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Free Enterprise

The advocates of capitalism faced an uphill from the start. Early American society was founded largely by individuals of modest means, most often farmers, who often viewed the acquisition of a large personal fortune with disdain. In the early years, there weren`t many such fortunes. The Industrial Revolution changed the nature of business organization and introduced very large corporations. These appeared to offer the prospect of greater production of wealth, but the concentration of the wealth in a few hands, and its ostentatious display in contrast with the poverty of many industrial workers, led to widespread skepticism about capitalism as a moral force. Fine words from Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller about the virtues of laissez-faire capitalism left many unconvinced. John Maynard Keynes wrote The End Of Laissez-Faire^ in 1926, even before the economy collapsed. The Great Depression permanently rendered the laissez-faire approach to business unsupportable on the political level and advocates of pro-business government policies realized that they needed to appeal to the entire spectrum of business owners, from the smallest to the largest. During the thirties, the expressions "capitalism" and "private business" were supplanted by "free enterprise" in the conservative lexicon. William Benton, himself an example of free enterprise at work in America, wrote a pamphlet entitled "The Economics of a Free Society," in 1943. He began by describing the first principle: "In a free society all men are common in their rights and opportunities. They are frequently uncommon in their individual capacities to contribute to the common good." He immediately set out to distinguish free enterprise from laissez-faire capitalism as well as the notion that government owes protection to vested interests. He laid out seven things that free enterprise, despite the views of some of it enemies as well as its purported adherents, did not include:

  • the freedom to seek profit by any and all means
  • the right to profit at the expense of the welfare of the community
  • the freedom of any man to exploit any other
  • the freedom to waste the natural resources of the country
  • the right to monopolize (which impedes or prevents the establishment of new business, creates scarcity,and imperials the spirit of enterprise)
  • the opposition to necessary and appropriate government regulation or operation
  • the appeal to government for subsidy or protection whenever adversity appears