by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
December 21, 2007
VERMONT SWIMS AGAINST THE FREE MARKET TIDE
DUMMERSTON, Vt. - The Vermont Chamber of Commerce loves to gripe about how Vermont's taxes are too high, its regulations are too onerous and how the state legislature needs to do something about both.
It's what you expect to hear from business leaders. Most seem to believe that in a perfect world, there would be no taxes, no regulations and no infringements on their God-given right to make as much profit as they can.
But there was one discordant voice in the choir singing the familiar "Vermont Is Anti-Business" hymn that the chamber's members do so love to sing.
State Rep. Warren Kitzmiller, D-Montpelier, is chairman of the House Committee on Commerce. He is also the former owner of Onion River Sports in Montpelier. As the head of the House committee that will be dealing with the Chamber's gripes, Kitzmiller reminded the Chamber at a recent economic forum that business leaders may be overstating their case.
"I'm in the camp that thinks Vermont is a darn good place to do business," Kitzmiller said. "If you're somebody with an idea who wants to start a business, it's easier here than anywhere else."
As for taxes and regulations, Kitzmiller said every state has them, but Vermont's landscape and lifestyle are what attracts people into the state. "If the only thing you're looking at is profit...that's a very myopic view of life," he said.
That last statement made conservatives around the state go ballistic. Why? Perhaps because it got to close to the truth about capitalism.
Yes, any enterprise needs to achieve and maintain a reasonable level of growth to survive. The question will always be, what is the price of that growth? Is it acceptable to outsource jobs and put people out of work for a higher quarterly dividend? Is it acceptable to pollute the environment to increase the return to shareholders? Is it acceptable to pay your workers as little as possible while the CEO gets a multimillion dollar bonus?
Under the current rules of capitalism, the answer is yes, yes and yes. The only obligation of a business is to make a ever-higher profit each quarter. How it makes that profit does not matter.
If you are a disciple of economist Milton Friedman, the patron saint of free market capitalism, you believe that government has no role in the economy. You believe that public ownership of anything is an abomination. You believe that nothing should interfere with the divine right of capital.
That's why Friedman's rival, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, once observed that "the American conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."
Kitzmiller was not so much questioning the profit motive as he was questioning it being the sole reason for the existence of a business. Is it possible to make a reasonable profit without exploiting workers or the environment? In Vermont, the answer to that question is yes.
There are lots of businesses in Vermont that are here by choice. There may be cheaper places to do business, but there are few places that have the quality of life that Vermont offers. If you are a business person who believes that it is possible to be socially responsible and profitable, that it is good business to pay your workers fairly, and that taxes are the price one pays for a civilized society, Vermont is a good fit for your values as well as your bottom line.
You won't hear the Chamber and its allies in the Republican Party talking about this ongoing revolution in the Vermont business community. You won't hear them talking about how new generations of entrepreneurs create new styles of doing business. The Chamber and the GOP are still stuck in the old paradigm.
Yes, there are businesses who roam the planet looking for constantly lower taxes and labor costs. And there are places which will happily oblige and give these businesses everything they desire. But Vermont doesn't need to join the race to the bottom of the global economy - a race where a select few people profit and everybody else suffers. That's because of the power of what some call "the Vermont brand."
The image of Vermont as a human-scaled, environmentally-friendly and socially progressive place is what draws people here. Entrepreneurs who share these values are choosing this state as a place they want to do business in.
While profit is essential, it is absolutely true that any enterprise that only sees the world in terms of how it affects its bottom line is myopic. This is the discussion that needs to happen not just in Vermont, but in the rest of the world.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.