Business producers in America have showered all of us with products, from those we use every day to the innovations we could not have imagined—from iPhones to electric cars—with profits plowed back through financial markets to fund ever-expanding innovation.
Yet people in business get no respect, not outside their own circles.
If you want to understand why, look no further than a recent opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal by Christopher Caldwell: “Donor Beware: The New Realities of Philanthropy,” March 11, 2016.
Nike’s Phil Knight—From nothing to riches
Caldwell’s primary target is Phil Knight, founder and long-time CEO of Nike. Knight was listed by the Chronicle of Philanthropy as the 3rd largest giver in 2013, mainly for a $500 million matching grant to Oregon Health & Science University Foundation, a spin-off of his alma mater, where he was a competitive runner.
Knight was the son of a middle class family in Portland, Oregon. After college he worked as an accountant for a stretch, then enrolled in Stanford’s MBA program, where he realized he had an entrepreneurial spirit and conceived the idea of a better running shoe. "I was very aware of shoes when I was running track," Knight says. "The American shoes were offshoots of tire companies. Shoes cost $5, and you would come back from a five-mile run with your feet bleeding.”
He found a model in Japan, a much better shoe and cheaper than what he had available as a college athlete. With his college coach, Bill Bowerman, he set out to create and sell better shoes on that Japanese model. He began selling them out of his car, at track meets, until he could afford to quit his day job and start Nike. The rest is history: a hugely successful company that has won the allegiance of top athletes, saved the knees of recreational runners, and—along the way—created a branding revolution with the phrase “Just do it,” which has been the mantra not only for runners but for a wider culture embracing the entrepreneurial spirit of that slogan.
PC vs. achievement and charity
A life of achievement, you might think—and you would be right. Knight has also contributed millions to Stanford, where he earned his MBA, to provide scholarships to young talent worldwide, on the model of Rhodes scholarships to Oxford. That is just one of the gifts that Knight has made with his wealth. Such benevolence—an investment in the future—is also to be admired. You would think.
Caldwell doesn’t think so. He begins his attack with the analogy between Knight’s gift to Stanford and Cecil Rhodes. Students in South Africa recently trashed a statue of Rhodes as an imperialist colonizer, and students at Oriel College, Oxford, have demanded that a statue of Rhodes there be removed. Caldwell cautions that the winds of political correctness will continue to blow: “Universities and donors today must be alert to the possibility that the acts of philanthropy on which they collaborate might someday be denounced by the grandchildren of those they aimed to help.”
Reviving the myth of the robber baron capitalists
Just a warning by a friendly observer? No. Caldwell is on the side of anti-business PC. He quotes Gustavus Myers, a socialist in the early 20th century, whose book History of the Great American Fortunes alleged that the great industrialists of the time gained their wealth through “bribery, theft, corruption, and deceit that transcend generations and industries.” Speaking in agreement, Caldwell says, “Myers insisted that the libraries endowed by Andrew Carnegie should not lead us to forget that his wealth had its source in ‘underpaid and overworked employees.’”
All of these allegations about the so-called “robber barons” have long since been refuted by business historians. Undeterred by evidence, Caldwell continues the litany of leftist accusations: monopoly, outsourcing production to low-wage 3rd-world countries (a cause célèbre about Nike a few years back), and on and on.
Whose money? Who decides?
But the worst claim in Caldwell’s article is that philanthropic gifts by wealthy business people are too individualistic.
The $400 million in assets that Mr. Knight has dedicated to Stanford’s new scholarships will pass into a project wholly of his own choosing. Had he left the money to a family member in his will, the federal government would tap about 40% of it, or $160 million, and a state government might also take its share—which these public authorities would then invest, following priorities established in a more democratic fashion. Had Mr. Knight sold his stock, the government would get 20% of the appreciation in the form of capital-gains taxes. People differ on what the proper tax rates are for all of these things. But it is clear that, when the rich divert their assets to tax-free purposes, however laudable those purposes may be, it is other, nonrich taxpayers who must pick up the budgetary slack. When there is a trend toward inequality, you cannot expect the middle class to like that. [Emphasis added]
Excuse me? The wealth that Knight and other successful producers created and are willing to contribute in the service of their values should be distributed by society? By what right? That implies that their wealth belongs to society. This is the kind of collectivist egalitarianism that rules in Europe, where the state is assumed to be the ultimate dispenser of benefits and private giving is actively discouraged.
In short, The Wall Street Journal, the self-proclaimed chronicle of American business, published an article that:
- Ignores the creative achievement of great entrepreneurial producers who created immense value for customers, as if the only moral dimension of their work is what they gave away: Those who create value in their work have to launder their wealth morally through charity.
- Trivializes their gifts by subjecting them to current PC concerns by people who have no idea what it takes to create wealth.
- Taints their achievements with standard, unfounded left-wing anti-capitalist accusations.
- Assumes that the wealth they produced and earned really belongs to society and should be distributed by government.
Business people of all industries, at all levels from small to large: This is what you are up against. You deserve better. Your deserve honor not just for what you give away but for all you do to earn that wealth in the first place, through your initiative, your discipline, your willingness to take risks, and all the sleepless nights you spend worrying about how to make payroll.
You are the real heroes of our world. Take pride in that.
We at The Atlas Society are on your side. Get in touch, we’re eager to connect. Meanwhile, a thought from Ayn Rand, whose work is our foundation:
Men have been taught that the highest virtue is not to achieve, but to give. Yet one cannot give that which has not been created. Creation comes before distribution—or there will be nothing to distribute. The need of the creator comes before the need of any possible beneficiary. Yet we are taught to admire the second-hander who dispenses gifts he has not produced above the man who made the gifts possible. We praise an act of charity. We shrug at an act of achievement. [Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, 682]