As the “wedding of the century” draws near, media outlets are looking for any angle to draw us into their particular “spin” on the story. Being the romantic that I am, I’m a real sucker for whatever they throw at me. Hey! Seems I’m the only one in my exercise class planning to ditch class tomorrow because I’ll be glued to the TV, beginning at 1 a.m. Pacific Coast Time. I may be old, but I’m not beyond being swept away by Kate Middleton‘s Cinderella fantasy-come-true. I’ll be there to “oohhh” and “aahhh” as she confirms her fairy tale ending to her prince charming, Prince William. I know I won’t be alone. My friend Sylvia, a few years older than me, will likewise be hanging out the “do not distub” sign. AND, she’s inviting a few close friends over tomorrow evening to celebrate the marriage of her future king and queen.
The Entrepreneurs‘ Princess
Much has been made of the fact that Kate Middleton, Prince William’s bride-to-be, is a “commoner.” Her mother and father began their careers working as a flight attendant and flight dispatcher for British Airways, respectively. Yet she has known many of the privileges of aristocracy because her parents built a multimillion-dollar business that supported elite educations for her and her siblings.
Some have wondered if Kate will be a “people’s princess,” in the mold of Prince William’s late mother, Diana. But Kate and her family actually embody a noble, if relatively modern, tradition of their own: a tradition of bettering oneself and one’s family, while improving the lot of society. In other words, entrepreneurship.
For centuries in Britain, commercial activities were looked down upon by many in the aristocracy, whose wealth lay in landownership and who would not deign to dabble in trade. This week’s wedding can be seen as the culmination of a long process of elevating the social status of entrepreneurship itself.
The story of the Middletons’ rise to wealth has been told, but its implications for British culture and public policy have been little explored. When Kate was 5, her mother, like many aspiring entrepreneurs, saw a niche that could be filled to help others in her situation. As described on the website of the family business, PartyPieces.co.uk, “Carole Middleton founded Party Pieces in 1987 after finding it difficult to source fun, simple party products for her children’s parties.”
Like Microsoft and Google, which had their beginnings in residential garages, Party Pieces started out in a shed in the Middletons’ garden. There, mail orders were taken for boxes with preselected party favors to fit a certain theme.
Party Pieces really took off with the advent of the Internet. Today one can go on the website and order plates, cups and napkins with themes ranging from Barbie to the Transformers. If one of the royal duties is to ensure the happiness of subjects, Kate’s family has given her a head start by bringing joy to so many British parents and children.
Happiness through individual initiative is something Kate could encourage once she joins the royal family, by pointing to her family’s entrepreneurial background and championing Britain’s innovative firms, many of which have origins similar to that of Party Pieces. Margaret Thatcher has written that “however pervasive an enterprise culture is, most people are not born entrepreneurs.” But the Middletons, through the story of their success, will serve as a constant reminder of what enterprising men and women can achieve.
Over the three decades that span the lifetimes of Kate and Prince William, the commercial classes have attained newfound respect in British culture. The idea of ordinary people building successful businesses–a concept often called the “American Dream”–is now idealized in British programs such as BBC’s “Dragons’ Den.”
If the royal family were to utilize Kate’s background to help encourage and spread this culture of entrepreneurship, the effects in Britain–and possibly much of the world–could be great. The people of the United Kingdom would be much richer, and not just in material terms. “Earned success gives people a sense of meaning about their lives,” writes American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks.
Indeed, studies show that in both the U.S. and U.K., many blue-and white-collar workers prefer to have the opportunity to advance, even if this means a less equal income distribution. A study of thousands of British employees by Andrew Clark, associate chair of the Paris School of Economics, found that measures of these workers’ happiness actually rose as their demographic group’s average income increased relative to their own.
These findings suggest that as people see members of their peer group gain wealth–even surpassing them–it gives them hope that they can improve their own lot as well. As Mr. Clark put it in his study of British workers, “income inequality…need not be harmful for economic growth” if it also “contains an aspect of opportunity.”
The Middletons symbolize the opportunity that exists in a free-market system for those who take advantage of it. It is worth noting that they founded Party Pieces during the Thatcher era, when the Conservative government focused on lifting barriers to entrepreneurs through lower taxation, less regulation, and privatization. Coincidentally or not, the year Kate’s parents started their business, 1987, was also the year that their longtime employer British Airways was sold off, with shares of stock going to its workers.
Even though Kate’s family has long been in the spotlight due to her relationship with Prince William, recent comments by Carole Middleton show that she still sympathizes with the small business owner. In an interview on the Party Pieces website, she says: “I still work through to the early hours to hit a deadline and never take our success for granted.”
The union of Prince William and Kate has been called a modern royal marriage, and in many ways it is. It will fulfill the traditional function of merging families, but in a new way. When this couple says their “I dos,” the royal family will officially be wed to the dreams and aspitations of millions of entrepreneurs in the U.K. and throughout the world.
Mr. Berlau is director of the Center for Investors and Entrepreneurs at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.
(Wall Street Journal, 4/28/11)