I have just watched a History channel documentary series on Netflix on The Men Who Built America. It is interesting to observe that the fortunes made by men like J.P. Morgan, John Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie dwarfed those of the wealthiest men today such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.
And yet, despite that massive accumulation of wealth, it is fascinating to see the old Hayekian insights about free markets at work. The goal of capitalism is not to enable factory girls to make stockings for the queen, but rather to make stockings available to factory girls. Just that sort of thing happened over time.
So, as we consider the enormous wealth stockpiled (and much of it ultimately given away) by these figures, I cannot help but see how the progress of the free economy benefits all of us. No matter how great the fortune of a Carnegie, he could not have anything like the transportation options I have had. He never saw or dreamed of anything like an iPhone. J.P. Morgan with more wealth than Croesus could not choose from thousands of movies and television shows. Rockefeller could not within seconds possess almost any text in the world on demand at an affordable price downloaded to a Kindle. Certainly, none of them could communicate as easily as I can.
My people were just farming the land when these men were financial giants. But look how the impact of the free economy has built the world we live in and created such amazing possibilities for me and you.
Judging capitalism is not as simple as it looks. Are there large gaps in wealth which result from a free and competitive system? Absolutely. But don’t discount the performance of the system over time. It does, indeed, tend to lift the mass and not merely the captains of industry.