In her novel Atlas Shrugged and in many of her essays, interviews and public talks, Ayn Rand offers a passionate defense of businessmen against the cultural and political forces that routinely vilify them.
To understand why Rand regards such a defense as an act of moral justice, a good place to start is the Ayn Rand Lexicon entry “Businessmen,” which brings together key quotations from her essays on the subject, including this explanation of the values that businessmen create:
The businessman carries scientific discoveries from the laboratory of the inventor to industrial plants, and transforms them into material products that fill men’s physical needs and expand the comfort of men’s existence. By creating a mass market, he makes these products available to every income level of society. By using machines, he increases the productivity of human labor, thus raising labor’s economic rewards. By organizing human effort into productive enterprises, he creates employment for men of countless professions. He is the great liberator who, in the short span of a century and a half, has released men from bondage to their physical needs, has released them from the terrible drudgery of an eighteen-hour workday of manual labor for their barest subsistence, has released them from famines, from pestilences, from the stagnant hopelessness and terror in which most of mankind had lived in all the pre-capitalist centuries — and in which most of it still lives, in non-capitalist countries.
Yet despite having demonstrated “the greatest productive genius and the most spectacular achievements ever recorded in the economic history of mankind,” businessmen have been frequently denounced as “robber barons” and made into “a scapegoat for the evils of the bureaucrats.” If you study the history of capitalism, Rand argues, you will find that:
All the evils, abuses, and iniquities, popularly ascribed to businessmen and to capitalism, were not caused by an unregulated economy or by a free market, but by government intervention into the economy. The giants of American industry — such as James Jerome Hill or Commodore Vanderbilt or Andrew Carnegie or J. P. Morgan — were self-made men who earned their fortunes by personal ability, by free trade on a free market. But there existed another kind of businessmen, the products of a mixed economy, the men with political pull, who made fortunes by means of special privileges granted to them by the government, such men as the Big Four of the Central Pacific Railroad. It was the political power behind their activities — the power of forced, unearned, economically unjustified privileges — that caused dislocations in the country’s economy, hardships, depressions, and mounting public protests. But it was the free market and the free businessmen that took the blame.
Rand holds that it is crucial that businessmen be evaluated justly lest they disappear from the economic scene:
Businessmen are the one group that distinguishes capitalism and the American way of life from the totalitarian statism that is swallowing the rest of the world. All the other social groups — workers, farmers, professional men, scientists, soldiers — exist under dictatorships, even though they exist in chains, in terror, in misery, and in progressive self-destruction. But there is no such group as businessmen under a dictatorship. Their place is taken by armed thugs: by bureaucrats and commissars. Businessmen are the symbol of a free society — the symbol of America. If and when they perish, civilization will perish. But if you wish to fight for freedom, you must begin by fighting for its unrewarded, unrecognized, unacknowledged, yet best representatives — the American businessmen.
If these ideas spark your interest, here are some other resources on ARI Campus and elsewhere:
- A brief talk urging businessmen to stand up in their own defense and name the injustices done to them, despite the risks involved: “Freedom and the Need for Business to Stand Up for Itself” by Onkar Ghate, senior fellow, Ayn Rand Institute
- A half-hour radio broadcast by Ayn Rand titled “19th-Century Capitalism” in which she discusses public utilities, land grants, monopolies, “price wars,” tariffs, antitrust laws, financial “panics,” and the 1929 stock market crash
- A talk by Ayn Rand on the evils of antitrust and other regulatory abuses of business: “America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business”
- A 1966 radio interview in which Rand explodes myths of rapacious businessmen: “The ‘Robber Barons’ ”
- A Lexicon entry titled “Businessmen vs. Bureaucrats” in which Rand highlights the crucial distinction between economic power and political power