All Commentary
Tuesday, April 1, 1980

Free Enterprisers All

Mr. Zarbin is in the business of writing, reporting, editing. He is associated with the Arizona Republic in Phoenix.

People using the words “free enterprise” usually associate them with business. So, too, does Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, which starts its definition this way: “freedom of private business to organize and operate for a profit . . .” (emphasis added).

This part of the definition is too narrow for two related reasons: First, it says nothing about the freedom of individuals to organize and operate for a profit; and second, it ignores that businesses are made up of individuals, which must be said because too many of us have come to depersonalize business in the same way we do government.

We speak of business and government as doing this or that as though they have lives of their own independent of and apart from human action.

Many people have come to regard government as omniscient and believe it should regulate business. They want business regulated for a variety of reasons, but I suspect the most common are to hold down prices and to repress competition.

Government regulation, of course, doesn’t just happen. It is people—politicians and bureaucrats—consciously deciding to interfere in the relationships individuals develop with one another to satisfy wants and needs.

The regulators appear on the scene out of their own conceptions of what constitutes justice and injustice and in response to demands by groups whose favor they curry.

The destructive results of political interference in the marketplace are all about us. Yet, all about us, too, are continuing technological advances, and signs of wealth and prosperity.

The fear—and I think it is very real—is that people will mistake these material innovations and monuments as evidence that free enterprise is well and thriving.

Rather, I see these as demonstrating that private individuals intent on improving their own conditions are more creative than the misanthropes who have done their best to regulate us. It seems predictable that the regulators will someday catch up and succeed in creating total chaos because they have means—coercive authority—unavailable (and, indeed, undesirable) to individuals (beyond self-protection, including defense of property).

Even then, creativeness will not be fully stifled, because individuality and the drive of people to improve themselves and their conditions will not abate.

The evidence is ample that under the meanest and severest conditions, individuals will organize and operate to improve their circumstances. They need not be instructed or directed in this. They do this out of the most basic drive—survival.

Thus, free enterprise, or enterprise, is nothing more than unhampered individuals doing what is necessary to maintain their lives and health. Whatever they do to accomplish this, so long as it is peaceful, is appropriate.

It is observable that, once people are capable of meeting basic needs, they will turn to an unknown and un-imagined number of ways to effect entrepreneurial exchanges. In this respect, their activities may be identified as being both self-choosing (free) and self- organizing and self-operating (enterprise).

In essence, all of them, whether identified as employee, employer, or self-employed, are free enterprisers and are in the business of improving their own lots.

It is arbitrary, and imprecise, though perhaps convenient, to confine the term free enterprise to business. But it ignores that every productive person is engaged in business. It is simply that most people, for an unknown number of reasons and causes, have not organized and operated in business in the sense of being a partnership, corporation, or individually owned company.

Because many people do not organize and operate in the “conventional” business sense, this in no way diminishes their participation in free enterprise.

For example, throughout my working years I have sold my ability as a researcher, writer, and editor to others. These others have relied on my willingness to produce, just as I have depended upon them to meet commitments made to me to induce me to accept employment.

I regard my employment as a partnership. My well-being, the well-being of those with and for whom I have worked, have been mutually dependent. There is not a single nongovernmental enterprise that could not be put out of business in short order if the people working in it withdrew their labor.

At any time, even now, I could withdraw my labor and organize and operate myself as a “business.” But my business would be no different than it is today so long as I didn’t change my occupation. My becoming and remaining self-employed would depend, of course, upon consumer demand and satisfactory service.

But this should ever be the way of the unhampered market.

Entry into the market should be uninhibited. Sellers—and all who work are sellers of their time and abilities—remain sellers just so long as what they have to offer is de manded. When auto sales decline, car makers lay off workers. The same can occur in any nongovernment business, industry, or profession.

Free enterprise, then, is the freedom of individuals to organize and operate for profit singly, in partnership, or however else they care to come together. The individual has as much right to think of himself as being a businessman, or being in business, as persons usually identified as being in “business.”

  • Mr. Zarbin, a retired newspaperman, does historical research and writing in Phoenix, Arizona.