In an oft-quoted line, President Calvin Coolidge famously declared in 1925 that “the chief business of the American people is business.”
Some have accused Coolidge of suggesting here that commerce is the highest moral aspiration of the American people, but he’d be the first to disagree. “We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want much more,” he said in the same speech. “We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization.”
Coolidge’s words have long stood as a fundamentally true description of what Alexander Hamilton once called the “commercial character” of America. The founding fathers, many of them businessmen and entrepreneurs, put in place a governmental structure that allowed free trade to flourish and grow, giving rise to the most successful economic system in human history.
In the post-World War II years, that system reached its full potential. America set the standard for manufacturing both in terms of quality and quantity. The resulting cash flow not only raised domestic standards of living, it provided a seemingly endless source of financing for international growth and development.
“(Americans) are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world,” Coolidge went on to add. “I am strongly of the opinion that the great majority of people will always find these the moving impulses of our life. Of course, the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence … (but) so long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it.”
Not only should we not fear it, we should embrace it. Capitalism, that much-maligned concept, has produced the resources to enable scientific research, medical technology, advances in agricultural yields, higher human productivity, broader access to the arts, the world’s best higher education system, and near universal literacy. Life spans are longer because of American capitalism, and quality of life is better than at any time in history.
So is the chief business of the American people still business? Certainly our manufacturing capabilities are greatly diminished, being replaced not by obsolescence, but outsourcing. While America still exports an enviable share of civilian aircraft, passenger cars, semiconductors and pharmaceuticals, our economy has become increasingly dependent on services that cannot be exported.
And then there’s the elephant in the room: to pay for many of the things we import, we’ve become a nation of borrowers. In other words, one of America’s greatest exports in 2011 is debt.
Somehow, we’ve become convinced that politics will provide a solution to the economic crisis. But when we look to Washington, all we find is conflict, posturing, and a “vision” that stretches no further than the next election cycle. No public policy ever has, or ever will, “create” wealth — or jobs. Only the private sector can do that.
The chief business of the American people is not politics. Leave that to France. We are a nation of people who, at our best, work, create and innovate. Rather than look to politics for a solution, we’d be wise to remember the words of Cal Coolidge — and get on with our business.
Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and co-author of the book “The Blueprint: How Democrats Won Colorado and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care.”