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In Defense of Private Enterprise

In these troubled times, with scandal, incompetence and a lack of public trust devastating corporations from Detroit to Wall Street, it is troubling how little is being said in defense of free enterprise and capitalism, or public debate on the need for ethical and responsible corporate leadership. How we got to this point is not surprising.

During the primaries, Michele Obama told an audience in Zanesville, Ohio she and her husband “left corporate America, which is a lot of what we’re asking young people to do.” She admonished the crowd, “Don’t go into corporate America. You know, become teachers. Work for the community. Be social workers. Be a nurse. Thoseare the careers that we need, and we’re encouraging our young people to do that. But if you make that choice, as we did, to move out of the money-making industry into the helping industry, then your salaries respond.” Mrs. Obama added, “many of our bright stars are going into corporate law or hedge-fund management.”

On September 11, 2008, both Senator Obama and Senator McCain took time from their political campaigns to participate in a Service Nation Summit at Columbia University in New York. Both extolled the virtues of working in government, nonprofits and community organizations.

Barely a week after the event, Wall Street began to crumble under the weight of a mortgage scandal that was based in large measure on unethical lending practices.

American teenagers lie, steal and cheat at “alarming rates,” concluded a study of nearly 30,000 high school students released on December 1, 2008.

The attitudes and conduct of some 29,760 high school students across the United States “doesn’t bode well for the future when these youngsters become the next generation’s politicians and parents, cops and corporate executives, and journalists and generals,” the non-profit Josephson Institute said.

In its 2008 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth, the Los Angeles-based organization said the teenagers’ responses to questions about lying, stealing and cheating “reveals entrenched habits of dishonesty for the workforce of the future.”

Just recently, the Inaugural Committee of then President-elect Obama and Vice President-elect Biden announced that it believes that “changing our country begins in your own backyard, which is why they have committed to making Monday, January 19th a national day of service as part of their inaugural celebration. They have invited Americans across the country to join in local service projects to benefit their communities.” It went on to say the committee “want[s] to know what service means to the young people of Washington, DC. Have your student answer the following question: ‘How can I contribute to my neighborhood through community service?’ Parents and guardians submitting essays must reside in the District of Columbia and their student must attend middle school or high school in DC. Each selected entrant will receive three tickets to the Inaugural Parade on January 20th, one for themselves and two guests. These tickets will allow them access to a special bleacher near the Presidential Reviewing Stand in front of the White House for the entire parade.”

All that got me to thinking about Ayn Rand’s writings on the “moral aspects of capitalism.” In particular, as she wrote in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, “it is capitalism’s alleged champions who are responsible for the fact that capitalism is being destroyed without a hearing, without a trial, without any public knowledge of its principles, its nature, its history, or its moral meaning.”

While community service is important, and admirable, and though former President George H.W. Bush’s famous “thousand points of light” program and many others have highlighted the calling of community service, volunteerism is certainly not partisan.

The point is we as a people, a society and as a nation should be focusing more attention to the importance of private enterprise. “Economic literacy is crucial because it is a measure of whether people understand the forces that significantly affect the quality of their lives,” said Gary H. Stern, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

A November, 2008 Junior Achievement poll of teens in the organization’s entrepreneurship program found 59.7 percent of teens would like to start their own business someday; that is reassuring.

A national focus on community service is desirable, but wouldn’t a campaign to encourage Americans, young and old, to understand, support and engage in ethical capitalism be at least equally vital, particularly in these times?

Given Enron, Countrywide, Freddie and Fannie, Wall Street and other unfortunate activities in Corporate America, we should have a national debate on the importance of free enterprise and the importance of ethical corporate practices.

To me, when an individual or group of individuals, come together, raise or put up capital, start a business, provide a product or service that the market wants, pay taxes, hire employees, enabling them to support themselves and their families, buy health care and educate, feed and clothe their children, that individual or group of individuals is providing a service to the public and their community.

Let the debate begin here.

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