November 22, 2012

Werner Braun: Giving thanks for a free market society

— Today is Black Friday, the day when millions of eager shoppers charge out to the neighborhood malls before most of the nation’s roosters have even thought about crowing.

The tradition is about as American as apple — or perhaps more appropriate to the season — pumpkin pie. It’s also symbolic of one of our great American Founders’ principles, that of free enterprise.

This fall, more and more retail stores are opening well before the 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. door-busters of recent years, electing to begin the battle for bargains around 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. This is nothing new among many of our ubiquitous fast food establishments — take McDonald’s for instance — which have opted to serve burgers and fries around the clock every day of the year.

Still there are those among us, myself included, who feel that Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s days should be off limits for retail shopping or for doing business of any sort; that those days should be reserved instead for spending time with family and friends, indulging on comfort foods and/or settling in for a long winter’s nap.

Some folks complain, and justifiably so, that opening the stores on those days is not fair for retail employees, that it cuts into their family time, that it turns a special holiday into just another Thursday.

And those are very good points.

The “other line” at the buffet, so to speak, would argue that opening up those stores to consumers who find Thanksgiving Day to be the best possible time to shop represents what is central to the American way of life. It represents “innovation” and “motivation.” It represents free enterprise.

Which brings me to the Pilgrims. I learned something new this week when I read an article that explained how the first form of government under the Pilgrims was not that of free enterprise at all; in fact, the Pilgrims’ first stab at governing themselves was by means of an early form of collective ownership, dedicated to the notion of “shared wealth.”

In 1620, before leaving Plymouth, England, the Pilgrim passengers and the financial “Adventurers” agreed to a seven-year contract that required the Pilgrims to pool, for the common benefit, “all profits and benefits that are got by trade, traffic, trucking, working, fishing, or any other means of any person or persons.”

The contract further stipulated that at the end of that seven-year period, “the capital and profits, viz. the houses, lands, goods and chattels, be equally divided betwixt the Adventurers and Planters.”

This early experiment in socialism nearly cost the lives of all of the Pilgrims who bravely journeyed to the new world. That’s because socialism, which is based on the principle of each person producing “according to his ability and each receiv{ing} according to his needs,” results, almost always, in shared poverty.

Under this system, no one did more than the very minimal because the incentive to excel was destroyed. Those who might have been industrious were neutralized. After the first two years of operating under this “share the wealth” system, the result was severe food shortages, starvation, and death. About half of those early colonists had died.

But fortunately, the Pilgrims became motivated by necessity, and they opted to reject the “socialist contract” in favor of experimenting with a “free market” society.

Each family was then given a parcel of land and was encouraged to produce as bountiful a crop as they could. As it turns out, this was just the right remedy, and the effects were almost immediate.

William Bradford, the governor of the colony during its first 30 years, observed that switch from shared resources to free enterprise “had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious.” Bradford went on to say, “Instead of famine now God gave them plenty and the face of things was changed ... Any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.”

Today, when we see those stores opening earlier and earlier, we should be reminded that this is, for good or for ill, another exercise in free enterprise. As we go into the holiday shopping season and see store shelves brimming with innovative products, it should remind us that selection and abundance is part and parcel of living in a free market society.

Werner Braun is president of the Dalton-based Carpet and Rug Insititute.