Montana Viewpoint©


June 22, 2009

Recently the U S Chamber of Commerce began what they call the “Campaign for Free Enterprise” which is designed, according to the Chamber’s press release of June 10th, 2009, “to defend and advance America’s free enterprise values in the face of rapid government growth and attacks by anti-business activists.” Chamber President Troy Donahue goes on to say, “It’s time to remind all Americans that it was a free enterprise system based on the values of individual initiative, hard work, risk, innovation, and profit that built our great country.”

I read this to say that it’s also time to forget that it was this same free enterprise system run amok that created the most serious world financial crisis since 1929. To help us forget, an article in Business Week states that the Chamber is dedicating $100 million for a “grassroots campaign” to defend free enterprise. (This is just a technicality, but I always thought that a grassroots campaign was something that started from the bottom up, not from the top down?)

So less than a year after corporations ccame to the federal government on bended knee, begging for help in the form of taxpayer dollars which, wisely enough were not given without first securing an equity position for said taxpayers, the Chamber is saying it’s all better now, so please go away. They do not say that we can take our money back, just our misgivings and our concerns…and our pesky regulations.

This brazenness is nothing new in corporate America. After every financial crisis since 1885 there have been those corporate visionaries who have realized that they needed to change the public’s perception of big business. In his book, “The Creation of the Corporate Soul” (University of California Press, 1998), Roland Marchand tells of legendary advertising genius Bruce Barton’s 1935 address to the National Association of Manufacturers.

Barton said that corporations would be surprised “to discover how little we are liked, how much our incomes are resented, and our motives misunderstood,” and that they needed to persuade people that “we are more reliable than the politicians and will work for them more cheaply and with more satisfaction.”

And thus began a 75-year-long public relations campaign by American industry to convince the public that they were a neighbor just like the corner grocer or any other small businessman—just one of the folks, no more, no less. Ironically, one of Barton’s first clients was General Motors, fresh off a financial crisis of their own in 1920. Barton portrayed GM as being just like a family, albeit a famous one, that was interested in little more than making life better for its neighbors.

Despite the Chamber’s concerns, I don’t think anyone forgets that the free enterprise system  helped build our great country, but neither do I think we should forget how that same free enterprise system, when left entirely to its own devices, has helped tear down our great country. Nor are things all better now as the Chamber would have us believe. What is better is the performance of the stock market and the relative stability of corporate America. What is not better are the lives of working Americans without jobs and the lives of employees and retirees whose pensions have evaporated. This cavalier attitude of the U. S. Chamber of Commerce ignores the plight of the very people that have been hurt by this massive chicanery and just wants to get the government off their corporate backs. We got into this mess largely because of the studied lack of government oversight of what was basically institutionalized gambling with other peoples’ money. We will not get out, let alone stay out of it, by going back to the status quo.

This is like a kid who wrecks one family car and the next morning demands the keys to the other one. It is this great sense of entitlement in corporate America that is deeply disturbing; that they are entitled to play by their own rules without adult supervision, that whatever happens it is not their fault, unless it is good, in which case they take the credit.

Donahue says, “We are going to…hold politicians accountable as we defend and advance economic freedom.” That’s fine, if he can also remember to hold those executives accountable for the irreparable harm their decisions have done to the American people.


Montana Viewpoint© is carried by 20 Montana weekly newspapers, including those in Helena and Billings, with a combined circulation of over 60,000.

Jim Elliott is a former state senator from Trout Creek. He served in the Montana House 1989 to 1996 and the Montana Senate from 2001 to 2008. Elliott has distributed his opinion column statewide since 1992. There is no charge for publication.

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-827-3671
Mail: 100 TC Road, Trout Creek, MT 59874