Capitalism is the most powerful engine for prosperity in the history of humankind. Though imperfect, as are all human constructs, the free market is still the most effective antidote to poverty and, what’s more, it’s the most moral method for allocating scarce resources. As we were reminded by the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, titan of industry and unapologetic capitalist, it’s pretty darn cool, too.
The free market is really nothing more than free people - consenting adults - who, unleashed from coercion, are allowed to voluntarily exchange their ideas, efforts and property when it benefits them to do so, assuming it harms no one else in the process. Each person’s rational self-interest ultimately serves not just the individual, but society as a whole because to achieve sustainable success in the free market - in other words, to satisfy your own wants and needs - you must first satisfy someone else’s. This forms the moral basis of capitalism, and Jobs did this amazingly well.
Detractors (and misguided proponents) of capitalism skip over real heroes like Jobs and resort to a decades-old fictitious Hollywood character as their personification of capitalism: Gordon Gekko from the 1987 movie “Wall Street.” Clad with preppy suspenders and a $6,000, 12-pound brick of a cellphone - available only to the richest few despite its notable absence of email, music playlists and Angry Birds - Gekko is most famous for his greed-is-good speech. “Greed - for lack of a better word,” Gekko rationalized, “is good. Greed is right. Greed works.”
No. Greed is not good. Greed is not right. And greed most certainly does not work, at least not for long. Greed is not capitalism; it is irrational selfishness. Greed seeks to serve oneself at the expense of others, whereas rational self-interest, the basis of capitalism, seeks to serve others first in order to serve oneself only later as a consequence. Greed, at best, succeeds only temporarily, as we’re reminded by Gordon Gekko himself or other all-too-real perpetrators of greed like investor Bernie Madoff or Enron’s Ken Lay.
Lasting success in the free market requires service to others, but don’t be confused. Jobs did not provide us with his amazing iPhones, iPads and iPods for purely selfless reasons. In fact, it would be outright selfish of us to have expected him to do so. Instead, he was motivated, at least in part, by rich rewards. He became a billionaire not by fooling victims, but instead by making hundreds of millions of lives better. That’s the key.
Jobs’ brand of serving others is the rule of capitalism, not the exception. Look at how the wealthiest Americans throughout history each made our lives immeasurably better: Bill Gates unlocked the personal computer and empowered us all. Sam Walton provided affordable consumer goods that previously were available only to the better off. Along the way, those men created hundreds of thousands of jobs and empowered millions more to create their own wealth. What’s more, they did so without federal bailouts, subsidies, loan guarantees or even President Obama’s shovel-ready stimulus slush fund.
Rational self-interest is nothing new, of course. Adam Smith (the father of capitalism) described it more than two centuries ago: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”
These free-market principles unleashed America’s meteoric rise from a small band of Colonies to the most prosperous and powerful nation ever. In the last century, even the unlikely communist regime in China began adopting some free-market principles and lifted hundreds of millions of poor souls out of poverty, the most ever in world history.
History continues to be made. Jobs’ amazing smartphones, personal music players and individualized computers were themselves never his goal but were merely the means to his greater vision of personal empowerment: a world of information, connectivity and even entertainment right at your fingertips, and for good reason. “Steve was very fast thinking and wanted to do things; I wanted to build things,” explained an early partner.
Jobs’ dream was to empower you to personalize or even create your own world. Consider this: A hundred million iPhones have been sold worldwide so far and, like snowflakes, no two are alike. Individuality rules. With his digital marvels, you are no longer limited only to the mainstream information that some newscaster feels you need. You don’t even have to accept the song choices of some radio station. Meanwhile, the tragic irony is that while Jobs empowered individuality and dared each of us to be the captains of our own destinies, America, land of the free, is beset with a government that demands our submission to its top-down, one-size-fits-all rules from banking to health care and everything in between.
Apple exploded onto the national scene in the fateful year of 1984 with the iconic Superbowl halftime commercial featuring a young, rebellious woman demolishing the dystopia created by Big Brother, the personification of an overbearing government in George Orwell’s novel. It may as well have been Jobs himself who hurled that hammer into the video screen and freed us all. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak later spoke of another dystopian novel, this one by Ayn Rand that, like Orwell’s, warned that powerful governments smother individual freedom. Wozniak said of his friend: “I think ‘Atlas Shrugged’ was one of his guides in life.”
Godspeed, Steve Jobs, modern face of individuality, of capitalism. You made our world immeasurably better by reminding us that free minds and free markets are effective, moral and downright cool. iThank you.
Dr. Milton R. Wolf is a board-certified diagnostic radiologist and President Obama’s cousin. He blogs at miltonwolf.com.