By Don C. Brunell, President, Association of Washington Business
In 1975, as America was preparing to celebrate its bicentennial, Poland was a suppressed Soviet satellite state.
The Polish people were impoverished, had no right to free speech and if you wanted a job, you had to play ball with Communist Party bosses. Poland was a bleak land that had never recovered from World War II.
That same year, more than 5,000 miles away, the Business Week program began at Central Washington University as a way for high school students to experience our nation’s free enterprise system. It was an idea germinated at the Association of Washington Business by former Yelm grocer and legislator Hal Wolfe and CWU President Dr. Jim Brooks.
When Business Week started, Lech Walesa, founder of the Solidarity movement, was in prison, jailed by the Communist Party for union organizing at the Gdansk shipyards. Karol Józef Wojtyla was archbishop of Kraków and Ronald Reagan was governor of California.
Since then, everything has changed.
Walesa, who is credited with starting the Polish freedom movement, formed the Soviet bloc’s first independent trade union, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, and served as president of Poland from 1990-95.
In 1978, Archbishop Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II and in 1979, he startled the Communist government and ignited the Polish freedom movement when he returned to his native Poland.
Then-President Ronald Reagan sealed the deal in 1987 when he stood at the Berlin Wall and challenged Soviet leadership, saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Why the history lesson?
Too often, Americans forget how fortunate we are and take for granted that our freedoms and our market-based system will always be here. On the other hand, the long-suffering Polish people vigorously protect their free enterprise system, the right to start a business and the opportunities to innovate and create new products.
As part of that dedication, the Polish people have embraced the Business Week program.
Three years ago, they started a Business Week program in their high school in Gdynia, Seattle’s Sister City along the Baltic Sea. Then last year, Sister Cities International awarded the Seattle-Gdynia Business Week program its 2010 Innovation Youth and Education Award. In August, Washington’s Business Week program will be in Gdynia, Gdansk and Tczew and next year will expand to other cities.
The expansion of Business Week is only one example of Poland’s embrace of our free-enterprise system. The Polish people and government are intensely focused on attracting investors from around the world to start businesses, expand existing operation and create jobs.
Ironically, the United States — the model for Poland’s embrace of economic freedom — is going in the opposite direction. More and more government regulations are stifling the very innovation and creativity that has made our nation great and regulatory barriers are forcing jobs and operations offshore.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
There is no doubt that we need reasonable health and safety regulations, but government regulations have become a morass of costly, overlapping and often contradictory decrees that seek to dictate every aspect of our lives. Those controls are gradually becoming as repressive as the iron rule the Polish people sought to escape.
While America is not the Poland of 1976, we are becoming a nation where the government seeks to restrict and micromanage the very free enterprise system that inspired millions around the world.
As we celebrate our independence on July 4, we should remember what the Polish people know all too well: The key to a better life for all citizens is to protect the people’s freedom to innovate and create.
About the Author
Don Brunell is the president of the Association of Washington Business. Formed in 1904, the Association of Washington Business is Washington’s oldest and largest statewide business association, and includes more than 7,500 members representing 650,000 employees. AWB serves as both the state’s chamber of commerce and the manufacturing and technology association. While its membership includes major employers like Boeing, Microsoft and Weyerhaeuser, 90 percent of AWB members employ fewer than 100 people. More than half of AWB’s members employ fewer than 10. For more about AWB, visit www.awb.org.