Reprinted by permission from The Wall Street Journal, December 26, 1961.
The tittle of the Broadway hit—"How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying"—certainly has a tempting sound to it. and it has evident appeal to a great many people in Washington who are trying to make success a snap for all sorts of businessmen.
To be sure, agreement with the general principle of competition is commonly met within the federal government’s bureaus and agencies. But much more conspicuous is an intense official distaste for the rigors of competition, and a desire to prop up those rebuffed in the marketplace.
The government’s supporting hand is everywhere. Perhaps it is most apparent among those whose business happens to be farming. Their unsalable crops are grown for government warehouses. The ideal is most nearly approached when the government pays the farmer for not farming, which is literally succeeding without trying.
Among others for whom the government tries to guarantee a sure thing are miners of subsidized metals, real estate speculators awarded "urban renewal" bargains, small businessmen who have their own special agency to bail them out, and those whose business is unionism; what better assurance of success than a legal monopoly?
Within the marketplace itself, the federal presence is overbearing. Some regulations to preserve competition are necessary, but they have been allowed to go too far. A thicket of laws and directives often ensnares the pacesetter.
If, for example, a businessman cannot match his more efficient competitor’s price, Washington may oblige by attacking it as "unreasonably low."
Frequently the federal regulators leap at the shadow of suspected injury, and the too-successful competitor must bear the expense of disproving the conjecture. Sometimes the assault is against "bigness," per se, to which arbitrary challenge there is no sure defense. Or an intensely competitive industry, such as drug-making, may be pressured to make its discoveries available to all. Thus the government’s idea of fair play is shared "success" for the competitive and the noncompetitive alike, with Washington deciding who shall have what share.
All this, of course, is agreeable to some who would otherwise lag behind and perhaps be forced out of business. And it may seem to sentimentalists that the government’s approach shows a nice impartiality. Why not share and share alike?
Because this is the seventeenth century mercantilist outlook in modern dress, the formula for the static society. Men forged ahead when they discarded the state-directed economy and realized that the essence of progress is competition, giving free play to the buyer’s partiality toward whatever he pleases, including the better or less costly answer to his needs and desires. The more alternatives, the better served are all.
Of course, we have not gone all the way down the mercantilist road. There is still an abundance of competing alternatives. Innovation in response to changing public tastes is as plain as the array of new sizes in automobiles, as dazzling as the crowded shelves at the supermarket. Daring and imagination are at work all around us.
Yet the progress we see is only a part of what could be. It is made because men instinctively strive, today as in centuries past, to overcome obstacles the state places in the path of free competition. And as we watch these obstacles grow, we ought to remember that what is impeded is not simply the individual’s success, but the success of our free society.
When little men begin to cast long shadows, the sun is setting on a civilization.