One candidate is a distinct capitalist; the other is a statist. The capitalist has lived and had his being smack in the middle of American business. The statist has spent most of his adult life denigrating it. Time after time, presidential campaigns have centered on policy differences and on the merits and demerits of government programs, but never so lucidly on political philosophy itself. What’s at stake this time is the very economic direction in which the nation will go.
President Calvin Coolidge, who wasn’t known for saying too much, once famously remarked that “The business of America is business.” For decades this innocent statement was taken as a simple characterization of America’s free enterprise system. As tight-fisted as he was tight-lipped, “Silent Cal” was merely reflecting what most Americans of the 1920s believed. There were some prominent socialists around (novelist Upton Sinclair, poet Carl Sandburg, labor leader Eugene Debs), but they were as far from the mainstream of American political life as one could be. Serving as president between the scandalous Warren Harding and the unlucky Herbert Hoover, Coolidge governed as a pro-business Republican.
But in past decades, most Democrats were pro-business. On the floor of the U.S. Senate, Democratic Senator Russell Long of Louisiana uttered his famous words, “If we’re gonna have capitalism, we’ve gotta have capital, and if we’re gonna have capital, we’ve gotta have capitalists.”
On the way to 2008, however, when America elected a president with no private-sector business experience and with little inclination to potently advance it, “capitalism,” became a bad word. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” was viewed by college students of the 1960s as an iron fist. Textbook portrayals of “robber barons” gave the impression that there was no such thing as a good capitalist. College students of the 1980s added “corporations,” as well as “profits,” to the bad-words list.
Some linguists argue that “capitalism” was a negative word from its birth. This argument has it that in the 19th century when the word was first used, it was a pejorative term used by socialists to disparage the wealthy. Since the word capital came from the Latin “capitalis” which means “head,” the new word “capitalism” referred to a system run by people who cared little for the masses except for the labor they could provide.
Who would argue that such an attitude on the part of some capitalists never existed, or that it doesn’t exist today? It did and it does, but that doesn’t mean we should junk capitalism. One of the worst logical fallacies one can commit is to judge an idea or a system by its misrepresentation or misapplication. Shall we junk Christianity because the KKK claimed to be Christian, or because some (not all) television evangelists so blatantly misrepresent the Christian Gospel? If so, then socialists might want to junk socialism since Stalin didn’t exactly give socialism a good name. Supposedly, a socialist cares about society, but Stalin, Mao and Castro were not sweet, “social” guys.
In the county where I grew up, there were three capitalists, for whom almost everybody else worked. Two of them, brothers, were big timber and sawmill owners; the other owned chicken processing plants. My father worked for one of the brothers, both of whom were known for caring about their employees. The third capitalist did not enjoy the same reputation. I’ll grant that he was a mean old bad capitalist.
The brother my father worked for owned a “company store.” Yes, it was located at the entrance, which was also the exit, of the sawmill. But no, it was not the owner’s means of taking from employees the paychecks they had just picked up. Rather, it was an effort to provide goods at a price the employees could afford. Was that bad capitalism?
For four decades I have paid for groceries with money generated by taxpayers and capitalists (meager as it sometimes was). I believe I was worthy of my hire. Producers stirred up dust so that I, a non-practicing capitalist, could educate their children. Was that a bad arrangement?
Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly, and Occupy Wall Street kids just gotta demonstrate. One thing they cannot dispute, however, is that America was neither birthed nor advanced by centralization. America rose because of the careful spread of power laid out in her chief governing document, and because of economic freedom.
If American voters want to go the way of state power instead of capitalism, they will have a chance to do exactly that in less than 20 weeks.
Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school teacher and former state legislator.