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The Men Who Built America (at Any Cost)

Like many of my fellow TV watchers, I am intrigued by series that feature real people. In particular, my husband and I have become fascinated with the History Channel series about the influential businessmen of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Men Who Built America and its successive series, The Titans That Built America, are extremely well-done docudramas that feature the big movers and shakers of their times. These episodes express admiration for the drive and brilliance of these men; on balance, they also show their ruthlessness and its consequences.

Image Credit: The History Channel

The first series features Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, and Henry Ford. These remarkable men shaped American capitalism into a force to be reckoned with worldwide. They created railroads that crisscrossed the nation, developed safe fuel to heat every home, and built bridges to facilitate national commerce. They perfected the steel that would make skyscrapers possible, a banking system that lent to European countries, and an automotive production system that made cars accessible to the middle class.

There is no doubt that the outsized vision of these men made America an incredibly powerful economic force in the late 1800s. Without the will they had to dominate their industries, much of the astonishing progress during that time would not have occurred. With great progress, though, often comes great sacrifice; and as is regularly the case in human history, the sacrifice was made by people who did not necessarily benefit from it.

Throughout the series, it is surprising just how many of the damaging choices these men made were the result of personal vendettas or ego. For instance, after railroad magnate Thomas Scott refused to stay out of the oil refining business, J.D. Rockefeller closed his refineries in Pittsburg, thus depriving Scott and his protégé, Andrew Carnegie, of vital shipping profits. This action resulted not only in hundreds of Rockefeller's workers losing their jobs, but also in Scott drastically reducing his workers' wages. This situation in turn prompted the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 against Scott, the stress of which contributed to his early death.

Mourning his mentor, Carnegie vowed revenge on Rockefeller. Carnegie's desire to humiliate his rival by overtaking his status as wealthiest man in America caused him do so at the cost of his steel plant workers. Not wanting to be ruthless himself, Carnegie nevertheless pursued his goal by handing over operational decisions to his partner, Henry Fisk, who had no compunction about treating workers badly. As a result, conditions in the steel plants became unbearable, and 1 in 10 steel workers died as a result of their job. In response to these deplorable conditions, a strike ensued, ultimately ending in the death of a number of workers at the hands of Fisk's hired guns.

As you can see, the actions of a few have consequences for the many. Would it have been possible for Rockefeller to honor his shipping agreement with Scott, thus ensuring jobs for his workers and decent wages for Scott's? The answer is an obvious "yes." There was more than enough wealth to go around; his actions were simply the result of wanting it all. Could Carnegie have put the welfare of his workers above his personal desire for revenge and glory? Of course he could have; his decision not to do so led to regret and penance (in the form of philanthropic endeavors) for the rest of his life.

From these and many other examples in our history, it is easy to see why the federal government (following Adam Smith's guidance regarding the role of government) was forced to create laws that limited corporate power in order to protect both workers and consumers. The sad part of the story is that if these men had acted with an ethic of economic mutuality, many people would not have suffered. It is sadder still to see business leaders such as Rockefeller, who claimed to be a devout Christian, ignore the most basic Biblical command of loving his neighbor as himself.

A wise passage in Proverbs states that "By justice a king builds up his land, but those who are greedy for bribes tear it down." In a sense, these men were the equivalent of kings, with great power and very little restraint on their actions. If they had dealt justly with those in their care and not looked only to their own interests, what a difference it would have made! I encourage everyone to view this series (now on Hulu as well) for themselves. It is not only a fascinating look at our own past as Americans but also a valuable lesson for all who are positions of economic leadership today, including you and me. No matter how great or small our economic influence, every one of us can help create a better capitalism.

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"This book merits close, sustained attention as a compelling move beyond both careless thinking and easy ideology."—Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary

"Better Capitalism is a sincere search for a better world."—Cato Institute

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