September 8, 1998 | Commentary on Taxes
When legendary baseball manager Leo Durocher said "Nice guys finish last," he clearly didn't have Jay Van Andel in mind.
Van Andel has lived the American dream. He did not come from old money. In fact, as he notes in his just-published autobiography, "It all started with bankruptcy"-a reference to his grandfather's unsuccessful blacksmith and bicycle businesses in the Dutch city of Haarlam. Luckily for all of us who have been privileged to know Van Andel, his grandfather emigrated to Chicago in 1910. By 1939, budding entrepreneur Jay started charging classmates 25 cents a week for rides to school in his Model-A Ford. One of the 15-year-old's passengers was Rich DeVos, who with Jay would later launch the Amway Corp.-today a $7 billion-a-year direct selling colossus.
Like most successful businessmen, Van Andel and DeVos worked hard and took risks. Early ventures included a restaurant, a flight school, an air charter service, a boat rental service and vitamin sales. Van Andel explains their drive: "Even though it physically exhausted us, we knew we were doing the right thing by putting all we had into the businesses, by striving to make every day count. It is difficult, to be sure, but it is part of what God put us here on this planet to do."
Contrary to the made-for-TV image of business executives, Van Andel's autobiography, "An Enterprising Life" (Harper Business, $24), shows that worldly success and spiritual values are not mutually exclusive. In fact, he says, his entire career has "involved the living out of biblical values of honesty, generosity, and respect for others in our everyday life."
Van Andel takes a Calvinist approach to government as well. He explains: "The French theologian and one-time governor of Geneva, John Calvin, believed that because man is basically prone to do evil, there must be a civil magistrate to restrain him. Many politicians have no problem with this idea. I know this because they take this to an extreme, sending out armies of bureaucrats to restrain people from doing what they believe as evil. But they often miss the second part of Calvin's teaching on the state. The civil magistrate, Calvin taught, was also prone to do evil, and for this reason he needed to be restrained as well. Thus, in John Calvin we find the religious basis for constitutionally limited government."
In America, of course, we've had unconstitutionally expansive government. Van Andel, a former chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, notes that during the Carter administration new regulatory laws for the United States were coming out at the rate of 1,000 pages per week, or 50,000 pages per year. President Reagan cut the deluge of red tape back to just a few pages per week. The results? In 1984, 635,000 new businesses were formed-a 19 percent increase over 1980.
Van Andel lambastes the current tax code and is particularly critical of the tax on corporate profits. His view: "Profit taxes tax only the competent and successful; the big spenders who keep little profit, the sloppy operators, the incompetent, are allowed to go tax free." Meanwhile, he notes, "Small businesses, needing capital to grow but unable to issue stock, are denied a large part of an important source of funds for expansion. To tax these profits is to stifle business."
Now fighting the fight of his life against a crippling and debilitating disease, Jay Van Andel tells a story neither self-absorbed nor self-pitying. It is the uplifting, inspiring and entertaining story of an enterprising American who, as Paul Harvey put it in the book's introduction, has demonstrated through his words and deeds that "a good businessman can be a good businessman."
Edwin J. Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.