Is Big Business Bad Business?

Why don’t we appreciate and celebrate big business more wholeheartedly? Why do so many of us regard it as unfair, monopolistic, manipulative, impersonal, and exploitative, to say nothing of inefficient? In Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero, the economist and free-range intellectual Tyler Cowen poses these questions and suggests a wide assortment of answers.

The answer to that question can start with something as simple as an examination of our daily routines.

I got out of a big comfortable bed, sold by the onetime retailing giant Carson Pirie Scott (now liquidated) and manufactured by the Simmons Bedding Company. I fixed myself breakfast, which consisted of Guatemalan cantaloupe, grown on a small farm but delivered to me using a tractor-trailer with a General Motors front end and a refrigerator trailer from Wabash National. The cantaloupe was then sold by Whole Foods, a unit of the company we all either love or hate the most, Amazon.

The rest of my day was too boring to read about. But, like the first part of the day, it was dominated by activities that required the direct involvement of big business. Your day was probably very similar.

We take the benefits of big business for granted. As Cowen demonstrates, those benefits are greatly underappreciated.

Readers who don’t know Cowen should. He’s a hyperactive polymath who teaches at George Mason University where he runs the Mercatus Center (focused on the market economy), runs a nonprofit online university, writes a daily blog, contributes to the New York Times and Bloomberg View, has written 16 books including a bestselling economics textbook, is a podcast host, and in his spare time (!) writes about ethnic food while gallivanting around the world.

Just writing that list made me tired.

In Big Business, Cowen sticks up for an institution with which Americans, and others, have a centuries-old love-hate relationship. This complex of emotions is worth exploring, but that task is rarely attempted. Cowen does so with brio, humor and an appreciation of big business that readers may find surprising.

Big Business is not a paean to the principle of a free market. That book has been written over and over, by thinkers from Adam Smith to Milton Friedman. Those thoughts are familiar, if not always agreed upon. Cowen’s book is about the businesses themselves, and the people who work in them. It raises each objection commonly expressed about big business, acknowledges some sympathy with the objection, and then says why they are wrong. This is truly new and different. I highly recommend the book.