All Commentary
Saturday, June 1, 1963

Nobody Has a Right to Live But Me


Copyright, 1963, King Features Syndicate, Inc.

Businessmen, so I am convinced, are the salt of the earth. They as­sume all the risks that go with creating the goods and providing the jobs that keep people alive. They accept crushing taxes, and they dutifully fill out reams of onerous forms. Whenever a busi­nessman is called a “robber baron,” I automatically bridle at the insult. There are times, how­ever, when specific businessmen desert their own free enterprise philosophy, and when they do this, it is hard to speak up convincingly in defense of the system which has made the whole nation pros­per.

If there is one thing a business­man should bend over backward to do, it is to give his competitor a free field with the expectation that no favors will be asked either way. The philosophy of competi­tion demands it; the business sys­tem as a whole needs it if it is to put up any convincing argument against socialism. Yet every day, it seems, the newspapers are spot­ted with accounts of the attempts of a few businessmen to get a law or a regulation adopted which would make it more difficult for their rivals to bid for the custom­ers’ trade.

There are the truckers, for ex­ample — not all the truckers, but some of them. Through their trade association truckers have been calling upon the federal govern­ment to prevent railroad mergers. The railroads rightly retort that government regulation has already stacked the cards against them in their efforts to compete for the carrying trade of the country. They argue quite correctly that mergers should be permitted in order to help them stay alive. But just when I have worked up some indignation against the truckers and a corresponding measure of sympathy for the railroads, my eye lights on a speech or a resolu­tion put forth by some railway spokesman calling for the suppres­sion of coal slurry pipelines.

The coal men, of course, insist upon the right to pulverize coal and ship it through pipes in a liq­uefied form. Well, they certainly should have the right: pipelines are part of a free enterprise economy, and the railroads have no call to try to use legal force to sabo­tage them. But just when I am about to mount the intellectual barricades in behalf of the coal slurry men, my roving eye encoun­ters a news story about coal men who are demanding that the gov­ernment tighten up the regula­tions against the importation of foreign residual fuel oil.

So it goes, ring-around the-rosy. Everybody seems to be demanding free trade for himself and the sup­pression of everybody else. Thea­ter owners march on Washington to testify against the licensing of pay-as-you-see TV systems. The free-lance dealers in commercial credit call upon the Department of Justice to force General Motors to divest itself of its big car credit affiliate, the General Motors Ac­ceptance Corporation. Labor un­ions interpose no objections when the antitrust enforcers go after the manufacturers of brass goods or electrical equipment. But their spokesmen descend as a body on Washington to lobby against any proposition that might put indus­try-wide unions under the same antitrust regulations that apply to everyone else.

Not so many years ago Hans Isbrandtsen, the Danish-American ship line operator, had the bright idea of putting the United States, his adopted country, back into the whaling business. He bought an old U.S. Navy vessel and had it converted into a floating whale oil rendering factory. Unfortunately, he let a foreign oil tanker replen­ish his ship’s fuel supply off the coast of Antarctica. The foreign oil tanker, to enable Isbrandtsen’s crew to stay longer on the whaling grounds, loaded up in turn with some of Mr. Isbrandtsen’s Ameri­can-processed whale oil and tried to bring it into an American port. Whereupon spokesmen for the do­mestic lard and fish oil industries seized upon the technicality to claim that the Isbrandtsen whale oil, though it had originated in an American-owned operation, was “foreign” because it had been transported by a foreigner. They insisted that the oil must be taxed at the full rate for “alien blubber.” With such an attitude to contend with, Isbrandtsen got out of the whaling business — and America was left without a whale ship on the Seven Seas.

Thus it goes when one industry invokes the power of the govern­ment to suppress another. But with everybody invoking the “law” to clobber his competitors, just who is safe? The truckers try to ambush the railroads, the railroads attack the coal slurry men, the coal slurry men proceed to smack the residual oil men, the oil men, in turn, clobber each other, de­pending on whether their wells are in America or overseas. And trade as a whole shrinks, and everybody gets clobbered in the end.

 

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Ideas on Liberty

Who Ought To Be Boss?

THE QUESTION “Who ought to be boss?” is like asking, “Who ought to be tenor in the quartet?” Obviously, the man who can do the job.

HENRY FORD (1863-1997)


  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.