Free Men and Free Markets

As we celebrate America’s independence, let us not forget its enterprise.  The two are inextricably intertwined, not only today, but in the nation’s founding.  While the colonists became independent, they were born capitalists.  Their enterprise was determinant of their independence.  In our present recessionary circumstances, with America’s free market under intensified assault, its pivotal role in our past and our future is especially important to understand.

The colonies were England without the island.  The colonists saw themselves as Englishmen.  And they did so right up until their final break with England — a break that did not occur for a full year after war had begun.  Their original goal was simply to reaffirm their rights in respect to the Crown — rights that they saw as originally possessed by all England’s subjects.  In the final separation, they believed the Crown had left them and their independence only an acknowledgement of a divide that had been foisted upon them.  

While there were English parallels to the political and civil liberties the colonists sought, there was no parallel for their economic liberty.  The English government’s attempts to replicate its domestic economic control over its American colonies repeatedly failed.  Monopolies, trade restrictions, taxes, and settlement limits — commonplaces at home — were immediately out of place in America.  

Without a formal class structure, a long history, and a dispersed and relatively diverse population composed of small entrepreneurs, America was innately capitalist from its beginning.  The rebellion, when it finally came, was actually against the empire’s integuments to enterprise.  

The capitalist weft running through the revolutionary fabric are quite clear.  Nowhere clearer than in the Founders themselves.  We have mythologized them as supporting independence for its own sake.  It is as if the presence of practicality — thoroughly clear to them — somehow makes their endeavor less…revolutionary.  Actually, it makes it more so.  America succeeded because of its endeavor’s practicality, not in spite of it — and in contrast to the many revolutions that have foundered without it since.

The Declaration of Independence’s conclusion — "we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Scared Honor" — was not mere rhetorical flourish.  Their Fortunes were a driver in their decision.  The Founders were wealthy — at least for the colonies, though laughably so by the Continent’s standards.  And they were intent on preserving and hopefully expanding their property.  

Wealth was a pre-condition for the Founders’ role.  Success in farming and business gave them the leisure to pursue public business.  Someone who could not successfully manage his own affairs, was not qualified to manage the public’s.  

That capitalism is a prerequisite for freedom is neither a new idea nor one applicable only to America’s.  Nobel economist F. A. Hayek wrote in The Road to Serfdom in 1944: "It is now often said that democracy will not tolerate ‘capitalism.’  If ‘capitalism’ means here a competitive system based on free disposal over private property, it is far more important to realize that only within this system is democracy possible."  As Milton Friedman echoed in the book’s preface, "the free market is the only mechanism that has ever been discovered for achieving participatory democracy."  Capitalism and democracy reinforce each other, but it is the former that is determinant.

Capitalism is under perpetual attack from the Left.  Reinforced by recession — eighteen months having obscured momentarily eighteen years of prosperity preceding it — the assault has taken a broader and disturbing resonance.  

Myth-making should not allow us to be mistaken.  It is no less plausible to imagine the American experience without enterprise than it is without independence.  It is natural to focus on the flower, rather than the soil from which it springs or the roots that sustain.  But neglecting the basics for the bloom, will cost us the flower.  

Born Englishmen and entrepreneurs, when the two became incompatible, Americans chose the latter and acknowledged independence.  It is an important lesson to remember, and in some cases, relearn.  It is a lesson not just in the history of achieving our liberty, but in the future of maintaining it as well.