The American Spirit Of Enterprise
America has been the land of opportunity and free enterprise, an example and a hope for tens of millions of people around the world. In America both the industrious worker and the creative entrepreneur have been hailed as the complementary producers of prosperity and rising standards of living.
Class and caste were meant to play no part in the life of the hardworking individual, with neither political privileges for some nor artificial burdens for others. A Swedish immigrant in the 1880s, for example, could write home that his “cap [is not] worn out from lifting it in the presence of gentlemen. There is no class distinction between high and low, rich or poor, no make-believe, no ‘title-sickness’ or artificial ceremonies. . . . Everyone lives in peace and prosperity.”
And just as the humble hardworking laborer was treated with dignity and respect, so too was the innovative businessman. He was not cast as the social villain or the economic exploiter. In 1886 Walter R. Houghton, professor of political science at Indiana University, published a 620-page book titled Kings of Fortune, or The Triumphs and Achievements of Noble, Self-Made Men. Houghton referred to these individuals as men “Whose brilliant careers have honored their calling, blessed humanity, and whose lives furnish instruction for the young, entertainment for the old, and valuable lessons for the aspirants of fortune.”
Houghton added, “The chief glory of America is, that it is the country in which genius and industry find their speediest and surest reward. Fame and fortune are here open to all who are willing to work for them. Neither class distinctions nor social prejudices, neither differences of birth, religion, nor ideas, can prevent the man of true merit from winning the just reward of his labors in this favored land. We are emphatically a nation of self-made men, and it is to the labors of this worthy class that our marvelous national prosperity is due.”
In his studies of many of the successful businessmen of this time, Houghton went out of his way to emphasize that genius and fame were not defined by him only in monetary terms. He also recounted the stories of men who did not always amass great wealth but who had made lasting contributions to their chosen vocations. However, he clearly did not think these people more noble or worthy of attention merely because they had not accumulated money. In his histories of the lives of “noble, self-made men,” wealth was nothing to be ashamed of. Instead, accumulated wealth was the mark of a man who had applied his intellectual abilities, and, through honest, dedicated, and disciplined effort, had made his fortune by revolutionizing the manufacturing or marketing of the goods and services available to masses of the American people in the free market.
The United States was the first country founded on the principles of commerce, trade, and the primacy of peaceful, voluntary exchange. In the 1830s, a French traveler named Michel Chevalier spent two years exploring American life. He returned to France and published a book recounting his journey. (The volume was translated and published in English in 1839 under the title Society, Manners, and Politics in the United States.) He explained to his readers:
Chevalier also described the character and the spirit of these nineteenth-century Americans:
This is the spirit that made America great. The government at all levels—federal, state, and local—kept almost completely out of the way. Government’s primary function was to protect the life, liberty, and property of the individual. Did the government sometimes interfere in the marketplace and busy itself with scandalous wastes of money on public-works projects or subsidies to enterprises run by men close to those who controlled the public purse? Yes, it did. But these were invariably considered evil examples of political corruption and almost always economic disasters. The hallmark of the American system was freedom of enterprise and an open road for the risk-taking speculator and entrepreneur.Government’s Unending Growth
Compared to much of the world, it is certainly true that America still today represents that example of a spirit of enterprise. But the unending growth in the interventionist welfare state during the last 100 years has eaten away at the image of America that so impressed Michel Chevalier in the early nineteenth century and inspired William Houghton in the 1880s to write about the country’s “kings of fortune.”
In the World Almanac of 1868, the entire listing for all the bureaus, agencies, and departments of the federal government fit on one page, and that included all the U.S. ambassadorial postings around the world as well. Today the federal government’s departments, agencies, bureaus, and commissions number around 400 and the listing goes on for pages in the 2007 World Almanac.
Wherever we turn, the hand of the government regulates, controls, redistributes, prohibits, subsidizes, influences, and manipulates. At the same time too many Americans consider privileges, favors, and handouts from government to be as reasonable and as legitimate as income earned honestly and openly in the marketplace.
Our task, therefore, is to remind our fellow citizens about what made America so inspirational for so many around the globe. We must work to restore the spirit of individualism and self-responsibility that made America unique.This article was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in The Freeman on October 2007, Volume 57, Issue 8.
Richard M. Ebeling is the former President of The Foundation for Economic Education. Prior to his appointment at FEE, he was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003). The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), one of the oldest free-market organizations in the United States, was founded in 1946 by Leonard E. Read to study and advance the freedom philosophy. FEE's mission is to offer the most consistent case for the "first principles" of freedom: the sanctity of private property, individual liberty, the rule of law, the free market, and the moral superiority of individual choice and responsibility over coercion.
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