The New Culture War
During the Cold War, people came to equate the three ideas of democracy, capitalism and free enterprise.
This made sense at some level, since the whole world seemed inescapably divided into authoritarian, totalitarian, socialist and communist nations on the one hand and democratic, capitalistic and free enterprise nations on the other.
In the decades since the Berlin Wall fell, as CNN’s Fareed Zakaria has pointed out, there has been a growing divide between the nations emphasizing democracy and those focused on capitalism.
The differences between these two groups are both interesting and significant to world events.
But an even more nuanced and impactful division is the difference between capitalism and free enterprise.
I wrote about this in my book FreedomShift, but it is a point of great magnitude in our current society and bears repeating.
Unfortunately, very few people have considered the differences.
Most still equate capitalism and free enterprise, even in the post-Cold War era.
This is a weighty mistake with a high potential for negative ramifications in the 21st Century.
A simple defining of terms points out the crucial importance of the distinction between these two brands of economics.
To summarize: capitalism gives special government-supported benefits to capital and those with capital (wealthy individuals, families and business entities).
This is the opposite of socialism, which promotes special government-supported benefits to those without capital—the proletariat, as Karl Marx put it.
In contrast to both capitalism and socialism, free enterprise establishes good laws and government policies that treat the rich, middle and poor the same.
Some people may believe that this is the system we live under in the United States today—that the law treats all the same.
Such an assumption is incorrect.
The U.S. commercial code has numerous laws which are written specifically to treat people differently based on their wealth.
For example, it is illegal for those with less than a certain amount of wealth to be offered many of the best investment opportunities.
Only those with a high net worth (the levels and amounts are set by law) are able to invest in such offerings.
This naturally benefits the wealthy to the detriment of wage earners.
This system is called capitalism, and it is a bad system—better than socialism or communism, to be sure, but not nearly as good as free enterprise.
In a free enterprise system, the law would allow all people to take part in any investments.
The law would be the same for all.
If this seems abstract, try starting a business in your local area.
In fact, start two.
Let the local zoning commissions, city council and other regulating agencies know that you are starting a business, that it will employ you and nine employees, and then keep track of what fees you must pay and how many hoops you must jump through.
Have your agent announce to the same agencies that a separate company, a big corporation, is bringing in a large enterprise that will employ 4,000 people (or, in a more urban setting, 24,000 people)—all of whom will pay taxes to the local area and bring growth and prestige.
Then simply sit back and watch how the two businesses are treated.
In most places in the United States, one will face an amazing amount of red tape, meetings, filings and obstacles—the other will likely be courted and given waivers, tax breaks, benefits and publicity.
Add up the cost to government of each, and two things will likely surprise you: 1) how much you will have to spend to set up a small business, and 2) how much the government will be willing to spend to court the large business.
Of course, I don’t really suggest that anyone announce such a fake business.
But imagine, theoretically, what would happen if you did.
Our current mentality in government is to treat big business better than small business.
This is the natural model in a capitalist system.
Capital gets special benefits.
In free enterprise, in contrast, the costs and obstacles would be identical for the two businesses.
In free enterprise, the operative words are “free” and “enterprise.”
Note that American business and ownership stayed mostly small—with most people owning family farms or small businesses—until the 1960s.
It was debt (often promoted by government) which wiped out the farming culture that dominated the South and Midwest, and the rise of big corporations over family-owned businesses came after the U.S. commercial code was changed by law to a capitalist rather than a free enterprise model.
If we altered today’s laws at all levels so that government entities treated all businesses and citizens the same, regardless of their level of capital, the natural result would be the spread of more small businesses.
Note that nearly all major growth in America’s economy since 1985 has come from small business.
Today, small businesses are struggling under a veritable “mountain” of regulatory red tape—the result is economic downturn.
And, while some in government hold an anti-business attitude, even many of those ostensibly promoting pro-business policies are more aligned with Wall Street corporations than the needs of small business.
Capitalism, sometimes called “Corporatism”, is not the same thing as free enterprise.
Both are certainly preferable to socialism or communism, but free enterprise is considerably more conducive to freedom and widespread prosperity than capitalism.
History has proven the following: 1) Under capitalism, the divide between rich and poor naturally increases; 2) In a free enterprise system, the prosperity, freedom and dignity of nearly everyone in the society inevitably rises.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn pointed out that while modern American capitalism was clearly better than Russia’s twentieth-century communism or Europe’s contemporary attempts at socialism, the U.S. implementation of capitalism left much to be desired.
For example, he noted, under American capitalism the question of, “is it right?” became less important to many people and companies than, “is it legal?”
Likewise, the culture of capitalism frequently asks, “is it profitable?” before (or instead of) asking, “is it good?”
American capitalism, Solzhenitsyn said, created a nation more materialistic than spiritual, more interested in superficial success than genuine human progress.
Note that Solzhenitsyn was adamantly anti-communist and anti-socialist.
But he also found capitalism lacking.
In every particular, however, Solzhenitsyn’s criticisms of capitalism don’t apply to the free enterprise model of economics. When the law treats all people and businesses the same—regardless of their size, connections, power or wealth—an interesting consequence occurs.
- In socialism the government ignores, downplays and literally abuses prosperity and freedom to the point that both are lost for nearly everyone.
- Under capitalism, the laws promote the wealth and license of a few above the freedom and prosperity of all, with the cultural result of valuing attainment of wealth above almost everything—including virtue, compassion, and the liberty of all.
- In free enterprise, the laws treat everyone the same, thereby incentivizing freedom, prosperity and enterprise (as long as such enterprise doesn’t violate the inalienable rights of others). The application of this model is rare in human history, but the results when it has been applied are nothing less than spectacular (see Ancient Israel, Athens, the vales period of Switzerland, the Saracens, the Anglo-Saxons, and the United States—which by 1944 had 6% of the world’s population and produced over half of its goods and services).
And the outcome when the two are combined is breathtaking.
We are capable of so much more than we’ve accomplished so far, and free enterprise is the most powerful economic system yet to be tried by mankind.
Isn’t it time for an end to the outdated debate about socialism versus capitalism and a national return to the free enterprise system which made America great?
During its first century-and-a-half of application, free enterprise brought us major wealth, a standard of living for most citizens that rivals or surpasses the lifestyles of history’s royals, world power, major technological and medical advancements, and the end of slavery.
It also brought the repudiation of racism, male dominance, religious persecution and a host of other ills that have existed for millennia.
With all these areas of progress, imagine what we could do if we re-adopted the free enterprise values and culture in our time.
Laws that give special benefits to wealth and capital while withholding such opportunities from the rest can never bring the progress, advances, freedom and prosperity that free enterprise will.
It’s time for a change, and the first step is for all of us to start using the phrase “free enterprise” a lot more.
We need to study it, think about it, discuss and debate its various applications, and make it a household topic rather than an obscure economic reference.
The future of America is inextricably linked with the future of free enterprise.
We will sink or swim exactly as it does, whether we realize it or not.
Isn’t it time to admit this reality and make it the leading topic in our national dialogue?
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.