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The endless search for perfect business heroes

I was so struck by the hostility expressed inthe comments section of my previous post about Virgin airline boss and entrepreneur Richard Branson, in some cases for quite valid reasons, that it got me thinking of whether there is, in today’s business world, any entrepreneur who would pass the kind of harsh ideological standards we libertarians might want to set and be able to become a major business player.

I doubt it, sadly. If I am wrong about that, comment away.

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46 comments to The endless search for perfect business heroes

  • “whether there is, in today’s business world, any entrepreneur who would pass the kind of harsh ideological standards we libertarians might want to set and be able to become a major business player.” Was there one ever?

  • neo-libertarian

    Well, I’m sure there have been many people in the course of history who mostly followed hardcore libertarian ethics, if only for lack of ability or interest to break them. But the lack of perfectly libertarian governments in history (historical examples like medieval Iceland, Dark Ages Dorians and ancient Minoans aside) doesn’t make it any less valid. Libertarians will continue to espouse more or less the same opinions regardless of whether anybody follows them.

    That’s actually one of the main characteristics of the libertarian movement in general: willing and able (critics would say happy) to excommunicate the world and still feel just as self-assured.

  • Guy Herbert

    I don’t require or expect heroism of businessmen. All I ask of them is that they provide goods and services. Their motivation for doing so is irrelevant to me. Their understanding of what they do is irrelevant to me.

  • Julian Morrison

    It’s pretty simple: if you aren’t taking freebies, the opposition is. If you don’t play politics, your enemies do.

  • Daveon

    Surely Bill Gates and Steve Blamer cut the mustard. Self made multi-billionaires who have, through the focused application of what boil down to property rights, built a software empire that can behave as a monopoly.

    His comments on open source at the CES compound this.

  • You won’t find big business leaders who are harshly ideological, simply because they deal with practical constraints that don’t jive with that kind of rigidity. Maybe some CEOs at smaller companies and startups. It makes you think about the fragility of your own ideology and how dependent it is on your circumstances.

  • Johnathan

    Guy, you may not expect heroism from businessmen, but of course it kind of depends what one means by heroism. If heroism is about courage, grace under pressure, fidelity to certain standards, then arguably a lot of businessmen and women are heroes, especially anyone who has taken the risk of junking a cushy job to start a business on their own.

    I think one of Ayn Rand”s achievements (Happy 100th birthday, Ayn!) was in highlighting this feature of business so strongly.

  • mike

    Holding people aloft on a pedastal might be a somewhat entertaining distraction for a little while, but it really doesn’t matter anyway. Business heroes are not news, but business villains are.

    Guy: might there not be exceptional cases in which you decide that, though two competing products have equal utility and aesthetic value for you, you nevertheless prefer one over the other because you happen to know the producer of this other one is involved in something you dislike (e.g. giving charitable support to a controversial medical procedure)?

  • Joachim Klehe

    I nominate Burt Rutan/Scaled Composites LLC.

  • John K

    Reading Tom Bowers’ biography of Branson was an eye opener, he is not the cuddly jumper-wearing amateur he likes to portray. He’s a pretty hard businessman, who started off in business with a conviction for evading purchase tax on records. Like most businessmen, he has ducked and dived, and stabbed colleagues and partners in the back when it suited him. Where he is absolutely brilliant is his command of his public image, in that respect the guy is a genius.

  • Edward Teague

    The bearded be-jersied Branson has a letter in the FT today calling for Emissions Trading organised by the Intnl Civil Aviation Org. ICAO, the Airlines cabal… full of ” minmising environmental costs”…”delicate marine environments” (don’t go by boat)..incorporating shrewdly self congratulation…” Virgin …has one of the youngest fleets in the world…our emmission on take off fell significantly ” (this has no connection with their much touted double beds, apparently).

    The Carbon Market is a clever and elaborate ploy to erect yet another casino for Financiers and other money jugglers to play in, Barclays claim it will be worth £56BN a year in the UK alone – they as well as Cantor Fitz. BP etc., will be glad to cream off their commissions on this nonsense. By all means Mr Branson, add this burdensome cost to every aircraft flight and play the market – much easier than flying the planes.

    I am stunned by the naivity of the tree huggers who embrace this nonsense, who have some mystical belief in the environmental concerns espoused by the market traders of Leadenhall Street.

    The Carbon Trust, responsible for this nonsense has a Chief Execitive with a magnificent pedigree, he comes straight from Rail Network where he did such a splendid job for the rail user.

  • Rob

    any entrepreneur who would pass the kind of harsh ideological standards we libertarians might want to set and be able to become a major business player

    Say what now?

    Unless I’m gravely mistaken, libertarianism does not set out any particular ideological standard of behaviour expected of anyone, save that they do not violate the law and do not break voluntary contracts. So long as a businessperson remains within those restrictions, how they conduct themselves otherwise is irrelevant.

    Far from setting “harsh ideological standards”, business is best served by innovation and creativity; those who succeed do so simply by succeeding, not by meeting some abstract ideological target – by being “good libertarians”, in other words. In a libertarian society, a successful businessperson might still be a staunch communist; it has no bearing on whether that person is successful or how we should view their achievements.

    I don’t think Richard Branson is a particularly bad example of a business leader – he’s successful, hard-working and intelligent. His personal political views might be in opposition to mine, but that doesn’t make him any less a figure of admiration as a businessman. I fully expect that he would be just as successful (perhaps even more so) if we had a libertarian government. Those who criticise his politics are free to do so, but his business achievements stand for themselves.

  • Johnathan

    Rob, I was being a bit sarcastic, in that I frequently notice the phenomenon of liberty-minded folk frequently on these comment threads attacking a businessman x or y for some heinous crime of taking a subsidy or whatever. So I decided to ask for some examples of the kind of business leaders that might come out as worthy of praise.

    The rest of our points are ones with which I heartily agree.

    Edward Teague, what you say may be correct. I am sure a fistful of firms are already going to milk the “green” card for all they can get.

  • Rob:

    Unless I’m gravely mistaken, libertarianism does not set out any particular ideological standard of behaviour expected of anyone

    You are gravely mistaken.

    Libertarianism is not interested in the law or voluntary contracts. The only thing that matters is that someone, business person or otherwise, not violate libertarian principles. What those principles are are not obvious and it is the task of libertarian propagandists and activists to carefully explain them and condemn those who violate them.

  • Rob writes, “libertarianism does not set out any particular ideological standard of behaviour expected of anyone, save that they do not violate the law and do not break voluntary contracts.”

    Libertarianism sets one standard: do not initiate force. The law allows for much initiation of force, such as taking subsidies, for example.

    I find it somewhat depressing that the very existence of the state makes us all dependent on it. Julian Morrison is right: if you don’t take that subsidy your competitor will. Taking a subsidy is wrong (by libertarian standards) because it is taking someone else’s money without their permission.

    Mitigating factors are that any business taking a subsidy is also paying tax; and that The State Of The World in which one has to take subsidies to be competitive is brought about by others. I have a hard time figuring out to what extent these factors make taking subsidies ok.

    For my part, I try my best to avoid taking other people’s money. I do everything privately that I possibly can. Paying extra for dentistry makes me feel good. I would choose to do business with a company that doesn’t take subsidies over one that does because those subsidies are necessarily passed on to me.

    I resent that the state makes it so damned impractical for me to avoid being a thief.

  • Verity

    What about Sir Freddie Laker? He battled the big airlines single-handedly long before Richard Branson (whom I do admire as a businessman, incidentally. I too like Virgin Air. I just don’t like his personna). And Stelios Wossname, who started Easyjet – he also had a hard time. How about the guys who started Southwest Airlines (on which Stelios admits he based the idea for Easyjet). Finally how about that shark in wolf’s clothing, Mike Leary, who took a failing airline, Ryanair, and used his entrepreneurial drive to make it the most successful airline in Europe, and it will, within a couple of years, become the largest airline in Europe?

    The airline industry seems to engage the pioneer spirit.

    How about that woman who started Weight Watchers? She had an original idea, now much copied, and made it happen, and her company is till going, 30 years later. How about that horrible woman with the hair who started The Body Shop, based on “green” drivel and mother earth concern for the Brazilian rain forest, with body lotions made from lizard’s sputum or something and absolutely ghastly make-up? She made a mint out of being idealistic and offering crap products.

    But I agree with Danny Taggart – why should they have to be idealistic when they are dealing with the practical restraints of running a business. As long as they are offering a good product/service that people are motivated to buy, at a good price I’m not bothered about their idealism.

  • Nothing new under the sun, folks. Milton Friedman has been saying for decades that one of capitalism’s greatest enemies were the capitalists themselves, and he’s right. “It’s the incentives, stupid.”

  • Libertarianism sets one standard: do not initiate force. The law allows for much initiation of force, such as taking subsidies, for example.

    Taking subsidies is not initiating force, and ‘initiating force’ is a very poor rendering of the libertarian principle. What libertarians should aim for is to avoid proactively imposing costs on others. (this needs lots of futher explication but , as I say, these matters are not obvious).

    If subsidies are going generally then there is no need to martyer oneself by not taking them but it would be grossly immoral and unlibertarian to actively lobby for them or other regulations which impose on one’s competitors to one’s own advantage.

    A particular individual, politician or businessman, is not responsible for the mere fact that there is a state but he is responsible for those of his actions which actively seek to expand the scope of its activities.

    It is a cop out to imply, as Rob Fisher does, that we are all irredemably implicated in the crimes of the state. We are not, and though it may be sometimes tricky we should be bold in rooting out and exposing the enemies of liberty for the villains they are not wallowing in some fantasy of collective guilt.

  • Dale Carnegie?

    Howard Hughes 😉

  • Sam Walton:

    Many of Wal-Mart’s products are manufactured in Central American maquilas that pay low wages, in countries where workers lack the same rights available in industrialized countries. In 1985 Sam Walton began a program to stem the tide of communism in Central America, and promote capitalism and privatization. It was a scholarship program to bring Central American students to Christian universities in the United States. It was hoped that this would create sympathy for capitalism and privatization, instead of communism and public ownership.

  • T. J. Rogers of Cypress Semiconducter.

    “If I instituted drug testing at Cypress, I would get a brick through my windshield, and I would deserve it.”

    See also

    http://reason.com/rodgers.shtml

    and the Cypress page at http://www.cypress.com (lots of stuff under About Cypress, From the CEO).

  • I have always respected Branson because of his ability with PR and the fact he doesn’t care what his competitors. He single-handedly made the trip across the Atlantic more enjouable and cheaper (yes I know Laker made it cheaper first). Whether or not we should thank him for unleashing Tubular Bells (and all its subsequent versions) on the world is another matter.

  • Daveon

    I’m not convinced he’s made it all that much more enjoyable. Compared to flying BA I find long haul Virgin to be a bit like flying a charter airline, not a scheduled carrier.

    Fine for holidays I suppose, but for business travellers stuck in Economy (as many are these days) it’s dreadful.

  • Paul Coulham: I’m concious of always harping on “tax is theft” but surely taking a subsidy is to be (at least partly — see “mitigating factors” above –) complicit in whatever evil tax is.

    I certainly wouldn’t advocate wallowing of any kind — but I would admire anyone who took a “you can take your subsidy and shove it” attitude.

  • Number one on my list would have to be the CEO of PayPal, Peter Thiel. Here’s a feature on him from 2001 in Wired Magazine. He’s not only an outspoken libertarian, but he views PayPal itself as an instrument in the fight. As he puts it, “The ability to move money fluidly and the erosion of the nation-state are closely related.”

  • maps and starcharts

    Ivor Tiefenbrun, creator of the beautiful Linn stereo system (truely a work of art – I want one!), is a massive critic of socialism. He recently gave an interview for The Herald (left-wing Scottish newspaper) in which he railed against the entire British attitude to wealth creation and in particular the appalling Scottish Parlaiment. Unforturnately The Herald doesn’t have free archives, so I can’t link to it, but this article gives an indication of his views.

  • Commodore Vanderbilt and James J. Hill. Long before airlines they made fortunes in transportation in competition with with companies favored by government subsidies and monopoly advantages.

    Henry Ford has strikes against him, but his opposition to the far-too-general Selden patent is worthy of mention.

  • Johnathan

    Verity, I am glad you mentioned Freddie Laker. He was a pioneer and got shafted by the powers that be. But in many ways he set the ball rolling for the lower-cost airline businesses now running.

    The guy who mentioned Bert Rutan was right. What a bloke!

    Of course, there are also zillions of small businessmen and women who we will never read about in the glossies who are the real heroes of our economy.

  • Verity

    Jonathan – Yes, Freddie Laker got bashed and bullied by BA – or BOAC as it was then. He won a few rounds, but they made his life an absolute hell. Bloated, overpriced Air France has tried to do the same to Mike Leary (Ryanair) but O’Leary’s got a huge structure behind him, and he’s a pugnacious personality. Laker was fighting alone. The nerve of these publicly owned behemoths, bullying entrepreneurs, when they wouldn’t recognise capitalism if it came up and hit them over the head. In fact, capitalism is hitting them over the head continually, and they still don’t get it.

  • Daveon, I find cattle class rubbish on most airlines. I just always appreciated that Virgin gave us toys way before anyone else. Premium Economy, however, is much more fun.

  • I’d put Francis Drake or one of the early privateers up there. Make loads of cash, had loads of fun and f’ked the spaniards!

  • Stephan

    Many of you miss the point. Businessmen dont have to fit our ideological standards to be “good”. Thats something that I find reminiscent of how communists view people. By their very nature businessmen, those who use their money and innovation to provide us goods and services to make our lives far easier, are heroes. Think of how much the innovative entrepreneur has done through the centuries to minimize the harshness of uncivilized life! How can any classical “hero” compare to this? I’d take the man who invented penicillin, and the guy who put it to the market as well as so many others who have done similiar things, as heroes any day.

  • Daveon

    Ian Andrew Dodge: I normally fly premium economy but Virgin have their pricing out of whack there, the last few trips I costed where Virgin would have been an option, they were significantly more than BA World Traveller+, so I’ve yet to try Virgin Premium.

    I’ve had a close look at their new Upper Class, but I think they’ve made a big mistake in the cabin layout which will cost them a pretty penny.

    BAs weakest link is the entertainment system. The sooner they put in digital the better.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Stephan, see my comment above about what the term “hero” should or could mean in relation to business. It is a mistake, I think, to imagine that the only heroism that counts is something that involves traditional roles like military combat or prowess on the sportsfield.

    And unlike one fellow above who talked of “putting folk on pedastals”, that is not what I am driving at. Role models are important, IMHO. It says a lot about the health or otherwise of this nation that any major entrepreneur is made to feel like some sort of cheat or knave, as is the case with Branson.

    I have to say that if we, as libertarians, cannot bang the drum for the heroes in our businessworld, then nobody else is likely to do so. Let’s not forget that pointing to the positives in our culture is also about creating a positive sense of momentum for pro-liberty views generally. Philosophies rarely win by a culture of endless griping.

  • I'm suffering for my art

    This whole strain is motivated by the griping over one controversial, polarising figure. Is it a little too hasty to say that libertarians don’t bang the drum for the heroes of the business world because myself and others had a whinge about a high-profile, but relatively insignficant, entrepreneur? The impression I get from reading these posts by the commentariat is that many have a great deal of respect and admiration for a number of businesspeople and entrepreneurs in many different sectors.

  • Paul

    Well Robert Friedland may not be a hero, but ruthless capitalist? Almost certainly!

    http://www.minesandcommunities.org/Company/friedland6.htm

  • Julian Taylor

    Aw, Verity beat me to nomination Freddie Laker. Unfortunately Laker was beaten into submission by the totally unscrupulous Lord King, who finished off Laker Airways by the underhand method of effectively informing Thomas Cook that British Airways would cancel their right to issue tickets unless their parent, Midland Bank (now HSBC), “called in” its loans to Laker.

    One of the reasons I support Branson is that he has had to deal with some incredibly unpleasant people in the air travel industry – obviously Lord King, from the above. One particular episode stays in mind, the story that, during the Virgin/BA wars of the 1990’s, Branson was reputed to have a notarised confession from a senior British Airways engineer in his personal safe, to the effect that this engineer had been ordered to restrict the servicing of Virgin Atlantic aircraft at Tokyo Narita airport.

    Aside from which airline magnate is the most libertarian I came across this [link] rather interesting dircetory of libertarian businesses in Minnesota.

  • Keith Erskine:

    Mackay does not qualify. According to the linked piece, “Mackey is an admirer of the political organization of Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets”

    ;-(

  • Verity

    Well, we’ve wobbled all over the place on this fun thread, so I may as well add one excellent example of modern day entrepreneurship that no one’s mentioned yet.

    California couple Rick and Diana Roof noted that flying with pets was stressful and frightening for both the pets, who were taken away from their owners by airport personnel and had to wait in their carry cases on airport tarmacs not knowing what was going to happen to them, and owners, who were nervous about what may happen to them in the hold.

    So they bought a plane and started Companion Airlines. They started flying in 2001. In two years, they received received FAA Air Carrier Certificate recognizing them as an approved commercial operator and they’re now flying several shuttles, plus they do charters.

    Their website features a handsome dog with its head cocked and the headline: “Do I look like cargo to you?”

    Awwww.

    Anyway, pets fly in special cages in the cabin, where they can see their owners. On long flights, there’s a schedule, so every owner has a time slot to take his pet out of the cage and walk it up and down the aisle, or just take it back to their seat with them.

    This couple hit on a unique idea and invested a lot of money in it because they were convinced they could make it a success – the classical entrepreneurs. They’ve appeared on US national TV shows and they now put out a large circulation newsletter for their thousands of fans. They dedicate 5% of their operating capacity to charity cases, and they give legitimate animal charities a 10% discount. Their planes’ livery is big blue paws.

    Isn’t that great?

  • mike

    Verity: yes, that is lovely and great and just right!

  • Johnathan

    I’m Suffering, you are partly right that the thread about H. Hughes and the guy with the beard triggered off my thoughts. That is the beauty of having a comments section! But I do think that although he is an extreme case in ome ways, the hatred of Branson in some quarters even by fairly pro-market folk like yourself is instructive. Branson is a showoff, like Hughes. He is irritating, like Hughes. He also obviously loves the whole lifestyle, has a terrific time with his aircraft, hotair balloons and other stuff, which must annoy some of us toiling away in our offices all day.

    But the example of how people respond to one man or woman (take the Martha Stewart example) can often point to a wider issue, hence my post.

    I am a bit of a evangelist for pointing to positive examples and stories at the moment, partly because so much other news is so god-awful.

  • Duncan

    I nominate Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch consistently describes himself as a libertarian, and has never survived on government subsidies.

    Murdoch told William Shawcross, who authored a biography of Murdoch, that he considers himself a libertarian.

    “What does libertarian mean,” Murdoch said.

    “As much individual responsibility as possible, as little government as possible, as few rules as possible. But I’m not saying it should be taken to the absolute limit.”

  • Daveon

    never survived on government subsidies

    I believe that is stretching the point somewhat. IIRC some of the accounting practises he indulged himself in when setting up his satellite TV empire were effectively subsidies through the back door.

  • Verity

    I’ve always liked Rupert Murdoch. He’s a fine judge of men. Just look how easily he bought Toneboy.

  • Julian Taylor

    Can you actually buy little Phoney? I thought you could only rent him by the peerage. However I don’t think that Phoney and his eminently odious mentor – Kinnock – will have ever forgiven Murdoch’s intervention in the 1992 election campaign with the famous The Sun banner, “If Neil Kinnock wins today, would the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights”. Certainly Murdoch has crossed swords with both Phoney and with Falconer over Phoney’s love of tighter European integration.