With unemployment at 8.1 percent and the national debt up 50 percent to more than $16 billion since we elected this president, the 2012 presidential campaign is inescapably about the economy. But if that were simply so, Republican candidate Mitt Romney would be far ahead in the polls because more Americans, by 9 points, think the economy would be stronger if he wins. But he is not, so voters clearly have others issues in mind.
A competing topic of political debate has been the status of business. Romney, though he was governor of a populous northeastern state, offers himself as a successful businessman who can free up the economy to produce jobs for the unemployed. But the Obama campaign portrays him as a selfish venture capitalist devoid of concern for ordinary people. So this election has become partly a referendum on business itself. Is it fundamentally the advantage of the stronger and hostile to the weak and poor?
In considering this question, it is good first to notice that wealth is created. It is not a pie of unalterable size that is either divided evenly and fairly (if even is fair) or unevenly in favor of the strong. When God created the earth, He made a garden in the midst of the wilderness and told Adam to “take dominion” by extending the garden across the wasteland of the world. Adam was to expand the wealth of Eden by developing the wealth latent in the wilderness. That dominion and development has culminated in an agricultural revolution, the transformation of fossil fuels into home heating oil and plastics, and the life-transforming applications for silicon in microprocessors.
Business makes useful stuff for everyone up and down the economic ladder. The Heritage Foundation reports that poor homes enjoy many modern comforts like air conditioning and cable television in part because business makes these goods possible and widely affordable. Even for the poor, food as a percentage of income is astonishingly low by historical standards because business has industrialized its production and distribution.
Business makes jobs. Government also makes jobs, but most government jobs don’t create wealth. They consume wealth that business creates. Even minimum-wage jobs provide entry level, low-skill work for teens and the socially marginal to learn skills and the basic disciplines of life—like showing up to work consistently and on time—that enable them to work their way up into higher paying jobs.
Business-friendly government can help the poor by protecting people’s ability to create wealth, even for the entrepreneurial poor. But business-friendly government is not government that favors business over ordinary people, or that favors one business over another. That’s “crony capitalism.” Government that is business-friendly for the common good enforces laws evenhandedly that govern the pursuit of prosperity. If law enforcement is not impartial, the goal of business becomes pillaging people through government-enforced advantages instead of providing for people by marketing useful products.
If informed defenders of good business practices and wise government oversight lose this debate, we will all be the poorer.