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Hollywood’s Views of Capitalism

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The free enterprise system is not inherently corrupt.

Oliver Stone’s Wall Street leads the movie-goer to believe that the securities industry is a rigged game, and that capitalism is inherently corrupt. Hard work as a means to success in the financial community is debunked, only to be supplanted by corruption and law breaking, as securities trading is seen as a game with little or no productive value. Stone presents a harsh judgment on an economic system he fundamentally misunderstands.

wallstreet

Wall Street has come to be the historical revisionists’ cinematic representation of the 1980s—the so-called “decade of greed.” It, unfortunately, offers a view prevailing not only in the film industry, but in academia and the media as well. In many ways, Wall Street perpetuates a class warfare myth, with contrasts being drawn between so-called haves and have nots, or the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

The movie’s antagonist is Gordon Gekko, a corporate raider. Gekko’s speech at the stockholders meeting of Telder Paper, his takeover target, is meant by Stone to reflect the corrupt nature of capitalism. In fact, Stone managed—knowingly or not—to provide a glimpse of why corporate raiders provide a positive service in a free market economy. Gekko states:

Telder Paper has 33 different vice presidents, each making over $200,000 a year . . . . Our paper company lost $110,000,000 last year, and I’ll bet half of that was spent in all the paperwork going back and forth between all these vice presidents. The new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be survival of the unfittest. . . . I am not a destroyer of companies; I am a liberator of them. The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed for a lack of a better word—is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms, greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed—you mark my words—will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the United States of America.

Greed or Self-Interest?

The word “greed” in such a speech is Stone’s carrier of corruption. It is his word of choice designed to elicit a specific response from the movie-going audience. After all, how could one view greed favorably? In fact, “self-interest” would have been a more apt term, which was understood over two centuries ago by Adam Smith, the father of capitalism. Smith wrote in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Self-interest removes the judgmental nature of Stone’s presentation, while encompassing not only greed, but also industry, charity, self-improvement, and altruism, i.e., any human motivation.

[Read the full story here, at Foundation for Economic Education]

Gekko’s later statements lend greater clarity to Stone’s view of the world. In reference to a Gekko plan to liquidate the holdings of an airline company, Budd Fox (the movie’s symbol of redemption as he in the end rejects the greed Gekko represents) asks, “Why do you need to wreck this company?” Gekko’s answer: “Because it’s wreckable!” Stone views the breakup of a firm as pure destruction. He is unable to understand what Joseph Schumpeter termed “creative destruction.” That is the notion that resources might be more efficiently used if freed from less profitable ventures and reinvested elsewhere. This is the dynamic aspect of capitalism that allows for renewal and growth.

gordon-gekko

But the essence of Stone’s limited vision is captured in Gekko’s definition of capitalism: “It’s a zero sum game. Somebody wins, somebody loses. Money itself isn’t lost or made, it’s simply transferred from one person to another—like magic. This painting here, I bought it ten years ago for $60,000. I could sell it today for $600,000. The illusion has become real, and the more real it becomes, the more desperate they want it. Capitalism at its finest . . . . I create nothing. I own . . . . You’re not naive enough to think that we live in a democracy, are you, Buddy? It’s the free market.” Stone does not understand that wealth can be created, not merely shifted around, and that the free market provides the incentives for individuals to create, innovate, and take risks. He sees a rise in the price of a painting as the pinnacle of capitalism. In fact, it is in those nations that have rejected free enterprise where the only source of value is to be found in a painting, for little else is created.

Wall Street presents a view of capitalism as being controlled by the few at the expense of the many—democracy versus the free market in Gekko’s words. Stone does not understand the nature of an exchange economy, missing a fundamental point that in a free enterprise system, one must first supply a service or good in order to demand; i.e., even the most greedy individuals must supply something that fulfills the needs or wants of another individual in order to participate in an exchange economy. Individuals vote with their dollars, if you will. The phrase “democratic capitalism” seems quite natural, for example, while “democratic socialism” seems oxymoronic.

A Man and His Dream

In direct contrast to Wall Street is Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream. I will not venture here to analyze the historical accuracy of this film about Preston Tucker. It is the message that concerns me. While Stone views the fundamental conflict in a capitalist system as being between rich and poor, Tucker presents a more accurate conflict—between a partnership of big government and big business versus the entrepreneur, or entrenched interests versus dynamic change.

Tucker is the story of a man who sought to build a better automobile, and therefore challenged Detroit’s Big Three auto makers. As Tucker exclaims, “That’s the whole idea—to build a better mouse trap.” His partner’s response—“Not if you’re the mouse”—signals the ongoing conflict. Tucker illustrates how a special interest seeks government protection from the forces of competition, i.e., from the forces exerted by innovators and risk takers. It brings to life the clash between the bureaucratic mind and the entrepreneurial…(read more)

Source: Foundation for Economic Education

Raymond J. Keating is an author and serves as Chief Economist with the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council.

 

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