The private enterprise revival

The most important news story in the world is not getting the attention it deserves. In case you hadn't noticed - it is the revival of the political respectability of private enterprise.

The process is under different labels in different countries. In the United States it is called deregulation and tax cutting. The two go together. The essence of it is the unleashing of enterprise from the double restraint of regulation and high corporate taxes.

In Western Europe, where outright government ownership was used rather than regulation and high taxes, it takes the form of ''privatization.'' That means governments selling the nationalized industries back to private enterprise.

In Britain, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government has sold back to private capital such profitable enterprises as Jaguar Motors. It is about to sell British Airways. Next on the list will be the telecommunications network.

''Privatization'' is spreading on the Continent. Germany and France are moving that way. In communist countries it started in the agricultural area. Yugoslavia was the first, after the break with Stalin, to put farms back into private hands. Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Poland followed.

Yugoslavia also pioneered in allowing the revival of private enterprise in the retailing of consumer goods and even in light industry.

The biggest experiment in moving back from government ownership and control to private enterprise is in China, where Deng Xiaoping has successfully decentralized much of agriculture and allowed farmers to accumulate wealth from the private sale of the residual harvest after meeting government delivery quotas.

The details, methods, and pace differ from country to country. The essential feature is the same. The trend in modern industrial countries the world over has turned. The public sector is shrinking. The private sector is expanding.

Private enterprise dominated the economies of the industrial world throughout the 19th century and down to World War I. It was weakened by that war. Many suspected the war had been caused by the arms industry itself. Capitalists were accused not only of making undue profits from the war, but of actually having caused it.

There was a respite during the '20s, but the system was damaged disastrously by the stock market collapse of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression, which lasted down to World War II.

A tide against private enterprise set in during the late '20s. People turned to government for the economic revival which the private enterprise system was unable to generate. The private system had lost political respectability and credibility.

The tide is swinging the other way. Public ownership has been tried for 70 years and found to be less than the total answer to the needs of modern society.

The Soviet Union has never been as isolated as it is today. The main reason is that its nationalized economy has failed to keep up in competition with the outside world. It has little to sell on world markets other than guns and raw materials. Most of its clients and dependents are trading with the West as much as they dare. The contrast between a booming American economy and a stagnant Soviet economy is the cement of the American system of alliances and friendships and the explanation of the weakening of the Soviet system.

Moscow alone resists the turn of the tide. Its leading economists recognize the need for moving with the times, so far without political acceptance. But how long will it hold out if China's prospective deregulation of light industry and consumer goods proves as successful as its deregulation of agriculture?

Tides ebb and flow. Not all countries can afford to move with the tide back toward private enterprise. But as of today the case for private enterprise carries more weight and political respectability than does the Soviet case for total state control.

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