Heroes of capitalism

In this column I want to set aside the usual polemics to focus on some examples of heroic figures who provided us with enormous values in their pursuit of profit. If possible, I recommend listening to your preferred epic movie soundtrack while reading this, to enhance the experience (my choice would be Hans Zimmer – “Time”). In no particular order:

J.P. Morgan: American financier who funded Thomas Edison’s research to invent the lightbulb. He later financed the railroad industry to make it more profitable and stable, and helped consolidate the steel industry to make it more profitable and efficient. His activities benefited millions in the U.S. economy and he ultimately became one of the wealthiest men of all time.

James Watt: Scottish inventor who contributed enormously to the Industrial Revolution via his improvement on the steam engine (which at first was used primarily for pumping water). He made possible the wide use of steam for transportation via steam boats and trains. His firm produced steam engines with great success for more than a century. Given the importance of the Industrial Revolution in reaching our current standard of living, Watt’s contribution is staggering.

Henry Ford: American industrialist who applied the “assembly line” technique to automobile production to make reliable cars affordable to the American middle class, where they had previously only been available to the wealthy. Even as he became more and more successful, the wages of his workers improved (as he looked to attract the best workers around) and the prices of his cars dropped. Ford later developed an airplane company that produced the first successful passenger airliner in the U.S.

Ray Kroc: American businessman who turned McDonald’s into an incredibly successful restaurant chain, giving people easy access to cheap food they enjoyed. He ensured that quality would be maintained across the chain and made the restaurant so popular that it was generating $8 billion a year by the time he left. He also established the Ronald McDonald House foundation, which is involved in various large-scale charity projects to provide children with health care and educational support, among other things.

Sam Walton: The founder of Wal-Mart who revolutionized grocery stores by consistently providing a wide range of goods at very low prices and building stores in small towns close to Wal-Mart warehouses to increase efficiency. He has given access to cheap and reliable goods to millions of people and his company is now one of the largest employers in the world. His actions have greatly improved the lives of the lower and middle class in the U.S.

Steve Jobs: Jobs was a co-founder of Apple, Inc. and helped create one of the first commercially viable personal computers. He made Apple into an incredibly valuable company via the development of popular and useful items like the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. These products set new standards for a wide variety of products that make our lives more enjoyable and more efficient, and Jobs made billions in the process.

These industrialists, businesspeople and inventors epitomize the productiveness and pursuit of rational self-interest that is protected and encouraged by capitalism. These examples clearly show that the pursuit of profit should not be viewed as evil or ignoble, as I have argued in my past columns — and that in many cases everyone can benefit from the innovation and entrepreneurship that result from that pursuit.

TRISTAN DE LIEGE can be reached at tflenaerts@ucdavis.edu.

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