Capitalism and business: The same thing?

Is “capitalism” and “business” the same thing? Most people would probably answer yes, but that’s a mistake.

In a video from LearnLiberty.org, a project of Institute for Humane Studies, Professor Steve Horwitz explains the difference: “He refutes the often recited claim that ‘What is good for General Motors is good for America’ by explaining that pro-business legislation encourages behavior that is not beneficial to society or the business itself. He suggests that, in a free market, factors such as profit and competition encourage behavior that ultimately benefits society. Professor Horwitz illustrates that pro-business legislation restricts progress and therefore caters to the interests of industry rather than to consumers, whereas ‘supporters of free markets are ultimately pro-human and pro-people because it is through markets that we get the most innovation and we get the most goods and the cheapest prices.’”

Still, you may be asking: Isn’t business and free-market capitalism the same thing? Here’s what Milton Friedman had to say: “There’s a widespread belief and common conception that somehow or other business and economics are the same, that those people who are in favor of a free market are also in favor of everything that big business does. And those of us who have defended a free market have, over a long period of time, become accustomed to being called apologists for big business. But nothing could be farther from the truth. There’s a real distinction between being in favor of free markets and being in favor of whatever business does.” (emphasis added.)

Friedman also knew very well of the discipline of free markets and how business will try to avoid it: “The great virtue of free enterprise is that it forces existing businesses to meet the test of the market continuously, to produce products that meet consumer demands at lowest cost, or else be driven from the market. It is a profit-and-loss system. Naturally, existing businesses generally prefer to keep out competitors in other ways. That is why the business community, despite its rhetoric, has so often been a major enemy of truly free enterprise.”

We see this confusion daily in Wichita and Kansas. Many members of the Wichita City Council — Democrats and Republicans — hold pro-business views. But the cronyism — the continual creation of subsidies, preferential treatment, no-bid contracts, and general intervention into the economy — destroys capitalism.

What about the local chamber of commerce? Isn’t it a bastion of capitalism? Here’s Stephen Moore: “In as many as half the states, state taxpayer organizations, free market think tanks and small business leaders now complain bitterly that, on a wide range of issues, chambers of commerce deploy their financial resources and lobbying clout to expand the taxing, spending and regulatory authorities of government. This behavior, they note, erodes the very pro-growth climate necessary for businesses — at least those not connected at the hip with government — to prosper.” (Local chambers of commerce: tax machines in disguise.)

This accurately describes the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. Earlier this year it decided that eight government subsidy programs supporting the Ambassador Hotel were not enough: The Chamber said there must be a ninth.

Fortunately, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce does a much better job supporting capitalism and free market principles.

At the state government level we also have to be watchful, even though we have a conservative governor and legislature (sort of). Earlier this year Kansas Governor Sam Brownback supported extending the STAR bonds program, thereby giving life support to cronyism for another five years. Kansas STAR bonds vote a test for capitalism. A majority of legislators supported him. Other anti-capitalist programs have been started or expanded at his initiative.


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