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The Documents

Business and Ethics

Theme Decription

Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values. —Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

Ownership is the great reward of the American dream. Land, house, wealth—all can be yours, with enough hard work and determination. The idea isn’t new—great thinkers of the Enlightenment spent much time and ink on law and rights. The concept of property flows from this philosophical basis and became a foundation for American society, economy, and government.

Classical economists believed in the effectiveness of the “invisible hand” of the free market. Each person should have the right to hold, control, and dispose of property. And the “visible hand” of government should protect property rights and individual freedom to make economic choices. It’s an idea central to capitalism—property rights encourage individuals to make choices that develop their property, generate wealth, and contribute to the efficient allocation of society’s resources.

Not all philosophers shared this belief. Some argued that land and capital should be tightly controlled by the government, even to the point of outright public ownership. Individual property rights were considered subordinate to the greater good of society at large.

Behind both perspectives lies the idea of ethics, explored by others who believed that a higher order—honor, justice, wisdom, virtue—ideally directs economic activity.

This blend of philosophies has had a profound effect on current American culture. Individualism, personal happiness, ownership—these ideas took root long before America was born. And they᾿re reflected in the rich sampling of documents in this exhibit.

Sponsored by the Madge Rothschild Foundation