Magazine article Ideas on Liberty

One Capitalist's Advice: Attract Attention!

Magazine article Ideas on Liberty

One Capitalist's Advice: Attract Attention!

Article excerpt

"Individualism, private property, the law of accumulation of wealth, and the law of competition... are the highest result of human experience, the soil in which society, so far, has produced the best fruit."


A few days after my move to New York, I paid my respects to an icon of capitalism, Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), whose tombstone is appropriately located only a few miles up from FEE headquarters, in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. In three ways, Carnegie reflects the spirit of FEE-he was a fierce defender of free-enterprise capitalism; he gave generously to good causes; and he worked hard for the cause of world peace and democracy. All three are in short supply in today's uncertain world of regulatory state capitalism, welfarism, and terrorism.

As a joint creator (along with J. P. Morgan) of US. Steel, the first billion-dollar corporation in the world, Carnegie was a successful entrepreneur who benefited humanity by offering cheaper and better steel with which to build a modern world. He would reject the "robber baron" title. Capitalism was not a device to enrich the rich at the expense of the poor, as the Marxists contend; "Capitalism," he said, "is about turning luxuries into necessities." He started out as a poor Scottish immigrant, a classic Horatio Alger hero. He liked to be different; his favorite advice to young men was, "Attract attention."

For Carnegie, there were in the world other values than those of the business culture: he loved books, and became friends with intellectuals, writers, and statesmen such as Herbert Spencer, Mark Twain, and William Gladstone. He was intensely competitive, even glorying in beating his friends in golf. In business, he drove down the cost of steel, even as he improved the quality. "Cheaper and better" became the American way. "Watch the costs, and the profits will take care of themselves," he explained.2 He made no apologies for his ruthless competitive spirit, which he justified as a Darwinian form of "survival of the fittest" and as a fulfillment of Jesus' parable of the talents. Like an old-fashioned Hank Rearden in Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged, Carnegie wasn't merely an apologist for anarchic individualism; he was its celebrant.

Carnegie objected strenuously to the "progressives" who favored socialism and communism over individualism. "To those who propose to substitute Communism for this intense Individualism, the answer therefore is: The race has tried that. All progress from that barbarous day to the present time has resulted from its displacement."3

"The Man Who Dies Rich Dies Disgraced"

Following his retirement in 1901, the Man of Steel did not live it up with ostentatious mansions, limousines, and hundred-dollar cigars, which Thorstein Veblen labeled "conspicuous consumption" of the idle rich. Carnegie spoke of the millionaire's duty to live a "modest" lifestyle, shunning extravagant living and administering his wealth for the benefit of the community. To do otherwise, he warned, would encourage an age of envy and invite socialistic legislation attacking the rich through progressive taxation and other onerous anti-business regulations. Carnegie practiced what he preached, giving away over $350 million in his lifetime. One of his first acts after U.S. Steel went public was to put $5 million into a pension and benefit plan for his workers. He was careful in his philanthropy, avoiding at all costs "indiscriminate charity. …

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