In 1834, an angry mob descended on a gathering at a New York church. Their target was Lewis and Arthur Tappan, owners of a successful mercantile import business. When the Tappans fled, the mob went to Lewis Tappan’s home and threw his belongings into a fire on the street. The Tappans were the epitome of American capitalism and entrepreneurship. Not coincidentally, they were also prominent abolitionists. The pro-slavery mob wanted to bring them to their knees.
The 1619 Project, a series of essays and poems by New York Times journalists, blames capitalism for slavery. “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism,” writes Matthew Desmond, “you have to start on the plantation.” They are confused. Slavery springs from anti-capitalism. As Phillip Magness of the American Institute for Economic Research explains, pro-slavery theorists of the 19th century held capitalism in contempt, while the free market liberal tradition had a directly adversarial view of slavery. Free enterprise and personal autonomy are two sides of the same coin.
But the 1619 Project’s confusion is understandable. After all, we live in a time of political upheaval. Capitalism is in retreat. Big business, once thought to be a symbol of free markets and social prosperity, now colludes with government. In America, commercial relationships are no longer driven predominantly by market forces. Instead, according to AIER’s Samuel Gregg, in its place is an accelerating partnership of technocratic government and powerful corporate elites that control an ever-greater proportion of economic activity. America’s economy is now dominated not by capitalism but by corporatism.
Corporatism is an economic and political system in which government coordinates the private sector towards the realization of political and social objectives. The state favors, protects, promotes, subsidizes, and benefits the interests of cooperative business partners.
The authors of the 1619 Project are right that we have serious problems in this country. America is the most enterprising and prosperous country in history, but its success is no longer assured. Many people are having a tough time. They can no longer assume that they will be better off in the future than they or their parents were in the past. But 1619 is right for the wrong reasons.
It used to be that America was the land of opportunity. Hard work and a little ingenuity were enough to take you places. The beauty of capitalism is that nobody controls it. When demand and supply rule, no one else does. Free markets protect everyone because they prevent anyone from taking control. No one can fix prices, limit supply, dictate the terms of employment, or restrict competition. True capitalism means freedom and opportunity for everyone.
But in America we are giving up on capitalism. Big corporations have become entangled in the arms of big government. There is favoritism, gatekeeping, revolving doors, pork barreling, and all kinds of funny business. Political power and economic might concentrate in fewer hands. The little guy is being squeezed out. Corporatism is, in fact, a genuine source of oppression.
Public institutions once dedicated to protecting the poor, the persecuted, and the powerless have become corrupt. Union leadership jealously protect their power and status, cooperating with employers to mandate medical interventions on their members. Universities, former champions of free and open inquiry, are the most extreme of ideological institutions. Big Tech takes marching orders from government to supervise speech. Establishment media, once known as “the fourth estate” for its independence, promotes the only game in town. America is now governed by propaganda, surveillance, censorship, and ideological conformity.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, the architect of the 1619 Project, says that capitalism is a systemic tool of oppression. She tries to say it with a straight face. But oppression is coercion, and coercion is illiberal. Socialism, communism, fascism, and corporatism are cut from the same illiberal cloth. The most notorious corporatist regimes were fascist, like Mussolini’s Italy. As Hayek described, “Everyone who has watched the growth of these movements in Italy or in Germany has been struck by the number of leading men, from Mussolini downward, who began as socialists and ended as Fascists or Nazis. … Few are ready to recognize that the rise of fascism and Nazism was not a reaction against the socialist trends of the preceding period but a necessary outcome of those tendencies.”
In the end, the Tappan brothers were vindicated. With their entrepreneurial spirit intact, they invented a new way of doing business, recovered their wealth, and continued to fight to end slavery.
The story of America is the story of the struggle between two political imperatives. On one side are those who seek to control and enslave. On the other are those who want people—all people—to be free. Personal freedom and economic freedom are two parts of a whole. Free markets mean free people, and vice versa. Capitalists like the Tappan brothers are liberty’s true champions.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Capitalism is defined by freedom. Corporatism – the economic force now dominating the United States – is a genuine source of oppression. In this video, Bruce Pardy and content creator, Kate Wand, explore the growing partnership between America’s technocratic governments and powerful corporate elites. The resulting corporatist system prevents open competition and enables governments to favour, protect, subsidize, and benefit the business interests they are acting in concert with.