American Free Enterprise Chamber of Commerce Fights Wokeness, the Left’s ESG Agenda
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American corporations are increasingly taking sides on political issues—and it seems they’re often embracing socialist ideas rather than the free market.
That’s led former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and others to create the American Free Enterprise Chamber of Commerce. The group launched earlier this year to put the focus back on pro-business policies and limited government—rather than woke ideas pushed by activists on the left.
Gentry Collins, CEO of the American Free Enterprise Chamber of Commerce, comes to the job after serving as the national political director at both the Republican Governors Association and the Republican National Committee. He spoke to “The Daily Signal Podcast” about the organization. A lightly edited transcript is below.
Rob Bluey: What led [former Iowa Gov. Terry] Branstad and you to start the American Free Enterprise Chamber of Commerce?
Gentry Collins: One big idea, which is that free people and competitive markets have solved more problems, achieved more big dreams, and created more progress and more prosperity than any other system in all of recorded history. And yet, despite those facts, we’re losing a generational battle for the idea that this is the way of the future in America.
And so, we’re committed to making sure that American free enterprise is something that every generation in America can embrace, and that while we’re working on that, that today’s small businesses maintain access to the marketplace where there are more threats than any time in living memory.
Bluey: I’m so glad you talked about it in that context of somebody like myself who has kids and sees the challenges that we’re up against in terms of educating the next generation.
Why is it that so few people understand the truth about free enterprise and the success that it has led in terms of reducing poverty and hunger worldwide in so many countries that otherwise wouldn’t be prospering if it weren’t for the entrepreneurial spirit of the business community?
Collins: I think in part because my generation and older maybe haven’t done our jobs, we took it for granted. [Former President] Ronald Reagan famously said that freedom is never any more than one generation from extinction, it has to be fought for and defended and handed onto the next generation. And I’m not sure that my generation has done that job.
And so part of the mission of the American Free Enterprise is to change that and to put it back on track and to tell this story. I would frequently say the most powerful secular story in all of human history is the story of American free enterprise.
So think about this. Historical evidence shows us that from the beginning of recorded history all the way until 1900, that global human life expectancy was never more than a rounding air away from 30 years old.
For 5,000 years, global human life expectancy stuck at 30. Within those 30 years, every system, political economic system around the face of the globe, led to deprivation and subjugation in its various forms. Until when?
Until one single American century, defined by the idea that we’re all created equal, that the government drives its just power only from the consent of the governed, and that we all have an equal opportunity to access the marketplace, to compete, to demand better in our lives, that set of ideas more than doubled global human life expectancy in one single American century.
And within the doubling of that life expectancy, we will now lose more of our poor, not our rich, we’ll lose more of our poor, for the first time in world history, to diseases of excess than we will diseases of deprivation, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and so forth.
And as big a problem as those may be, that is one heck of an achievement. That is the fruit of American free enterprise. It’s the fruit of this political and economic system. And we have not told next-generation voters that.
One more thought on it, if I may. During that American century that saw such a rise in shared progress and prosperity, never before seen, one ideology scaled three different times to compete with the American century, and it was socialism. First in Germany, and then the Soviet Union and in China. Combined, they murdered 100 million people during the American century. But for the various forms of socialism on the face of the planet last century, we might have been at 83 for global life expectancy instead of 73.
We have not told next-generation American voters and consumers the story of the power of American free enterprise, and we’ve got to change that.
Bluey: Now, as a chamber of commerce, tell us a little bit about how you’re organized, what you’re doing, and who some of the members are that are supporting you.
Collins: Yeah. So, we’re organized as a 501(c)(6), a trade association, that is open to any American business.
And our pricing reflects that, where $99 a year, anybody can afford to join, anybody who shares our values and wants to fight for free enterprise and equal access to the marketplace, maintaining equal access to the marketplace at a time when there are real threats to that in our economy. And so, American businesses of all sizes, but priced in a way that any business can play on a level playing field.
Many other trade associations have a very complicated pricing model, where the big guys get to come in and write a big check and then dictate to the rest of the membership what we believe. And we’ve turned that around. Our model is 180 degrees from that.
We’ve come out with a Free Enterprise Bill of Rights. We’ve made very clear to our members and the public in general what we believe are the foundational principles of American free enterprise, what does it mean to open the possibility of another American century? We’ve promised our members that we’ll fight for those things and only those things, and it’s on that basis that we’ve built our membership.
Bluey: I’m glad you mentioned the Bill of Rights. You have 10 principles that are part of it. You don’t have to go through all 10, but what are some of the key things that you have identified for your members and some of the things that you’ll be out there advocating for?
Collins: There are a variety. Just from a foundational perspective, the right to fail, the right to succeed, the right to operate your business without onerous level of either taxation or regulation.
A fair playing field, one set of rules for all of us, foundational to American free enterprise, and something that not only have we been migrating away from for years, but that migration away from that one set of rules for all of us seems to have increased in the COVID period.
A fair and sound banking system and a whole variety of others, but those are some of the foundational principles that we’ve laid out for our members.
Bluey: Some of the stories that I’ve read about your organization have painted a contrast between it and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Can you talk about some of the differences, maybe not only with that group, but others that may be in the same kind of marketplace?
Collins: We’re in the business of advocating for American free enterprise and we’re not built to compete with any one other organization. I will say broadly, though, that there are a number of organizations that are based here in Washington, D.C., that seem to have been more concerned with what their biggest members, writing very big checks, think about issues rather than foundational principles.
And so we are built specifically to be in a place where foundational principles are what we maintain fidelity to, starting not just with an ideological belief in those principles, but with an operational structure that doesn’t incentivize us to take a look at our big members and say, “Well, we’re going to follow you on an issue even though it compromises on our principles a little bit.”
At $99 per year, per member, not only can anybody afford to participate, but we’re not giving people an opportunity, financially speaking, to sort of compromise on our principles.
Bluey: Speaking of some of those big corporations, we have seen in not the too distant past several of them take steps that I think some conservatives and those who believe in the free market have been concerned about. Whether that’s the embrace of ESG—environmental, social, governance—or woke policies and diversity equity inclusion. You can go down the list of acronyms that the Left has embraced.
What’s your position on those issues and what do you say to those big corporations that may be taking more of a socialist track as opposed to the free market?
Collins: Our position is that everybody ought to be free to compete on a level playing field. And to the extent that ESG and other approaches like it are in the way of a free, fair, open marketplace, then those are things that we’ve got to deal with. And so we’re working aggressively to deal with them.
Now, I want to be careful here. We are not in the business of telling any business how to operate, but what we are very much in the business of is saying that you can’t stand in the way of smaller entrance to the marketplace.
And I think a lot of this ESG agenda, among other things, is designed to crowd out new sort of innovative upstarts that may do it a little better, a little faster, a little cheaper. And I think some of the big guys are using ESG as a way to crowd out the small competitors.
Bluey: It certainly seems like that’s the case. And as we know, as history teaches us, some of those small competitors will themselves become a big giant corporation and disrupt the market.
Collins: And we want to help them disrupt the market, so let’s remove the artificial barriers that some of the legacy players are trying to put up.
Bluey: China obviously poses a significant threat to the United States. I’ve seen you mention that in some of your materials. How are you approaching some of the challenges posed by the Chinese Communist Party?
Collins: No. 1, by calling them out publicly.
No. 2, by tying some of what the big banks are doing on ESG to this very question, that to transition our energy economy to something that relies on rare earth, for example—among other examples, by the way, but we’ll highlight that for a moment—really is shortsighted, not only for all of the other reasons that you might talk about on ESG, but in this case, because it empowers the Chinese communists.
People who have not contributed to the global economy, what we have, who have subjugated their own people, continue to subjugate their own people, who steal intellectual property from American businesses, who crowd us out of the marketplace unfairly.
Those are practices that we call out every day.
By the way, as you may know, our chairman, Terry Branstad, former U.S. ambassador to China, who saw this and lived it firsthand, as is true of anybody who’s been around a communist regime, the closer you’ve seen it, the more convinced you are that it is the wrong pathway. And so our chairman himself is very committed to calling this out.
Bluey: Certainly, Gov. Branstad has significant experience with China, and so hopefully a great asset to your organization.
You mentioned earlier a lot of the organizations, trade associations that are based here in Washington, D.C. You’ve purposefully organized in the Midwest, in Iowa specifically. Why is that important?
Collins: Look, the middle of the country is overlooked and ignored too often in this town. I love Washington. I lived and worked here for more than a decade. There are a lot of things to love about it. But it has a way of drawing people into a certain kind of groupthink, to a sort of an establishment way of thinking that doesn’t understand and then overlooks and downplays the contribution of the great middle of the country.
And I don’t just mean Iowa, my home state, or the Midwest, I mean the middle and the broadest possible way, the middle geographically, the middle economically, the middle ideologically in many ways.
And so we have very intentionally not come to D.C. to form this organization, but stayed at home in Iowa to be close to the middle of the country, to understand, to be in the midst of that every day, to understand their concerns, their hopes, their dreams, and what stands in the way of achieving those hopes and dreams.
And so our view is that by being in Des Moines, we’re a little bit closer. We’ve got a finger on the pulse in a way that is hard to do here in Washington.
Bluey: Do you expect to be engaging not just in those national issues that we’re debating here in Washington, but also in state capitals?
Collins: We expect to engage anywhere barriers to entry to the marketplace emerge. And so I think right now the biggest threats are coming from Washington, D.C., but certainly they come from the states as well.
Or say that more positively, I think there are some states where we’ve got more forward-looking elected leadership that may go on offense on some of these issues rather than just being on defense. So certainly we expect to be active in the states as well.
Bluey: What kind of reaction have you received from Capitol Hill to the creation of the organization?
Collins: The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, particularly with leadership that has been looking for an alternative. An active, but principled voice for American small businesses has been missing from the debate and it’s been welcomed with open arms.
Bluey: And tell us a little bit more about your team. You’ve recently brought on some big hires, some people with significant experience, not only here in Washington, but who have a vast policy background. Who are some of them and what do you have planned in the short term?
Collins: Our organization is small and lean. Our overhead is very small. We’ve kept it very small and intend to do that. Everybody that’s joined us to help with policy and policy advocacy maintain their own practices.
People come to our operation because they believe in the cause. They believe in the principles that we’ve laid out. They see the need for better advocacy for American free enterprise and small businesses in particular.
But we’ve been gratified by the response. There are a lot of folks that have been around national policymaking that see this as a problem and want to contribute to a solution, so we’ve been very pleased to have a number of them join us.
But again, they’re joining us not on the basis of coming into a full-time salary or being paid a big number, but rather on the basis of belief in the mission and being ready to roll up their sleeves and help.
Bluey: Weeks before the election, obviously, we don’t know what the ultimate outcome is going to be and what the makeup of the next Congress will look like, but there could be a potential opportunity to put forward a pro-growth, a pro-business agenda, particularly in the U.S. House, possibly the U.S. Senate.
Any particular policies that you’re looking at, at the national level, that you think could really supercharge our economy again and get us out of this situation where we’re experiencing record levels of inflation and pain on the American people each and every day?
Collins: Let me answer that in a couple of ways.
One, there are very clearly policy priorities that can help put us back on track, whether it’s recommitting ourselves to American energy independence, whether it is dealing with the weaponization of the federal government in several agencies, including the [Securities and Exchange Commission] and the [Federal Trade Commission], probably most notably weaponized to enforce an ESG agenda that could not pass at the ballot box, that wouldn’t even pass in the normal course of things in the economy.
Pushing back on those things in a variety of ways from a policy perspective, I think, are important objectives.
But let me just say that if we have a conservative majority in one or even both chambers of the Congress, we’ll still be dealing with an administration that has been responsible for weaponizing the federal government to enforce ESG priorities.
And so I think it’s important for free marketeers, for conservatives to be looking at, how do we use a new majority in the Congress to raise these issues in a way that’s relevant in the lives of everyday Americans? How do we make clear in the public discourse that the rise of ESG and weaponizing the federal government to enforce ESG priorities is directly responsible for the pain that they’re feeling at the grocery store and at the pump and at the bank, and in a whole variety of other ways economically in their lives?
I don’t think we’ve done that job fully, and I think that will be part of the job of a new conservative majority.
Bluey: It’s so important, the storytelling aspect, as you indicated, of connecting the dots and helping the American people see how the policies that are enacted here in Washington, D.C., or some cases, but the administrative state in Washington, D.C., and the regulatory state affects the lives of everyday Americans.
Finally, Gentry, share a little bit more about how an organization or a business could become a member of the American Free Enterprise Chamber of Commerce and some of the benefits they get as a result.
Collins: Yes, easy, amfreechamber.com, you can sign up there. It’s $99 a year, and there are a whole variety of benefits. Since we’ve been talking about issue advocacy and policy, we’ll start there.
One, principled advocacy. As you indicated earlier, our 10-point, Free Enterprise Bill of Rights is right there on the website, so exactly what we’re for and why. And so our advocacy will be built around those principles and only around those principles.
Outside of the advocacy realm, there are a number of business tools that are available to our members, from banking services for those who have faced various kinds of debanking issues to merchant payment processing, where there’s been, I’ll say, a small epidemic of businesses that have been deplatformed from merchant payment processing services over the last number of years.
Not only can we help remedy that for legally operating businesses in America, but we can compete on rates as well. I think most small businesses that become members find that even if they don’t face a deplatforming threat, that there’s a competitive advantage to the rate structure that we can offer small businesses.
When you aggregate a number of small businesses, the purchasing power turns out as pretty significant, and so we’re able to save small businesses quite a lot of money on those, as well as providing a principled approach to public policy.
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