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Dr. Samuel Gregg: Our Founding Fathers Designed An Entrepreneurial Republic. Can We Keep It?

Entrepreneurship is by no means exclusively American. But this country has led the way in unleashing, encouraging and elevating entrepreneurship as the creative and virtuous pathway to the creation of new value for all. As a republic, we’ve established the institutional framework in which entrepreneurship can flourish, and entrepreneurs who are successful in creating value reap — and keep — the rewards. Dr. Samuel Gregg, in his book The Next American Economy, examines how this framework was designed at the founding, and discusses what we must all do to preserve it and re-animate it despite the attacks on it from the left.

Knowledge Capsule

Entrepreneurship and the founding of America are intertwined.

America remains the most entrepreneurial country in the world, even if the degree is declining. Our nation has many people willing to pursue the uncertain path of creating new economic value for customers through new products, services and businesses; and, equally importantly, people who will try and buy the new offerings.

Alexis de Tocqueville captured the entrepreneurial character in Democracy In America. He thought everyone in America was entrepreneurial. He noted that those immigrants who arrived would quickly start a business, then move on to another one. He observed the tremendous creative energy of the United States. Immigrants have already embraced change in the act of leaving one country to establish themselves in another, and business entrepreneurship is a direct expression of this same love of change.

In fact, says Dr. Gregg, America was designed by its Founding Fathers — as they plainly expressed in the Constitution, Declaration Of Independence, the Federalist papers and documents like Washington’s Farewell Address – as a commercial republic based on entrepreneurship, and not a political or military or top-down republic or mass democracy. Commerce — or what we would call business — was not viewed with disdain, as it was in aristocratic Britain, but as republican virtue. Washington’s Farewell Address refers to the importance of expanding, of national and international navigation and trading, and about the development of strong markets to give Americans an outlet for their production. Business was viewed as the height of civilizational activity. There was a commercial ethic in the vision of a commercial republic which would grow wealth for all. Economic expectations were high and political institutions were designed to be compatible with these economic expectations.

There is an increasing trend towards government and the administrative state strangling the creative energy of American entrepreneurship.

The erosion of institutional integrity shift and suppresses the creative energy of entrepreneurs. A strong tradition of property rights, in which entrepreneurs can feel confident that they will not only be able to earn but also keep the reward that come from satisfying customers and meeting demand, is an important element of the incentive structure for entrepreneurship. Similarly, entrepreneurs need to feel confidence that commercial disputes will be fairly adjudicated in courts. And they also need to feel confidence that government regulation will not act as an unreversible ratchet of restrictions on their value-creation activities.

The trends in the business environment in the US are currently running in the opposite direction: the property rights of successful entrepreneurs are being increasingly questioned and squeezed, commercial interests are viewed unfavorably in courts, and the regulation ratchet is running in the direction of more, not less, restriction on commerce.

Dr. Gregg sees the anti-entrepreneurship trend beginning in the Progressive Era and gathering pace since the days of Woodrow Wilson. Progressives seek forms of control that will suppress economic uncertainty and social turbulence. The entrepreneurial embrace of change and pursuit of new value must be suppressed. If society and the economy is to conform to their design, unpredictable creativity must be excluded. The progressive control urge took expanded form in the New Deal and the Great Society and all the successive opportunistically explosive expansions of government power.

The anti-entrepreneurial tool is regulation and the administrative state.

Dr. Gregg employs the term corporatism to mean legislators and elected politicians, government departments and their administrative bureaucracies working together with big corporations and NGO’s to impose control through regulation — “attempting to manage everything for everyone else”. Corporatism is very uncomfortable with freedom, and is more than willing to trade off liberty, and the capacity of markets for entrepreneurial competition, in favor of stagnation and the vision of engineering a specific economic outcome. Their preference is for a form of regulatory state capitalism that exerts control over free enterprise.

Recently developed constraints such as ESG and DEI are a manifestation of state capitalism with a particular ideological edge that emanates from left-leaning politics. Companies can no longer have a free choice in the assembly and orchestration of their human capital, which will seriously impair the capacity of the economy to deliver what consumers expect of it.

Most of the government’s regulation is not aimed at any “public good” (e.g., overall workplace safety) but at special protections for specific interest groups. Often, the businesses who are protecting their interests are the ones who, first, initiate the regulation, and second, write it, through their lobbying firms. If citizens were more habituated to asking who is the group behind any specific regulation, there’d be a greater understanding of this problem and a developing distaste for regulation.

Dr. Gregg sees the expansion of state capitalism and the regulatory state as cyclical and capable of reversal.

The trends are in the wrong direction, but are not irreversible. Dr. Gregg expressed great confidence in the ability of Americans to work their way around the regulatory barriers to creative entrepreneurship. He highlighted two of the optimistic themes in his book:

Capital, capital, capital: Regulation has made it increasingly difficult to match up small entrepreneurial businesses with the capital they need. It takes lots of expensive lawyers to navigate the regulatory jungle that exists for capital acquisition in the us. Yet, American entrepreneurs are proving to be just as creative in capital acquisition as in other fields. They can find their way around the regulatory system. Inventions such as crowdsourcing are a good example of new ways to access capital. The fintech industry is entirely dedicated to freer access to capital. Angel funds, regional and local venture capital funds, new entrepreneurial communities (such as Brandjectory) and new two-sided investment platforms provide more impetus.

Deregulate, deregulate, deregulate: If we want to retain the American edge in entrepreneurship, we should focus on reducing the size and scope of the regulation at the local, state and federal level. One of Dr. Gregg’s fears is that individuals become political entrepreneurs, and their efforts are directed towards finding ways to thrive in an expanding administrative state and insufficiently on creating new and improved products. Let’s find creative ways to reduce regulations, rather than creative ways to survive.

Additional Resources

The Next American Economy: Nation, State And Markets In An Uncertain World by Samuel Gregg: Mises.org/E4B_206_Book

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