The phrase ‘free enterprise’ holds as important a place in the American psyche as the American dream.
Since the 1800s myriad political projects have used it to mean different things. To anti-slavery campaigners at the end of the nineteenth century it was a rallying cry against racist political structures; a slogan encapsulating the hope and determination of a movement fighting for equality of opportunity in the labor market.
To those fighting the introduction of New Deal measures in 1933 it epitomized the positivity of forces fighting the forced redistribution of resources — a result of perceived federal government overreach.
Advertising and marketing executives in the 1960s adopted the term widely as a means of helping big business fight communism. As they saw it, nothing could be more efficacious than reminding consumers of the luxury of choice, and highlighting that this choice was in fact a right.
Glickman’s new book is useful because it does something all too unusual in the current climate. Instead of polemic the academic offers a careful historiography of the phrase, recording how the use of the idiom ‘free enterprise’ by corporations and politicians has changed over the decades.
Through painstaking analysis the title charts in detail how the phrase was deployed to oppose the New Deal. As Franklin D Roosevelt’s major public spending plans came to light in the early 1930s, those on the right used it to launch a grassroots campaign intended to show that such an ambitious project would stymy productivity and reward indolence.
What began as a term associated with civil liberation turned into an ideological slogan for the defense of economic freedoms.
Glickman’s exploration demonstrates also that ‘free enterprise’ has been deployed on the campaign trail by US Republican politicians ranging from Marco Rubio to Arizona senator Jeff Flake.
The use of language often runs in cycles, and perhaps most compelling is the academic’s suggestion that we may see ‘free enterprise’ return as a term of civil resistance once again.
FREE ENTERPRISE is published by Yale University Press, pp. 360, $32.50, August 2019.
John is the managing editor of Washington, D.C.-based technology publication FedScoop, and was previously a reporter at Institutional Investor in New York. He has a master’s degree in social policy from the London School of Economics and his writing has appeared in The Scotsman and The Sunday Times newspapers.