One Capitalist’s Advice: Attract Attention!

November 2001
From the President’s Desk
Ideas on Liberty

by Mark Skousen

“Individualism, private property, the law of accumulation of wealth, and the law of competition . . . are the highest result of human experience, the soil in which society, so far, has produced the best fruit.” —ANDREW CARNEGIE’

A few days after my move to New York, I paid my respects to an icon of capitalism, Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), whose tombstone is appropriately located only a few miles up from FEE headquarters, in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. In three ways, Carnegie reflects the spirit of FEE—he was a fierce defender of free-enterprise capitalism; he gave generously to good causes; and he worked hard for the cause of world peace and democracy. All three are in short supply in today’s uncertain world of regulatory state capitalism, welfarism, and terrorism.

As a joint creator (along with J. P. Morgan) of U.S. Steel, the first billion-dollar corporation in the world, Carnegie was a successful entrepreneur who benefited humanity by offering cheaper and better steel with which to build a modern world. He would reject the “robber baron” title. Capitalism was not a device to enrich the rich at the expense of the poor, as the Marxists contend; “Capitalism,” he said, “is about turning luxuries into necessities.” He started out as a poor Scottish immigrant, a classic Horatio Alger hero. He liked to be different; his favorite advice to young men was, “Attract attention.”

For Carnegie, there were in the world other values than those of the business culture: he loved books, and became friends with intellectuals, writers, and statesmen such as Herbert Spencer, Mark Twain, and William Gladstone. He was intensely competitive, even glorying in beating his friends in golf. In business, he drove down the cost of steel, even as he improved the quality. “Cheaper and better” became the American way. “Watch the costs, and the profits will take care of themselves,” he explained.2 He made no apologies for his ruthless competitive spirit, which he justified as a Darwinian form of “survival of the fittest” and as a fulfillment of Jesus’ parable of the talents. Like an old-fashioned Hank Rearden in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, Carnegie wasn’t merely an apologist for anarchic individualism; he was its celebrant.

Carnegie objected strenuously to the “progressives” who favored socialism and communism over individualism. “To those who propose to substitute Communism for this intense Individualism, the answer therefore is: The race has tried that. All progress from that barbarous day to the present time has resulted from its displacement.”3

“The Man Who Dies Rich Dies Disgraced”

Following his retirement in 1901, the Man of Steel did not live it up with ostentatious mansions, limousines, and hundred-dollar cigars, which Thorstein Veblen labeled “conspicuous consumption” of the idle rich. Carnegie spoke of the millionaire’s duty to live a “modest” lifestyle, shunning extravagant living and administering his wealth for the benefit of the community. To do otherwise, he warned, would encourage an age of envy and invite socialistic legislation attacking the rich through progressive taxation and other onerous anti-business regulations.

Carnegie practiced what he preached, giving away over $350 million in his lifetime. One of his first acts after U.S. Steel went public was to put $5 million into a pension and benefit plan for his workers. He was careful in his philanthropy, avoiding at all costs “indiscriminate charity.” He disdained the conventional practice of accumulating wealth solely to be bequeathed to heirs, which he regarded as “sterile” and even “perverse” if it resulted in profligate living. Instead, he spent millions building 2,811 public libraries, donating 7,689 organs to churches, and establishing Carnegie Hall in New York and the Carnegie Institution in Washington. He financed technical training at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and established a pension fund for teachers through the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. I cannot help but think that were he alive today, he would be a major donor to FEE!

Finally, Carnegie devoted the rest of his life to promoting world peace and democracy. He was convinced that the United States surpassed Europe economically in part because Europe was constantly embroiled in wars with its neighbors while the United States largely avoided such conflicts. He campaigned against imperialistic entanglements with other nations and in favor of peaceful arbitration as a means to end conflicts. He was a passionate believer in democracy, universal suffrage, and equality of opportunity through free public education. But he opposed equality of property or ability, and argued that all citizens had the right to choose their own occupation and had the right to earn income in any amount and spend it as they wished. He expressed distaste for royalty, aristocracy, and any form of state religion.

The Spirit of Andrew Carnegie Lives at FEE

Today I am happy to report that the world has a goodly share of modern-day Andrew Carnegies. As the new president of FEE, I have had the pleasure of becoming aware of these unique men and women of the business world who have not only added value to the global economy through their entrepreneurial efforts, but have sacrificed time and money to promote FEE and its mission. For example, last week Larry Reed, president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and a FEE trustee, told me about a FEE donor who spent half his life sponsoring FEE seminars on free-market economics in his hometown, often at considerable personal sacrifice of time and financial resources. Another individual, on hearing that a FEE student seminar might have to be canceled due to a lack of attendees, arranged for several dozen students to attend. The seminar turned out to be a great success. Hundreds of other FEE supporters have arranged conferences, raised funds, and distributed copies of Ideas on Liberty to their friends and acquaintances. And with your help we are planning many new programs to spread the gospel of FEE and to “attract attention,” as Andrew Carnegie would advise.

When barbaric terrorists destroyed the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center a symbol of global capitalism and individual creativity, and built with Carnegie steel—I was heartened to read how thousands of private business leaders stepped forward and provided $200 million in financial aid to rebuild the area. I salute them for being living examples of FEE’s gospel of peace, prosperity, and freedom.

1. Andrew Carnegie, The Gospel of Wealth and Other Timely Essays (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962 [1900]). p. 19.
2. Michael Kiepper and Robert Gunther, “Andrew Carnegie,” in The Wealthy 100 (New York: Carol Publishing Group. 1996). p. 31.
3. Carnegie, p. 18.

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