JUNE 22, 1953
A review of Giant Business, by T.K. Quinn.
How should liberals regard the giants of American industry and finance—the motor and steel companies, the commercial banks and life insurance companies— which dominate the economic scene and bid fair to control our political life as well? In the past, liberals have embraced the small business unit, the family, and the limited government. In this century, this Jeffersonian strand has found its ablest expositors in Woodrow Wilson and Justice Brandeis. But, increasingly, this point of view has lost popularity in the face of seemingly inevitable growth in the size of business, labor, farm, and governmental units. Arid progressives have found themselves torn between fear of business influence and admiration for the achievements of giant industry.
Perhaps it is natural then that rationalizations of the situation have appeared which minimize the dangers and emphasize the benefits of large size. It was a pragmatic American who said that if you can’t beat them, join them. The leading theorist of this school is Mr. Galbraith who has argued most brilliantly in American Capitalism that large business organizations encounter “ countervailing” pressures from other large business units (General Motors counterbalances United States Steel, Sears Roebuck, the Goodrich Tire Company, Macy’s, and so forth) and from three non-business groups; labor, farmers, and government, each of which has organized itself in order to curtail big business’ ability to exploit through the exercise of market power. Thus, wherever economic power arises, checks to it appear. And, in this best of democracies, we may enjoy the economic fruits of mass production, while we avoid its threat to our freedoms.
In this climate of opinion, Mr. Quinn’s book strikes a quaintly archaic note. It is the story of a self-made, self-educated man who rose to the Vice-Presidency of one of our largest business monsters, General Electric, and then on the very threshold of selection as its President, reflected, and, reflecting, resigned his position. So amazed were his superiors that it took them five months to believe him. Why did he abandon an organization in which he had risen so high and could rise still higher? This very attractive, pugnacious, and unconventional book catalogues its author’s motives. They amount to an indictment of General Electric and, by extension, big business. General Electric was a niggardly employer, unenlightened and treacherous in its dealings with its own distributors, unfair to its scientists, and medieval in its conception of social responsibility. It crushed the personalities of its employees and gave little latitude to its executives. Thus, the greatest sin of giant business as exemplified by General Electric was against the soul of every human being who worked for it.
Mr. Quinn will not concede to big business even the advantages of efficiency often admitted by the severest critics. To him the apparent successes of large scale industry are the fruits of enormous capital resources, expensive advertising, and, above all, the acquisition of smaller, more efficient competitors. The large research laboratories of American industry only lead Mr. Quinn to observe that the inventor is a lonely person who when confined among his fellows, retaliates by inventing nothing at all. We have Mr. Quinn’s word far it that the only invention that General Electric has produced in its own laboratories is the garbage grinder. What shall we do to defeat big business? Mr. Galbraith’s cheerful analysis pleases our author not at all, for Mr. Quinn dislikes elephantiasis in labor and in government as much as in industry. His solution, never systematically presented, includes at a minimum federal incorporation acts, rigid enforcement of anti-trust statutes, and dissolution of monster enterprises. This done, competition will return and business will become again an attractive career for a free man.
It may be that this reviewer, lacking Mr. Quinn’s strength of character, has been carried along too far by current opinion. At any rate the principal emotion aroused by this book is nostalgia rather than agreement. Mr. Quinn’s world sounds very pleasant, but even if his economics and statistics were more convincing than they are, what are the prospects of achieving it at a time when big business and big government are in such happy unanimity at the expense of the rest of us? There is something to be said, no doubt, for a gallant fight in a lost cause. We may wish Mr. Quinn luck, for his cause is good as well as lost.