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Roots of the consumer society. Business as a concept and a culture through US history

America's Business, by James Oliver Robertson. New York: Hill & Wang. 258 pp. $16.95. Reading ``America's Business,'' I found myself thinking of Frances Randolph. For years I'd heard stories about this mountain recluse. I finally met her on the South Fork trail a few miles above the Scott's Flat Foot bridge in California's Trinity Mountains. The Colt 45 I'd been warned about was at her side.

Our business meeting had been carefully prearranged via messenger. I was interested in a piece of property she owned -- or, as it turned out, she owned jointly with her city-living brother. It's what she said of him that hit me. ``Of course, he's a businessman, so you can't trust him.''

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A sweeping comment, and yet we know exactly what she meant. We live with an extensive business mythology. We assume that business is a very important part -- perhaps the most important part -- of our national culture and character. Yet, few business and economic historians ask about the price we're paying for our business civilization and what we may have lost.

James Oliver Robertson's history traces the development of business both as a culture and as a concept from the days of America's Pilgrims to our contemporary consumer society.

Mr. Robertson methodically pulls apart some of our most fundamental beliefs and modi operandi. For example, he writes that, as Americans, we tend to believe that ``business principles'' such as hard work, competition, free access to markets -- the stuff of capitalism -- constitute something inherent to human beings, an essential motivator of much action.

But we haven't always believed this, acted on this, expected our government to support it, or conducted our religious and academic institutions according to business credos.

In the Old World and in colonial America, a very different view of man and mercantilism existed. Wealth, position, and influence were not generally related to one's success as a merchant, but to inherited property ownership. The very word business meant only activity, as in ``Be about your business.''

It's important to point out that in ``America's Business'' Robertson is not offering us a diatribe on the growth of greed or a nostalgic view of simpler motives and actions. Men like Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Robert Morris, and Thomas Jefferson believed that our tangible independence and freedom lay in large measure in the ability to market our produce for profit. And so it began that the peculiarly American need for independence became inextricably linked to successful business activity.

Another theme Robertson follows through its historical development is our society's rough equation of business with big business. We are, in 1985, a country of salaried or wage employees. So many of us work for large corporations where business success means successful ascension up the corporate ladder.

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Robertson points out that what Europeans came to call ``the American system of manufacture'' in the 1850s really began with Samuel Colt's development of standardized, interchangeable, manufactured parts. The eventual egalitarianism to which this contributed reminds me of the old cowboy truism -- that God created big men and small men, but Colonel Colt made them all equal.

The book ends by turning into a question the statement that the business of America is business: Is the business of business America? Our sense of independence has grown out of our success in business. And now many Americans are asking if business has a central responsibility for the nation.

Ned Crecelius manages the marketing of syndicated Monitor materials.

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