PPI-020-William Blum: `Do Americans Really Believe in Free Enterprise?’


Richard Moore

 - a public service of CADRE (Citizens for a Democratic Renaissance) -

           Do Americans Really Believe in Free Enterprise?

                           William Blum

                   Author: Killing Hope: U.S. Military and
                           CIA Interventions Since World War II
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           Do Americans Really Believe in Free Enterprise?
                       (C) 1998 by Bill Blum

     For several years now, prominent American economists have been
advising the governments of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union
on the creation and the virtues of a free-enterprise system.

     The U.S.-controlled World Bank will not bestow a loan upon any
country that does not aggressively pursue a market economy.

     Before his return to Haiti could become a reality a few years ago,
Jean- Bertrand Aristide had to guarantee the White House that he would
pursue the same.

     We refuse to remove our embargo against Cuba unless they end their
socialist experiment and jump on the capitalist bandwagon.

     It would, consequently, come as a shock to the peoples of these
countries to realize that, in actuality, most Americans do not believe
in the free- enterprise system.  It would, as well, come as a shock to
most Americans.

     To be sure, a poll asking something like: "Do you believe that our
capitalist system should become more socialist?" would be met with a
resounding "No!"

     But, going above and beyond the buzz words, is that how Americans
really feel?

     Following the 1994 earthquake in Los Angeles came the cry from many
quarters: Stores should not be raising prices so much for basic
necessities like water, batteries, and diapers.  Stores should not be
raising their prices at all at such a time, it was insisted.  It's not
the California way and it's not the American way, said Senator Dianne
Feinstein.  More grievances arose because landlords were raising rents
on vacant apartments after many dwellings in the city had been rendered
uninhabitable.  How dare they do that? people wailed.  The California
Assembly then proceeded to make it a crime for merchants to increase
prices for vital goods and services by more than ten percent after a
natural disaster.

         In the face of all this, one must wonder: Hadn't any of these
people taken even a high-school course in economics?  Hadn't they
learned at all about the Law of Supply and Demand?  Did they think the
law had been repealed?  Did they think it should be?

         Even members of congress don't seem to quite trust the workings
of the system.  They periodically discuss measures to contain soaring
drug prices, and have been considering the possible regulation of the
ticket distribution industry because of alleged price abuses.  Why don't
our legislators just allow the "magic of the marketplace" to do its

         President Calvin Coolidge left Americans these stirring words
to ponder: "Civilization and profits go hand in hand."  The First Lady,
however, has lashed out at the medical and insurance industries for
putting their profits ahead of the public's health.  "The market," she
declared, "knows the price of everything but the value of nothing."  The
unions regularly attack companies for skimping on worker safety in their
pursuit of higher profit.  Environmentalists never sleep in their
condemnation of industry putting profits before the environment. Lawyer
bashing has become a veritable American sport.  Millions of internet
devotees are prepared to engage in hand-to-hand combat to keep
cyberspace from being abandoned to the vagaries of the market system.
No less a champion of free enterprise than Robert Dole said, in an
attack upon the entertainment industry during his presidential campaign,
that he wanted "to point out to corporate executives there ought to be
some limit on profits. ... We must hold Hollywood accountable for
putting profit ahead of common decency."

         But how can the system conceivably function as it was designed
to without the diligent pursuit of profit?  Not merely profit, but the
optimization of profit.  Surely an attorney like Hillary Rodham Clinton
knows that corporate officers can be sued by stockholders for ignoring
this dictum.  Yet she and so many others proceed to blast away at one of
the pillars of the capitalist temple.

         Likewise, the American Medical Association has taken aim at
another of the temple's honored pillars -- patents, that shrine to the
quintessential entrepreneur, the inventor.  The AMA has issued a
blistering condemnation of the increasingly popular practice of
patenting new surgical and medical procedures, saying it is unethical
and will retard medical progress.  Is Thomas Edison rolling over in his

        A couple of years ago, the people of Cleveland felt very hurt
and betrayed by the owner of the Browns moving his football team to
Baltimore, but is it not the very essence of private ownership that the
owner has the right to use the thing owned in a manner conducive to
earning greater profit?  Nonetheless, Senator John Glenn and
Representative Louis Stokes of Ohio announced their plan to introduce
legislation to curb such franchise relocation.

        And where is the appreciation for America's supposedly cherished
ideal of greater "choice"?  How many citizens welcome all the junk mail
filling their mailboxes, or having their senses pursued and surrounded
by omnipresent advertisements and commercials?  People moan the arrival
in their neighborhood of the national chain that smothers and drives out
their favorite friendly bookstore, pharmacist, or coffee shop, squawking
about how "unfair" it is that this "predator" has marched in with
hobnail boots and the club of "discount prices".  But is this not a
textbook case of how free, unfettered competition should operate?  Why
hasn't the public taken to heart what they're all taught -- that in the
long run competition benefits everyone.  Of course, the national chains,
like other corporate giants supposedly in competition, are sometimes
caught in price-fixing and other acts of collusion, bringing to mind
John Kenneth Galbraith's observation that no one really likes the market
except the economists and the Federal Trade Commission.

         The citizenry may have drifted even further away from the
system than all this indicates, for American society seems to have more
trust and respect for "non-profit" organizations than for the profit-
seeking kind.  Would the public be so generous with disaster relief if
the Red Cross were a regular profit- making business?  Would the
Internal Revenue Service allow it to be tax- exempt?  For an AIDS test,
do people feel more confident going to the Public Health Service or to a
commercial laboratory?  Why does "educational" or "public" television
not have regular commercials?  What would Americans think of peace-corps
volunteers, teachers, clergy, nurses and social workers who demanded in
excess of $100 thousand per year?  Would they like to see churches
competing with each other, complete with ad campaigns selling a New and
Improved God?

        Pervading these attitudes, and frequently voiced, is a strong
disapproval of greed and selfishness, in glaring contradiction to the
reality that greed and selfishness form the official and ideological
basis of our system.

        It's almost as if no one remembers how the system is supposed to
work any more, or they prefer not to dwell on it.  Where is all this
leading to?  Are the Russian reformers going to wind up as the last true
believers in capitalism?

        I would suggest that, at least on a gut level, Americans have
had it up to here with free enterprise -- the type of examples given
above are repeated in the press each and every day.  The ironic
predicament confronting progressives is that the mass of the American
people are not aware that their sundry attitudes constitute an anti-free
enterprise philosophy, and thus tend to go on believing the conventional
wisdom that government is the problem, that big government is the
biggest problem, and that their salvation cometh from the private
sector, thereby feeding directly into conservative ideology.

        Thus it is that those who believe that American society is faced
with problems so daunting that no entrepreneur is ever going to solve
them at a profit carry the burden of convincing the American people that
they don't really believe what they think they believe; and that the
public's complementary mindset -- that in government everything is
stacked up against getting anything done -- is equally fallacious, for
the government has built up an incredible military machine, landed men
on the moon, created great dams, marvelous national parks, an interstate
highway system, the peace corps, student loans, social security,
insurance for bank deposits, protection of pension funds against
corporate misuse, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National
Institutes of Health, the Smithsonian, the G.I. Bill, and much more.  In
short, the government has been quite good at doing what it wanted to do,
or what labor and other movements have made it do, like establishing
worker health and safety standards and requiring food manufacturers to
list detailed information about ingredients.

        Progressives have to remind the American people of what they've
already learned but seem to have forgotten: that they don't want more
government, or less government; they don't want big government or small
government; they want government on their side.  When progressives buy
into the myth that anything resembling, sounding like, or smelling like
socialism is dead and buried, and anathema to Americans, they are
creating a grave obstacle to any educational campaign they may
undertake, a campaign the public is probably a lot more receptive to
than conventional wisdom would indicate.


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