With the sentence quoted above, Ayn Rand's novella Anthem projected the rediscovery of self amid a totally collectivist world. On February 3, an ABC News special, "Greed With John Stossel," offered Objectivists the inspiring sight of a brilliant counteroffensive against the anti-individualist attitudes that have been leading us toward such a collectivist hell for the last several centuries. Providing the philosophical basis for the counterattack was IOS's executive director, David Kelley.
In the next issue of Navigator
, we will look at reaction to the show. But for this issue, Navigator
asked Kelley to recall how the program came about and how the show that he saw on television appeared from his perspective. Read an excerpt from the show
"The origins of this show really lie in the work we've been doing here at IOS for the last nine years—promoting Objectivism, making contacts, building bridges. We've acquired a reputation for good work. Just on the subject of Michael Milken and the 1980s, our work goes back to an article Jeff Scott and I published in the February 1993 issue of Reason.
"As for John Stossel: He no longer recalls when he got the idea for the show. But my first involvement with his team came last June. I got a call from one of John's assistants, Frank Silverstein, who had been assigned to find someone capable of advising them on the moral and philosophical issues surrounding greed. Frank told me that he had been asking around and kept hearing my name. He wanted to know what issues they should address, and how to present the issues in terms that ordinary people could appreciate. And he asked for comments on a few of the ideas they had had.
"Then he asked me to come down to New York, to meet with the production team, which I was happy to do. I would guess we met for about an hour and a half. They were interested in a whole range of issues, and the meeting turned into a discussion of free-market philosophy and economics. But I had gone down with the goal of trying to convince them that certain key points had to be included in the program.
"I knew that, right off the bat, it would be important to deal with the issue of so-called fairness: why do some people acquire so much wealth, while others do not? So, one point I wanted to get across was that a businessman's profit reflects the value he has created, and we talked about ways of dramatizing that. There were also two other closely related issues: refuting the notion of exploitation—the idea that businessmen acquire wealth at the expense of others—and a corollary: the difference between acquiring wealth through political means, through coercion, and acquiring it by voluntary trade. I also wanted to convey that the pursuit of self-interest was beneficent; that it was the only human mode of cooperation among people; that it was a peaceful, cooperative, respectful way of living with others—as against any call for self-sacrifice.
"But lastly I wanted to deal with the idea of businessmen having to launder their wealth, in effect; justify their wealth, by giving it away. I really wanted to counter the idea that philanthropy or charity are higher virtues than those involved in production. Now, on that one, I tried to put the issue in the most provocative form I could, by saying "Michael Milken was a greater benefactor of mankind than Mother Teresa." As it turns out, that line has become the single most memorable point in the show.
"Some of the producers who work with Stossel were sympathetic to what I was saying, some were quite hostile. But apparently I made a good enough impression on all of them, whatever their ethical and political views, that they asked me to be on the show and present these ideas.
"I had an on-camera interview with John in September, where we talked about all these things again. And then they took it from there. They edited it, took what they wanted from my interview, put it together with everybody else's interview, and with their own documentary elements. That's the background.
"Was it absolutely everything I could have wished for? Of course not. But that's a ridiculous standard by which to judge the show. It was a tremendous boost for capitalism, for individualism, for Objectivism, and for the institute. And there's no way I would second-guess the editorial decisions of a pro like John.
"But I will say there was one key point, which we spent a lot of time talking about, that really did not get into the program: the distinction between "good greed" and "bad greed." "Greed" is an ambiguous term. There is an important distinction to draw between the pursuit of money as a reward for achievement and as a financial instrument for further achievement, on the one hand; and the pursuit of money as an end in itself, or a means of acquiring power, or a means of acquiring prestige, or any of the other "global values" that I talked about in "The Best within Us" (The IOS Journal, March, May 1993). The pursuit of money in those latter contexts is greed in a bad sense. And that is a vice.
"The distinction is important because my core goal in appearing on the program was to connect the creative impulse to the creation of wealth, of new products, and of new industries; and to compare that with the artistic or scientific impulse and the creation of beauty or of knowledge.
"To the ABC people, this was one of the most arresting things I had to say. Using nineteenth-century industrialists, as well as contemporary people like Michael Milken and Bill Gates, I said they were doing essentially the same thing as Shakespeare or Newton or Einstein. Well, we did get a little piece of that in the show, with Albert Einstein and Jackson Pollock, though I'm sorry they used Jackson Pollock. But that comparison, and the resulting good-greed/bad-greed distinction, were never made clear.
"Of course, at the same time, the show also contained many wonderful moments that I had no idea would be there. Perhaps this is a logician speaking, but one of the things I really liked about the program was its logical structure. I didn't appreciate that when I watched it Tuesday night, only when I went back to watch the tape and take notes.
"After the first, introductory segment, the show goes on to talk about the economic consequences of self-interest; then about capitalist motivation; then about fairness; and finally about philanthropy versus the creation of wealth. You see a very natural order, going deeper and deeper morally, right to the heart of the issue, which is altruism. And I'm so thrilled that John was willing to go that far. It was amazingly courageous.
"Another interesting aspect of the show, which everybody must have noticed, was the way John gave the opponents of greed their due. He is extremely good at that. He is sensitive to what is plausible and what is not: he knows what questions his audience needs to have addressed. That's part of what makes him such a great journalist. He's not just playing devil's advocate. He really wants an answer to these popular misconceptions. He's a very tough interviewer in that respect.
"So, what else did I like? Well, I liked the way the show illustrated that business is not a zero-sum game, that wealth is not a fixed pie. And I thought the example of how beef gets to market was wonderful, because it illustrates an aspect of capitalism that I've always loved. Many economists have made the point, most notably Milton Friedman, but it bears repeating. The market allows people to cooperate even though they don't know each other, probably wouldn't like each other, and may not speak the same language or have the same religion. Despite all these differences, which have been the source of so much bloodshed and hostility throughout history, capitalism leads people to cooperate and work together.
"I also loved the example of Steve Mariotti's teaching poor kids about capitalism. It showed convincing, concrete, contemporary examples of people who start out with nothing and are able by enterprise, risk-taking, and ambition to begin making money and work their way up. And the kids grasped that that was what they were doing. Their outlook was so obviously different from the entitlement mentality: We're all held down by prejudice and poverty. This allowed me to make the point that capitalism is of most importance to people at the bottom of the ladder because it's their only hope. In a mixed economy, middle-class people will survive. They are born into a social structure. They have political access, as well as being able to make their way in the world economically. But the people at the bottom are totally outside the monopolistic political structure and have no say whatever. With the market, it doesn't matter. Anyone can play if they have an entrepreneurial attitude toward life.
"Of course, I—and I'm sure every other Objectivist—just loved T.J. Rodgers. More than any businessman I've heard speak publicly, with the exception of our own IOS people, Rodgers was consistently unapologetic about his wealth and consistently clear that he had earned that wealth by creating value. He never let the audience get away from that realization for a moment. His whole way of putting his attitude was forthright and proud. He said: I built it. I earned it. It's mine.
"And then there was the conclusion on production versus philanthropy. It's my favorite, naturally, because it gave me the chance, if only for a few seconds, to offer a long overdue tribute to the persecuted, denigrated producers of this world—to Michael Milken by name, but, by implication, to all those he symbolizes.
"As for Ted Turner: Well, he's very personable, and I do admire what he created. But he clearly does not grasp these issues. So, after Rodgers rightly described what he said as "patently stupid," and I showed why—because philanthropy is not the source of moral stature—his walking off was a joke. Even he was laughing as he left.
"And if he thought that walking off the set would give him the last word, of course he was dead wrong. John Stossel had the last word. 'Greed helped build civilization.' Those words were spoken seriously—not with a sneer, or a smirk, or a snigger, but seriously—as the conclusion of a prime-time network news show. For that, we can all thank John Stossel."