Capitalism: Freedom, Responsibility, and Accountability

Erik Olssen Portrait
Erik Olsson
CEO, Mobile Mini

Erik Olsson, CEO of Mobile Mini, writes about the differences between his native Sweden and the United States. He says the U.S. and its emphasis on capitalism and all that it entails was appealing.

As a student in Sweden I shared a fairly common view of the U.S. as the land of opportunity and the stalwart defender of capitalism, free enterprise, and by extension, personal freedom. I saw it as a place where it was possible to take control of both your life and your career and be rewarded for it with financial success and a sense of personal accomplishment.

It was a big contrast to Sweden, where the symbiosis between state and free enterprise means greater regulation, higher taxes, lower financial reward – all of which felt very limiting. They don’t have the mechanisms and incentives of equity, for example, for financial reward. When it comes to other areas of life – health care, schooling, and retirement, for example – people basically become clients of the state. And that means your own welfare and future are largely tied up with welfare and the health of the state.

I wanted a stronger sense of opportunity and choice, so when I had the chance twenty years ago to work in the U.S., I took it. Having choice is important to me as an individual, and I appreciate that to a great extent I can exercise choices in all areas of my life here – personally, professionally.

This is the greatest country in terms of being the foundation for capitalism and having a structure that promotes it.

If anything, I think the U.S. has moved away from being as pure an example of capitalism as it once was with the government giving support to business – and often selected business and industries with tax breaks, bailouts, trade barriers, and other pro-business incentives. The most pro-business thing the government can do is support the free markets, not specific industries and businesses.

The government should allow the markets to be as free and open as possible with as little interference as is possible and practical. Government interference decouples decision-making and the free market; business from the forces of capitalism. The bailout of the auto industry may have saved the industry, but with the exception of Ford, which didn’t need a bailout, the car companies had run their businesses in such a way that they stopped being competitive.

Where is the incentive to be as competitive as you can be and do the best for all your stakeholders – employees, customers, shareholders — when you believe the government will be there regardless of the decisions you make? May the best company win!

To some extent, these are concerning times if you believe in the capitalist system. But I still believe that this is the greatest country in terms of being the foundation for capitalism and having a structure that promotes it. I think it may be more evident now on an individual scale.

One of the greatest areas of contrast between here and Sweden that I’ve seen in my 20 years in America is the enormous sense of responsibility people have for their own destiny. Whether it’s taking chances by being an entrepreneur, switching jobs to advance their careers, or working during the day and going to school at night, I’m encouraged that the belief in The American Dream – always held out to immigrants as an ideal – is still something people believe in. There is a renewed recognition that with freedom comes accountability and responsibility and they must be in balance.