, a great American president - he didn't make deals with the monopolies and the trusts. Teddy Roosevelt took them on, busted the monopolies, busted the trusts. That's what it's going to take."
Unsurprisingly, that's not right on the facts or the argument. As I document in my new book, "Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning," the progressives' tale of eager reformers forcibly bringing Big Business under heel is an enduring myth that ultimately perpetuates the very problem the crusaders set out to cure.
Let's start with Teddy Roosevelt. According to civics textbooks, Upton Sinclair and his fellow muckrakers unleashed populist rage against the cruel excesses of the meatpacking industry, and as a result, Teddy Roosevelt and his fellow Progressives boldly reined in an industry run amok. The problem is that it's totally untrue, a fact Sinclair freely acknowledged. "The Federal inspection of meat was, historically, established at the packers' request," Sinclair wrote in 1906. "It is maintained and paid for by the people of the United States for the benefit of the packers."
Or, as historian Gabriel Kolko writes, "The reality of the matter, of course, is that the big packers were warm friends of regulation, especially when it primarily affected their innumerable small competitors."
A spokesman for "Big Meat" (as Edwards might call it today) told Congress, "We are now and have always been in favor of the extension of the inspection, also to the adoption of the sanitary regulations that will insure the very best possible conditions." The meatpacking conglomerates knew that federal inspection would become a marketing tool for their products - "Quality guaranteed by Uncle Sam," as it were.
Meanwhile, small firms and butchers who'd earned the trust of consumers would be forced to endure onerous compliance costs, while large firms not only could absorb those costs more easily but also claim their products were superior to uncertified meats. This story played itself out repeatedly during the Progressive Era. Big Steel actually sought out government regulation because it feared free-market competition. During the New Deal, FDR supposedly carried on his (distant) cousin Teddy's crusade against the "malefactors of great wealth." But the truth is that big business often welcomed government regulation. Clarence Darrow, surveying the National Recovery Act's record, found that the keystone agency of the New Deal had served only to help big business.
What progressives, then and now, always fail to recognize is that the more government meddles in business, the more business meddles in government. The left thinks the rational response to the bear hug that business has around government is to hug back twice as hard. The real answer is to let go, let companies sink or swim. Don't render them "too big to fail" because they provide health care or other benefits.
All of these people who want to "crack down" on big business are simply inviting companies into the tent, giving them incentives to buy politicians, votes and policies. Yes, end the subsidies. But also stop trying to use business as government by proxy. Of course, some minimal standards of conduct need to be enforced. But beyond that, it's better to treat business like bees. If you don't bother them, they won't bother you.