Public Square

Calvin Coolidge on Government and Business

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Commonly known as the “Roaring 20s,” the 1920s still fascinates us today. We remember this decade for invention and innovation, rapid economic growth, and glamor.

But there was a dark side to all of this. Corruption in business and politics as well as rampant consumerism and borrowing were factors which led to an eventual economic crash.

Calvin Coolidge presided over these events as president of the United States from 1923 to 1929. As a fiscal conservative who generally supported business and commerce, he had some interesting insights on the relationship between business and government.

Ray Nothstine at the Acton Institute highlights some of these ideas by looking at Coolidge’s 1925 address to the New York Chamber of Commerce.

First, Coolidge decried the collusion of government and business interests, though he did not see this as much of a threat:

While there has been in the past and will be in the future a considerable effort in this country of different business interests to attempt to run the Government in such a way as to set up a system of privilege…these efforts have been very largely discredited, and with reasonable vigilance on the part of the people to preserve their freedom do not now appear to be dangerous.

He also contrasted true business with special-interests lobbying, sharing some interesting thoughts about the role that business plays in society.

True business represents the mutual organized effort of society to minister to the economic requirements of civilization. It is an effort by which men provide for the material needs of each other. While it is not an end in itself, it is the important means for the attainment of a supreme end. It rests squarely on the law of service. It has for its main reliance truth and faith and justice. In its larger sense it is one of the greatest contributing forces to the moral and spiritual advancement of the race.

Whether or not you agree that business is such an important factor in the “moral and spiritual advancement of the race,” Coolidge’s distinction between corrupt and honest business practices is a helpful reminder of the importance of true enterprise in today’s world of politics, lobbying, and special interests.

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Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

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