Ambrose: Free enterprise system is a capital idea

A friend and I were talking in a coffee shop, and then two more guys briefly joined us, both highly educated, both interesting, and one of them especially provocative. He pronounced that capitalism, at its least fettered, was immoral, a form of “piracy,” and at its best — when properly bound and regulated — still amoral.

I don’t think so. What I do think is that it took hundreds and thousands of Marxists and other socialists of less extreme bent preaching for many years to so befuddle large numbers of people as to get them to ignore historical facts and dwell instead in a world of make-believe.

I myself don’t even like the word capitalism because it was more the enemies of this mode of economic life who popularized the usage than its friends, and who managed to attach all sorts of sour, even evil connotations to it. When the word comes up, you therefore almost immediately think of exploitation, greed, abject materialism, the worst excesses of early industrialism and even gangsterism.

To me, the connotation that ought to be uppermost in the mind when considering the system is something else: emancipation. A government says to its people that they are free to go out and find ways to earn livelihoods and acquire property through all kinds of enterprises, and to contract with others to work with them. The consequences have been breathtaking.

There has been the unleashing of enormous amounts of human energy, the innovative solving of huge, seemingly insoluble problems, efficiency arising from competition and a prosperity that has provided the wherewithal of amazingly productive, large-scale scientific investigation. It is a prosperity that has made people at every social level betteroff than their historical predecessors, not just in possessions, but in such benefits as health and education. It has done more to eradicate poverty than all the good intentions of utopian thinkers put together.

Obviously, you realize that people in any set of circumstances are capable of vile behavior. You therefore establish sound laws that simultaneously enable the free market to function effectively while preventing abuses to employees, customers, the public and the environment.

The thing you do not do is junk this system for an alternative such as the one found in the late Soviet Union, which murdered and enslaved millions to achieve an economic arrangement that ultimately collapsed. You also avoid the enervating, big-government intemperance known as the welfare state, which is now threatening to sink large parts of Europe.

Far from being amoral, free enterprise economies give us vast opportunities for individual growth and expression and a liberty without which other kinds of liberties are endangered.

Why, then, in the light of what we have learned over the past century and more are the top three presidential contenders on the Democratic side each in varying degrees leaning toward a European-style socialism? I meant to ask the coffee shop provocateur the question, but he had to get back to some business dealings that I am willing to bet are both engaging and highly remunerative.

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