S&R Honors Richard Joshua Reynolds: Self-interest, rightly understood, and our legacy of progressive capitalism

This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We’re stealing it back. – Bono

When we hear talk about “markets” and “capitalism” and “business,” especially as such things are fetishized in the corporate media (think about how The Apprentice franchise has apparently made Donald Trump, a barking conspiracy theorist whose companies have declared bankruptcy four times and who has flirted with personal bankruptcy, as well, into something of a corporate statesman), the mainstream of our culture tends to think we’re discussing the exclusive domain of Republicans. The GOP is assumed to be “pro-business” and all too often those who oppose them (at the ballot box, in the Capitol, in the court of public opinion) must overcome the inverse assumption, that they are “anti-business” and perhaps even “socialist.” A great deal of money (much of it issuing from people like the Koch brothers) is spent fostering and reinforcing this ideology, and it’s nigh-on impossible to argue that their efforts haven’t been spectacularly successful.

If you’re of a more critical bent, perhaps you hear these terms and are more likely to think of our modern robber barons, of Bernie Madoff, Joe Nacchio, Bernie Ebbers, the Rigas family, Dennis Koslowski, Jeffrey Skilling, Ken Lay and all things Halliburton, of men whose pathological greed and power-lust knows no boundaries. Men who will sit around and joke about stealing a grandmother’s retirement – a joke that my own particular dark, twisted sense of humor can parse in the right context, but certainly not in a situation where they’re actually doing it, even as they speak. None of this is remotely new, of course. If you remember the ’80s, perhaps you recall Michael Milken and Ivan Boeski. And of course, our original robber barons – excuse me, I mean industrialists – those captains of commerce after whom we name buildings and institutions and even universities. Names like Astor, Carnegie, Drew, Duke, Gould, Mellon, Morgan, Rockefeller, Schwab, Stanford and Vanderbilt.

What’s frustrating here is that capitalism isn’t a privilege reserved for Republicans, nor is it inherently the work of the devil. It’s part of our culture’s progressive birthright, as well. Some of our most remarkable business achievements have been accomplished ethically, with a keen eye toward the ways in which the tools of capitalism can be used to create a greater prosperity for everybody. Enlightened capitalists like Richard Joushua Reynolds, for instance, created an economic base in my hometown that afforded generations of working class and minority employees an opportunity to participate in the rewards of their work, increasing educational opportunities and providing genuine security for their families. (Yeah, I know – tobacco. Let’s accept for the moment that it’s very bad and also acknowledge that at the time we didn’t know how bad.) Thanks to RJR’s stock investment plans, there were line workers in Winston-Salem, NC who retired as millionaires.

R.J. Reynolds and his family played a large part in the public life and history of the City of Winston-Salem. In 1884 he served as a city commissioner. Reynolds was politically progressive especially for his time. He established progressive working conditions in his factory, with shorter hours and higher pay. He also signed a petition for a property tax to pay for public schools and voted to approve an income tax. After his death, Katharine Reynolds continued his philanthropic activities.

Part of that RJ Reynolds progressive bent is something that only the locals seem to know about. The Reynolda Estate was a massive operation and required a lot of on-site manual labor to maintain. So he built a village that included housing and a comprehensive set of services for all his employees. This included building top-notch schools for the children of black workers, at a time when educating blacks wasn’t on anybody’s agenda. His black workers enjoyed conditions (and even management opportunities) that were simply unprecedented at the time.

The Reynolds family also brought Wake Forest University, my alma mater, to Winston-Salem via a massive grant of land and cash, and that institution, which has grown into a top 30 national university, today stands as the largest employer in the county and the new center of an evolving innovation-centered economy. Wake’s motto, appropriately enough, is Pro Humanitate.

There are other examples out there – feel free to populate the comment box with your own – but the point is that progressive, “Pro Humanitate” principles are not incompatible with capitalism and business.

I frequently refer to Alexis de Tocqueville’s seminal Democracy in America, a book published in 1835 that today remains one of the greatest assessments of the American system ever composed. For me, the most important idea in the whole of the book is the principle of “self-interest, rightly understood.”

The principle of self-interest rightly understood produces no great acts of self-sacrifice, but it suggests daily small acts of self-denial. By itself it cannot suffice to make a man virtuous; but it disciplines a number of persons in habits of regularity, temperance, moderation, foresight, self- command; and if it does not lead men straight to virtue by the will, it gradually draws them in that direction by their habits. If the principle of interest rightly understood were to sway the whole moral world, extraordinary virtues would doubtless be more rare; but I think that gross depravity would then also be less common. The principle of interest rightly understood perhaps prevents men from rising far above the level of mankind, but a great number of other men, who were falling far below it, are caught and restrained by it. Observe some few individuals, they are lowered by it; survey mankind, they are raised.I am not afraid to say that the principle of self-interest rightly understood appears to me the best suited of all philosophical theories to the wants of the men of our time, and that I regard it as their chief remaining security against themselves. Towards it, therefore, the minds of the moralists of our age should turn; even should they judge it to be incomplete, it must nevertheless be adopted as necessary.

It’s the erosion of this essential principle that lies at the core of what we have become. In short, capitalism of the sort practiced all-too-frequently in America has been obsessed with self-interest and totally unconcerned with rightly understood.

If we’re to regain our former greatness – and please, don’t mistake affluence with greatness – we must insist on rightly understood. Capitalism must be progressive, not corrosive. It must be about creating opportunity for everyone instead of building barriers to keep wealth in and people out. And while locking the pillagers up is an important and altogether satisfying step that a moral society must take, understand what Tocqueville says above. Our collective greatness is ultimately not about grand acts but about the small, the routine, the ordinary daily acts of self-denial.

Capitalism isn’t a dirty word, and shame on us that we’ve allowed a few sick men to steal it from us. It’s time to steal it back.


This post is adapted from a piece that originally appeared at Scholars & Rogues on June 9, 2007.

Image Credit: Wikipedia