The Business of America
Ah, Calvin Coolidge. I heavily blame him for his part in the termination of open borders. Yet if only he’d been pro-immigration, he might have been my favorite President. I’ve long smiled upon his stodgy slogan that “The business of America is business.” While writing Unbeatable, I thought of quoting it - and discovered the origin story of the adage.
To start, Coolidge’s actual line was not, “The business of America is business,” but rather “The chief business of the American people is business.” The sentence appears in a speech Coolidge gave to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1925. The real sentence was not merely less euphonious than the faux sentence. It was also less normative. Coolidge was not attacking anti-business reformers, idealists, radicals, or proto-hippies. His main claim was descriptive:
After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. I am strongly of opinion that the great majority of people will always find these are moving impulses of our life.
Why even bring up the topic? To argue that a close connection between journalism and commerce is, on balance, good:
There does not seem to be cause for alarm in the dual relationship of the press to the public, whereby it is on one side a purveyor of information and opinion and on the other side a purely business enterprise. Rather, it is probable that a press which maintains an intimate touch with the business currents of the nation, is likely to be more reliable than it would be if it were a stranger to these influences.
Stepping back, Coolidge’s speech is a strange blend of Social Desirability Bias boilerplate, eerie “the more things change, the more they stay the same” remarks, Panglossianism, and old-fashioned bourgeois affection for commerce.
Some SDB boilerplate:
It has always been realized, sometimes instinctively, oftentimes expressly, that truth and freedom are inseparable. An absolutism could never rest upon any thing save a perverted and distorted view of human relationships and upon false standards set up and maintained by force… Men have been educated under absolutism, not that they might bear witness to the truth, but that they might be the more ingenious advocates and defenders of false standards and hollow pretenses. This has always been the method of privilege, the method of class and caste, the method of master and slave.
When a community has sufficiently advanced so that its government begins to take on that of the nature of a republic, the processes of education become even more important, but the method is necessarily reversed… Under a republic the institutions of learning, while bound by the constitution and laws, are in no way subservient to the government. The principles which they enunciate do not depend for their authority upon whether they square with the wish of the ruling dynasty, but whether they square with the everlasting truth.
The top eerie “the more things change, the more they stay the same” remark:
The great difficulty in combating unfair propaganda, or even in recognizing it, arises from the fact that at the present time we confront so many new and technical problems that it is an enormous task to keep ourselves accurately informed concerning them. In this respect, you gentlemen of the press face the same perplexities that are encountered by legislators and government administrators.
Verily, misinformation have ye always. Technology is a convenient scapegoat, but the real problem is political irrationality.
American newspapers have seemed to me to be particularly representative of this practical idealism of our people. Therefore, I feel secure in saying that they are the best newspapers in the world. I believe that they print more real news and more reliable and characteristic news than any other newspaper. I believe their editorial opinions are less colored in influence by mere partisanship or selfish interest, than are those of any other country. Moreover, I believe that our American press is more independent, more reliable and less partisan today than at any other time in its history. I believe this of our press, precisely as I believe it of those who manage our public affairs. Both are cleaner, finer, less influenced by improper considerations, than ever before. Whoever disagrees with this judgment must take the chance of marking himself as ignorant of conditions which notoriously affected our public life, thoughts and methods, even within the memory of many men who are still among us.
For fans of the fake “The business of America is business” slogan, most of the speech is underwhelming. But near the end, Coolidge expresses some old-fashioned bourgeois affection for commerce. Reagan might have said something like this, but can you imagine any subsequent President doing so?
It is rare indeed that the men who are accumulating wealth decay. It is only when they cease production, when accumulation stops, that an irreparable decay begins. Wealth is the product of industry, ambition, character and untiring effort. In all experience, the accumulation of wealth means the multiplication of schools, the increase of knowledge, the dissemination of intelligence, the encouragement of science, the broadening of outlook, the expansion of liberties, the widening of culture.
The rest of the passage, however, sounds like a ChatGPT response to “Now deliberately antagonize Ayn Rand by giving altruism, not production, top moral priority”:
Of course, the accumulation of wealth can not be justified as the chief end of existence. But we are compelled to recognize it as a means to well nigh every desirable achievement. So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it. And there never was a time when wealth was so generally regarded as a means, or so little regarded as an end, as today. Just a little time ago we read in your newspapers that two leaders of American business, whose efforts at accumulation had been most astonishingly successful, had given fifty or sixty million dollars as endowments to educational works. That was real news. It was characteristic of our American experience with men of large resources. They use their power to serve, not themselves and their own families, but the public. I feel sure that the coming generations, which will benefit by those endowments, will not be easily convinced that they have suffered greatly because of these particular accumulations of wealth.
All reasonable, but it’s still striking that even Calvin Coolidge elevates the sporadic side effects of business over its central function. If businesses never gave to charity, they would still continue to deliver over 99% of their social value by stocking our stores with cornucopian abundance. Why muddy the waters by giving philanthropy so much attention? Probably because Calvin Coolidge himself was too much of a politician to join Adam Smith and scoff, “I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.”
"All reasonable, but it’s still striking that even Calvin Coolidge elevates the sporadic side effects of business over its central function. If businesses never gave to charity, they would still continue to deliver over 99% of their social value by stocking our stores with cornucopian abundance."
Bryan I love your work but honestly you sometimes have a blind spot for the psychological aspect of things. I think he is trying to point out the tensions and strike balance between the life of material progress and other forms of fulfillment. He is also talking about public-spiritedness (maybe you could debate its value but it shouldn't be dismissed). I think there is much more than this to think over in his speech, and I would not be so quick to dismiss some of it as you have. He also goes some of the way towards answering your question, I think—later in the speech he says:
"We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization."
In the open versus closed borders debate, it is somewhat surprising that we don’t opt for a reasonable third option employed by everyone for their own homes: by invitation only.