All over the world, men are engaged in or are interestedly observing the great economic conflict between communism and free enterprise. In many quarters these systems are regarded as opposite poles of possible economic systems, and it is common to assume (or at least hope) that the conflict will ultimately be resolved through some workable and peaceful compromise between the two.
It should, however, be recognized that free enterprise is not an opposite extreme from communism. Communism represents a total government ownership of the means of production, a total control of the use of such means, and a total control of distribution of the wealth and goods produced. In every sense of the word, communism is a severe form of total or “totalitarian” government. The economic opposite of such a total government is not free enterprise, but anarchy, or no government control at all.
Even the most economically naive of thinkers has difficulty arguing that free enterprise could function in an anarchy. The life-blood of free enterprise is stability and confidence. Without confidence in the future engendered by political and economic stability, no entrepreneur would be likely to risk his savings in a new venture. Hence, it is a gross error to place free enterprise with anarchy.
If free enterprise fits in neither anarchy nor total government here, then does it belong? The simple fact currently being overlooked in much of the economic debate is that a momentous compromise between total government and total lack of government has already taken place. It was made by the signers of the United States Constitution, which may justifiably be regarded as the political foundation of our free enterprise economic system. Neither anarchists nor totalitarians, these men attempted, for the first time in recorded history, to achieve the stability that strong government provides while at the same time restraining that government from becoming oppressive. They succeeded rather well. Hence, the United States system already represents an attempt at compromise between the admittedly undesirable extremes of total control and total absence of control.
The question now at hand is whether to effect yet more compromise between the extreme of totalitarianism and the American result of the first compromise.
In approving yet more compromise between totalitarianism and the American system, we face a subtle danger. This is illustrated by the process of getting from one place to another through a series of steps in which, at each step, one covers half of the distance yet remaining. Theoretically, one will never arrive no matter how many steps are taken. Practically, any mathematician will confirm that, after only six steps, one has already covered 98.44 percent of the total distance. Thus, by failing to realize that a tolerable compromise has already been made, and approving yet more compromise, we move inexorably closer to the undesirable extreme of totalitarianism. This is doubly frightening when we observe how, historically, the road to totalitarianism seems to be a one-way street. Once a society crosses over the halfway point, it is found that the inducements of a seemingly paternalistic government, the complacency of a prosperous middle class, and the thirst for ever greater power on the part of government officials tends to accelerate the movement of society toward ever more government control. It is difficult to slow down the movement. It appearsi virtually impossible to arrest or reverse it.
Most societies of the past have spent their time at the extreme of totalitarianism. Those oscillations that have occurred have been rapid and chaotic, so that seldom has a society been able to come to equilibrium at a stable mid-point between anarchy and totalitarianism. That the American attempt was able to establish such an (approximately) equilibrium position, and maintain it for nearly 200 years, may someday in the future be counted as America’s greatest economic contribution to the world. It is to be hoped that the delicate blend of checks and balances, delegation and reservation of powers, and other less-well-defined techniques employed by thc-Constitutiorial Convention in setting up the structure of American government will not be lost, but will be remembered, and employed again in future attempts throughout the world.
Even though the foregoing hope is fondly held by admirers and patriots of the American compromise, it yet seems tragic to me to jeopardize our present position simply because citizens are poorly informed about history and do not perceive the totalitarian future to which they are headed.
It would seem that, without abandoning her enviable compromise between the extremes of totally oppressive and totally ineffective government, America could still find room to maneuver. Have we not sufficient imagination to correct our deficiencies without yielding to totalitarianism? Must the solution of our economic problems be given by governmental mandate at the expense of freedom and individuality? Many there are who maintain there is no other way. I feel there must be other ways, and that it is our challenge to find and employ them.
Moreover, we should seek to renew in each succeeding generation an understanding of the place of the American experiment in the history of the world’s economic systems. We should not remain silent while the uninformed, hiding under the guise of intellectualism or “fairness,” teach our youth that other systems were or are equivalent or superior. If time and facts prove they are superior, then honest men will join to endorse peaceful change. But thus far no other system has, in fact, proven superior to the American formula of free enterprise operating under a strong but constitutionally limited government. We should boldly say so. It is something of which we can be justly proud. Imperfections to the contrary, no other system, existing or extinct, has yet appeared that has achieved so much for so many.