Poisoning the Well

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Young people are getting an education on the free enterprise system that prejudices them against it.

Their educators tend to see its ethos as one of “dog eat dog.” They believe that fierce competition is its only feature, and that this competition must always be destructive. They believe that some will win and others lose, and that the winners must completely obliterate the losers.

Kids learn that lying in business is sharp and shrewd. That successful businesspeople use every dirty trick in the book to get ahead. That, given the nature of the system, they absolutely must do this to succeed. Dishonesty may be considered wrong everywhere else in the world, but in the workplace it is a skill necessary for survival.

Of course this is the detritus of Marxist philosophy. Even at its mildest, it is not what people who esteem the free enterprise system, who support it as the one most conducive to freedom and prosperity, believe. But youngsters who aspire to succeed in business tend to believe these things, because they’re what’s being taught. They carry such notions into the business world, and this accounts for the abysmal lack of ethics we see in all too many of them.

People who notice this bad behavior are often told that “that’s business,” and believe it. Thus they are vulnerable to the rhetoric of “progressive” political hucksters who preach warmed-over Marxist ideas such as the redistribution of wealth and the supposed necessity of government intervention in the marketplace. And thus does the vicious cycle perpetuate itself.

But among those who care about free enterprise, there is a sense of what, for lack of a better word, I might call sportsmanship. While at one level a business competitor may be a rival, in the larger scheme he is actually a partner. You might defeat him today, he might defeat you tomorrow, but next week you might succeed together. As for customers, they are not suckers to be bamboozled; they are every company’s greatest resource. A continuously profitable business doesn’t try to fool them once, then go in search for other suckers; it establishes a mutually beneficial, long-term relationship with them.

The economic chaos we face today didn’t spring full-blown from Obama and the Left. It is the product of both major parties, and the years of confusion over which they’ve presided.

An understanding of these principles is almost totally absent in the minds of many young folks in the corporate world. And this has opened a Pandora’s box of ills. It has much to do with why tycoons pay expensive lobbyists to get legislation passed forcing competitors out of business. It’s why big corporations gobble up struggling small fry and — with the help of bought and paid-for elected officials — strangle other entrepreneurs in regulations that keep them from building better companies. It’s how so many of them can thrive on taxpayer-funded subsidies, then congratulate themselves on their commercial genius. Such tricks are then described, by anti-free enterprise professors, as capitalism in action.       

What the young are not being told is that there is a beauty, balance, and wisdom to the free enterprise system. That it can thrive only in an atmosphere of trust, based on individual integrity and mutual respect. That it is up to each of us to keep that trust. It’s true, we all compete, but only so we can become our best. And if personal dishonesty becomes too widespread, it will undermine and erode our ability to trust one another.

The well is being poisoned right at its source. William F. Buckley raised an alarm about the fouling of this spring in his first bestseller, God and Man at Yale, more than 50 years ago. His warning is as timely now as ever. We are paying small fortunes to educate our sons and daughters, and they are being taught to distrust the very waters in which they must swim. They are being taught that the only way to clean them up is to pay self-designated geniuses to regulate the flow.  What will happen is that the pool will dry up.

I spent my early college years at public institutions, and I remember being taught that the system in which I had to survive was evil. Then I transferred to a small, private college, and for the first time I heard that the economic system developed in my country had become a blessing to the whole world. For the first time, from professors not beholden to socialist dogma, I was exposed to a gospel of hope. It was many years before I was able to sort through the confusion of those conflicting doctrines and find my way to the truth. Kids today are confused, too, but they are as salvageable as I was.

They won’t hear the truth from the GOP-led Right. That crowd preaches free enterprise, yet feeds into the corruption and calls the bitter sweet — at least until the Democrats are in charge. The economic chaos we face today didn’t spring full-blown from Obama and the Left. It is the product of both major parties, and the years of confusion over which they’ve presided. Most of our would-be leaders learned from the same kind professors who now teach our kids, so they are no less befuddled.

Competition can be healthy. It can make us grow. But it can also be sick and deranged, goading us to tear each other apart, which is what happens when people compete for money and economic privilege that are taken from others and given to them. Thus Solyndra enjoys half a billion dollars provided at the expense of taxpayers who are losing their own jobs and homes. But there are still examples out there of beneficial competition in action, of good people working to keep our country great. I suspect, however, that Washington DC is the last place we’re going to find them.

If we can be made to believe the bad press about free enterprise — whether it comes from academia, from Hollywood, from the news media, or simply from our friends—we will act according to such notions. We’ll lie, cheat, and try to rig the game, and no one will have any cause to trust us. This was how the well got poisoned to begin with. The economic system that made America great needs better public relations. But we can’t merely entrust the job to any self-styled expert. We must, each and every one of us, take it up ourselves.

We must stop subsidizing schools that sow destruction. There are good schools, and responsible professors, who still teach the principles that can save us. There are still candidates, and voters, who care passionately about liberty. This is no time for passivity or despair. It is time to speak up, and to practice what we preach with greater fidelity than ever before. Our kids are watching every move we make to see how closely it corresponds with our words.

In the break room at one of my many corporate jobs, there was a poster promoting carpooling. It showed a throng of cars packed into a traffic jam. In each was a single driver, and from every driver’s head came a thought-balloon saying, “I can’t make a difference.” Although this was government-funded “green” propaganda, and the phrase has, unfortunately, become a cliché, it carried a grain of truth.

Each of us can make a difference, because although we are individuals, we are not alone. But we are individuals, and we are each responsible for ourselves. The great cleanup of the well can only begin with us.

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