By Frank J. Rich
Few in America would argue against a free enterprise system when opportunity appears. For the disenfranchised—those that are and those that like to believe they’d share the fruits of their labor “equally” with the less fortunate—free enterprise becomes reality the moment they choose among identical products with different pricing. The lowest price is typically that choice. Once done, this group has exercised the “free enterprise system,” proving that demand sets the price of goods and services. Think gas pump prices. As demand rises so does price, if the goal is profits, unless a volume model multiplies profit faster and beyond the ability of exclusivity markets to grow it. Think Amazon.com.
The natural tendency of the human condition is to extend one’s influence and gains to the fullest. In other words, it is to take advantage of opportunity when it presents. The opportunist sees opportunity in most everything (read: how can I take advantage of this?)—a false positive. In a world bent toward discovering another’s weaknesses (to exploit) it is small wonder that so-called “have-nots” often “feel the weight” of another’s thumb on them.
Weekly, theologians present an age-old alternative: namely, service to others. In fact, the “Good Book” states that … we are “to do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves … Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others … ” Philippians 2:3,4
Cooperative commerce and communities, so seldom the blush in a “Postmodernist” world, remain the driving force in community growth and wealth building. Postmodernism means to “ … dissolve the merging of subject and object, self and other, and a radical, anarchist rejection of all attempts to define, reify or re-present the human subject.” An example is the non-gender reference to “they” for all who will not accept defining by anything, including gender.
The freedom to control the means of production (by our choices) presents unusual opportunities for cooperative societies: namely, free-enterprise systems only slightly akin to capitalism in its strictest sense. Freedom is the natural underpinning of well-being, a spirit of completeness that brings order and fulfillment to our lives. We are most content when we feel competent in the things we do, authentic in our lives, and connected to others in shared lives—the model of self-determination theory.
Equally, enterprise is the natural tendency to put our best into things, to make things happen by the expressions that uniquely qualify us as individuals working together for a common good. The two are prodigious in their outcomes, but the distinction between free enterprise and capitalism must be clear.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, contemporary thinker and author, clearly measured American capitalism as better than his homeland Russia’s communism or Europe’s varietal socialism, but it still leaves us wanting, he concluded. American capitalism was more concerned with “Is it legal?” than “Is it right?” according to Solzhenitsyn. What he saw may have been more a model of CYO that defines expedience, and not ethics. Similarly, he saw its culture more concerned with “Is it profitable?” than “Is it good?” The outcome is a nation that is “more materialistic than spiritual, more interested in superficial success than genuine human progress,” in his view. Not coincidentally, his criticisms don’t apply to the model of free enterprise that has only supply and demand as catalysts, and little or no government regulation.
Thus, a free market system tends to be privilege blind, accepting all equally, according to one’s needs and willingness to pay. The means of production are “not so much owned,” as they are “granted” by the same math in supply and demand, largely without the constraints of regulation. The result is a population of buyers and users and sellers and builders of products and services that go to those with need of them and at the market price; a cooperative model that engages others to serve their needs while joining to grow sustainable local economies and communities.
If we call this model of free enterprise, community capitalism, the vision of it clears; that which places a priority on the well-being and sustainability of the entire community, not just the privileged. This is not a new idea, but takes on a fresh scent when practiced in countries such as Australia, Germany, and Denmark; and in US markets such as Kalamazoo, MI and the E2M Community Capital project. We see clearly the seeds of the approach as we consider the key focus of community resources on place, capital, infrastructure, talent and education. The model suggests that viable communities must successfully address all five concomitantly. Further, it joins with organized philanthropy and investment to grow commerce and communities cooperatively; already in practice across America.
Few local organizations can develop the funds necessary to fuel even moderate growth objectives. Local, regional, and state governments can. Starting businesses and community organizations that fill local needs, then turning them over to private enterprise for sustainable growth accomplishes more than providing a shoemaker or donut shop for communities without them. It is the clearest demonstration of tax money at work for community good. Simply, commerce builds communities, and local towns and small cities offer the best opportunity to provide the needed capital to fuel growth. The obvious question asks if locals will buy into communities with empty storefronts lining its streets, or towns with character and successful small businesses. The local level is where community capitalism (conscious, family capitalism) has the greatest impact and growth opportunity, because towns can use tax funds for growth and not just service additions. In fact, community capitalism has a better chance of funding both than the typical tax model.