“Give back” That’s the message sent to successful businessmen. You built a company? You made a lot of money? Fine. Now it’s time for you to use the money you’ve made to do some real good in the world.
Apparently, creating our modern standard of living and our modern lifespan doesn’t count.
Think of the history of America. Its transformation into the world’s leading economy took place during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Virtually every step forward, and every giant leap, was the product, not of philanthropic giving, but of profit-seeking.
It started with energy, namely, James Watt’s steam engine. This invention, created and brought to market as part of a profit-making endeavor, was a game changer. As historian John Steele Gordon notes, “Until the coming of the steam engine, only human beings, draft animals, falling water, and windmills were available to do work.” But with the arrival of “the steam engine, many tasks that had been difficult (and therefore expensive) became easy (and therefore cheap). Many more tasks that had been impossible were within reach.”
One central use of the new energy was transportation. Entrepreneurs began building faster ships, which catapulted America’s productivity forward by opening up new markets and slashing shipping costs. The effect was multiplied by the creation of coal-burning locomotives and the rise of the railroads (thanks again to profit-seekers, such as George Stephenson) — and ultimately by oil and the rise of cars, trucks, and airplanes.
Affordable, fast-paced transportation, and the energy revolution that powered it, became the backbone for America’s Industrial Revolution.
Soon, entrepreneurs were building on this foundation in a thousand ways. John D. Rockefeller, for instance, revolutionized the refining of crude oil into kerosene, enabling Americans to cheaply and safely light their homes at night. Inventor-entrepreneurs such as Samuel Morse and Alexander Graham Bell created new means of communication, which further fostered commerce as well as home life. Willis Carrier, meanwhile, created the modern air conditioner, liberating men from stifling heat.
Perhaps most importantly, this was the time at which profit-seekers solved the problem of hunger. John Deere improved farming machinery. Cyrus McCormick improved it even more with the mechanical harvester. According to Gordon, “With McCormick’s reaper, one man could harvest eight acres a day, not one, and the American Middle West could become the bread basket of the world.”
The results are impossible to overstate. Businessmen seeking profits industrialized America. In the process they increased average incomes, raised the average American’s standard of living, decreased the number of hours he had to spend working, extended the average lifespan from 38 in 1850 to 66 a century later, and generally made life far safer and more pleasant.
But even this understates business’s contribution. Philanthropy has done no small measure of good. It has built schools and libraries and hospitals. It has made great art available to the masses and made historical treasures available to future generations. But most philanthropy is made possible by business and its profit-seeking.
What makes the achievements of business all the more astonishing is that they did not require the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. Contrary to what we’re often taught — and to what’s implied by the notion that businessmen must “give back” — the fortunes of history’s great profit-seekers were not made by “taking” but by trade. American businessmen didn’t become rich at the expense of their customers or employees. Their fortunes were earned by raising their fellow traders’ standard of living. Rockefeller, for instance, became perhaps the richest man in history, but his fortune pales in comparison to the beneficent effects of his achievements. His cheap, safe oil products — and the innovative business methods he developed to produce them — lifted Americans’ standard of living by several degrees of magnitude.
To point to the businessmen who continue to improve our lives and demand that they “give back” is a grave injustice. They haven’t taken anything in the first place. On the contrary, they make human life better off on a scale that is unprecedented in history.
When individuals focus on making their own lives superlative under capitalism, the result is success, prosperity, and progress.
The mystery is why profit-seekers receive so little admiration for their achievements — and virtually no moral credit.