Steve Jobs and our perception of wealth

Will Wilkinson makes a few very good points about how Steve Jobs get a free pass from the press and the general public for being a very rich, tyrannical business magnate, a typically reviled species, because the products his company makes are objects of lust.

Noting that Jobs seems to have evinced no interest in philanthropy whatsoever, in contrast to most other telegenic moguls, and contrasting Jobs’ image with that of the Koch brothers, Mr Wilkinson writes: “An iPhone is a small enchanting comfort in a harsh, disenchanting world. We’ll make Mr Jobs even richer, if he gives us a chance. But what about the guys who get rich digging oil out of the ground so we can charge our iPhones? Stick it to ‘em, the greedy bastards.”

The points are very well taken, but I would tend to view them in a more optimistic light.

I think Mr Wilkinson and I are in broad general agreement that, except in cases of egregious corporate welfare and the like, in the main entrepreneurs who create new products and services are praiseworthy.

This is in contrary to a prevailing cultural view that business is intrinsically predatory and could be summarized by the famous Balzac quote “Behind every great fortune there is a great crime.”

Thus, is our culture hypocritical for lionizing Jobs while disdaining the Waltons because Apple products are beautiful and aspirational while Sam Walton’s Wal-Mart is decidedly downmarket? Sure.

Or it could give us cause to be optimistic. Precisely because Jobs is such an archetype of a ruthless business magnate, and yet we adore him because we adore his products, perhaps this will shift our culture’s perception somewhat, and help us realize that people who provide goods and services that others in a free market find valuable, are not thereby detestable.

I can’t remember the details, but President Obama was once asked about his views on redistribution and “the rich” and pointed to Steve Jobs as an example of someone who produced useful goods and services in the marketplace and therefore deserves every penny in his bank (or rather, brokerage) account.

Some pundit (again, can’t remember who) responded that the President should not hold up Jobs as an example, but instead praise Bill Gates, who accumulated fantastic wealth in the private sector but then, in marked contrast to Jobs, decided to dole it all out. But no, in this case the President was absolutely right: it is praiseworthy by itself that Steve Jobs created highly popular goods and services and accumulated fantastic wealth. One should not have to “buy” acceptance of one’s success by posing for a magazine spread next to a freshly-drilled well in Africa. And Jobs’ treatment shows that our culture is ready, at least for one man, to accept that.

I may be overly optimistic, but perhaps instead of highlighting our cultural schizophrenia about wealth, the lionization of Jobs is a small step towards righting it.

(To be clear: I think it’s great when rich people give tons to charity. But I’m not making a moral judgement, I’m talking about the way our culture views wealth. Donating to charity to get on the frontpages of magazines, as opposed to doing it to do actual good, isn’t very morally praiseworthy either, but none of us can judge the heart of man.)