Thomas Sowell had a fine column yesterday, celebrating the achievements of John D. Rockefeller. Better yet, he put his tribute in proper context: “ Heroes of Old Were Creators—Not Talkers .” That is a bit of an exaggeration, inasmuch as great orators have long been celebrated. Perhaps a better title would have been: “Heroes of Old Were Creators—Not Just Talkers.”
But what has all this to do with business rights? Quite a lot, actually. The public’s support for persecuting businessmen , I have argued , is heavily dependent on philosophy. If Americans understood that businessmen are creators of their own wealth, I believe that Americans would tend to accept that businessmen are morally entitled to employ that wealth as they please. Unfortunately, the public has succumbed to the collectivist view that, because no man acts in isolation, no man can be said to have created his wealth. And so the public believes that businessmen may employ the wealth under their control only to serve “the public good.” In fact, of course, businessmen do not act “for the public good,” and thus inevitably they trip over one of those ten thousand regulatory commandments designed to curb self-interested action. At that point, the cry of “Greed!” goes up, and the anti-business posse can begin its work with popular support.
As evidence for the central role that the public’s view of wealth-creation plays in business persecution, I offer Professor Larry Ribstein’s Apple Rule : Popular business executives (such as Steve Jobs) do not get persecuted. The foundation of the Apple Rule may be, as Professor Ribstein thinks, the media’s reluctance to portray as evil somebody they admire. But that only raises the question: “Why do they admire him?” The reason, I suggest, is that journalists are able to understand in what way Steve Jobs is a genuine creator, and therefore are willing to exempt him from the ten thousand petty commandments that bind businessmen. Those businessmen whose creativity journalists are not able to understand, especially men in the financial industry, do not win media favor and therefore get persecuted.
Demonstrating the creativity of business is thus an essential adjunct to defending businessmen’s rights. But it is no easy task. We must recall that it took decades of patient scholarship to convince American historians that John D. Rockefeller was a great creator. And Sowell’s excellent column notwithstanding, many ordinary Americans still think of him as a “robber baron.”