Reviving Horatio Alger

English: Grave of American author Horatio Alge...
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The Manhattan Institute‘s City Journal often rubs me hairless because it too often seems trapped in an ideological vortex between neoconservatism, libertarianism, and the Tea Party, and in a geographical vortex between The Battery and about 85th Street. There are gems to be had, though, and Professor Luigi Zingales gives us one in his “Who Killed Horatio Alger” from the journal’s Autumn 2011 edition.

But it isn’t necessary to support big business to support free markets. Indeed, the two positions are often at odds, which is why so many Americans who love competition and freedom of choice nevertheless distrust the power that big business is gaining in our society. What we need is something that we might call a pro-market, not pro-business, agenda, one that defends the market system that has served America so well without supporting the businesses, whether they’re banks or car companies, that have grown, as the phrase has it, “too big to fail.”

This is a superb point that lies at the heart of the Bull Moose stance on business. We can argue with Zingales’ selection of terms (and a few of the other arguments he makes), but his point here is critical: supporting business, meritocracy, markets, and competition is not the same thing as supporting the kind of Fortune 500 too-big-to-fail oligarchy that now dominates the American commercial landscape.

America was built on a yeomanry, not an oligarchy, and it is that heritage that lies at the heart of the American system. Robber Barons had their day, and were either reduced when rationality prevailed over a slavish devotion tolaissez-faire capitalism or they collapsed of their own weight. What we have today, though, is an implicit belief that businesses must either be tightly regulated or not at all. There is a happy middle ground, and the maladies extant in our economy today are more the result of “not enough” than “too much.”

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