April 2012

The Nation Reviewed

Comment: Blessed are the Wealth-makers

By Don Watson
Clive Palmer, entrepreneur. © Glenn Hunt/Fairfax Syndication
Clive Palmer, entrepreneur. © Glenn Hunt/Fairfax Syndication

In 1848 a drover named O’Shaughnessy, the son of a convict, came across a man living in a gunyah in the reed beds of the Lachlan River with a few cows. O’Shaughnessy faded quickly from history, but the man in the reeds, also the son of a convict, was James Tyson and before his life was over he had millions of cattle and sheep grazing on holdings that stretched from Gippsland to the Gulf of Carpentaria. ‘Hungry’ Tyson he was called, and he died very rich and very famous. Banjo Paterson managed to write a poem about him without using the word, but today we might call him an ‘entrepreneur’, even a ‘wealth creator’, and one of those who by their deeds prove that anyone prepared to work hard and live the dream can grow as rich as Rockefeller.

You have to love your entrepreneur. Really, you have to – it’s a rule. Anything less might be interpreted as class warfare or ‘the politics of envy’. Blessed are the wealth-makers: blessed for their lively minds and optimistic spirit, their resolute and persevering character, their example to the rest of us. They do create wealth – and not all of it for themselves. Determined to improve their own circumstances, very often they improve ours as well. Think of Andrew Carnegie’s Bessemer converters and vertical integrations, Bill Gates’ gadgetry, Lance Hill’s Hoist. Think of the million and one amenities that their enterprise has brought the human race; the millions of jobs, the children raised in reasonable comfort on the wages their industry afforded. We also give thanks for the generosity which seems to be as much a part of the true entrepreneurial character as the get-up-and-go that defines them. Carnegie’s and Gates’ benefactions are proverbial. So in his day were Tyson’s.

We are especially grateful for the relief they provide from the charmless moans of collectivism. A healthy human mind can stand only so many renditions of ‘Scots Wha Hae’. We prefer love songs, even self-love songs. Entrepreneurs give expression to that bit of the human spirit which in most of us is never activated: the bit that tells us we should not die wondering. They pit themselves against Nature, extracting minerals and ores, smelting, refining, tinkering, inventing – and risking their own money very often. They triumph sometimes, but frequently suffer all manner of torture and defeat and go under. We like that too; for even then their lives, like their appetites, seem so much grander than our own.

Ever since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher set the neoliberal ball rolling, democratic governments have gone out of their way to praise and encourage the entrepreneurs, accommodate and step aside for them. In this they happily include everyone from Warren Buffett to Joe the Plumber or a fairly enterprising busker. The British prime minister says his government will see to it that the next decade will be nothing less than the “most entrepreneurial” in his country’s history. Think about that. In the United States, what was a pedestrian fact of capitalist life has become a full-blown ideology; reinforced, as ever, by Divine Providence and the example of Solomon and other Old Testament tycoons. True, the global financial crisis made a dent in the reputations of the financial market entrepreneurs, but not so big that they were made to pay a price. Not one executive in jail; a paltry 2 billion dollars in fines, most of it paid by the companies’ shareholders; no Japanese-style public apology; no begging forgiveness before the people’s representatives. Not only were they too big to fail, the cult of the entrepreneur depended on them.

The British journalist, George Monbiot, recently reproduced some figures to show the effects of this cult on social equality. They pertain to the US and the UK, but they are worth bearing in mind every time we hear a Clive Palmer or Gina Rinehart declaiming, or a politician doing it for them; or, on the other hand, a federal treasurer displaying a bit of entrepreneurial gumption of his own and giving them a poke in the eye. Between 1947 and 1979 US productivity rose by 119% and the income of the bottom fifth rose by 122%. Remember, these were years of strong trade unions, the GI Bill, big government investment in research (not least into developing what became the internet), infrastructure and social security. Over the next 30 years, the neoliberal years of ‘small government’ and declining trade union power, productivity rose by 80%, the income of the bottom fifth fell by 4% and the income of the top 1% rose by 270%.

No doubt there are people for whom these figures can be made to illustrate a great social improvement, or a situation that is better than it would have been had Reaganomics not prevailed: but for now Monbiot seems to have a case when he says they show that “the wealth creators of neoliberal mythology are some of the most effective wealth destroyers the world has ever seen”.

Other consequences of ungoverned entrepreneurial enterprise are not described in the figures. The solitary and childless ‘Hungry’ Tyson was a self-effacing sort of tycoon who, according to his obituary, “made his millions honestly, at the expense of no-one but Nature”. Nature, however, is no longer such a minor expense; and the damage was not only to the physical environment, but to the people for whom Nature was the material and spiritual basis of existence. About two thirds of his holdings were leased; that is to say (putting aside any notion of indigenous title to them) the expense was to lands that were not his but the Crown’s – or, by its grace, ours. Tyson could no more repay these costs than Andrew Carnegie’s massive benefactions in the US could cure a dose of miner’s lung.

Here then is the great conundrum. Had he been obliged to observe modern environmental standards, employee and animal welfare and the rules of racial equality, James Tyson would never have left his camp in the swamp. Yet without him, and without the pastoral industry, it is likely we would all be poorer – as the US (and the UK) would have been without slavery.

As the doctrine of the entrepreneur has it, this just goes to show that governments should get out of the way and unleash the beast of initiative gnashing inside so many human breasts. Any unfortunate effects will in due course be corrected by charitable bequests to medical research and conservation groups, with shortfalls made up by governments that know their place. At least half of all political debate reduces to some version of the conflict between this view and liberal notions of the collective good, and at least half of the words on both sides have become unbearable platitudes and half of the time is wasted.

But every now and then someone emerges from the field of enterprise to freshen up the battle and make the choices clearer. One day it’s Norm Gallagher and the next it’s a lookalike big entrepreneur. And what do we see in the embodiment of that to which we are urged to aspire? We see something that is neither very bright nor very admirable. Not much evidence that they have worked harder than the rest of us or sacrificed more. Of course we are not seeing the truth about every entrepreneur: but we are seeing abundant evidence that, even if all hard-working people could be as rich as Croesus (which plainly they can’t) the entrepreneurial life is far from the highest a human being can aim for. What we see are signs of monomania, brutal self-interest pretending that whatever satisfies the reptilian instinct is good for all humanity, an overweening sense of entitlement, and people incapable of acknowledging that the accident of birth or any other good fortune has played a part in their success. The fallacy of self-attribution is what we see.

James Baillieu was a contemporary of ‘Hungry’ Tyson’s and had some of the same fire in his belly. As a 17-year-old English midshipman, he jumped overboard into Port Phillip Bay and swam ashore. He lived in a tent on the beach for a while, worked at several jobs, built a grand hotel and sired 13 healthy children of whom the most enterprising was William Lawrence Baillieu, miner, industrialist, speculator, politician and founder of the Baillieu dynasty. One of his descendants is Marshall Baillieu. Until last week, M Baillieu was dimly remembered as a former Liberal member of the House of Representatives, but now he is much more deeply engraved on the public mind for raising his middle finger to a group of protesting nurses as he arrived at a family gathering. No one using the tradesmen’s entrance could have done it with more eloquent contempt. That one photograph might have been enough to tell us that the man is a creep, but subsequent shots of him flapping his ears at the nurses seemed to confirm him as a creep of a particular, sneering Melbourne establishment kind.

But let us give thanks to Marshall Baillieu, too. His gestures brought home to us another problem with entrepreneurs and the self-defeating logic of the cult surrounding them – one that, in hating inherited privilege from the British monarchy to the meanest of dukedoms, Andrew Carnegie was on to: they have children.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author. His books include The Passion of Private White, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, The Bush and Watsonia, a collection of his writing.

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