November 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 7
Wise sayings about business always seem to boil down to contradictory prescriptions. On the one hand, work hard, be patient, prudent, and steadfast, and you will make your fortune. On the other hand, dare to take risks, to speculate boldly, to keep on the move, and you will make your fortune. Or not, in either case. If American entrepreneurs have never found a single formula for success, they nevertheless have agreed that on a continent overflowing with abundance and energy, the one certainty is the need for both opportunity and luck. Of course, looking backward after a lifetime of accumulation, our rich men have often claimed they made their own luck, as if the wheel of fortune were something they could actually steer, a claim the Romans who invented that wheel would have considered blasphemous.
Still, from the very beginning the opportunity was here, and it has distinguished this nation from all others. Our abundance meant that while many failed, many more succeeded than ever before. And it is the legacy of the successes—those who made it because they had the freedom to try—to which we all are heirs: the sense that America, with a little bit of luck, will come out all right.
You may not learn how to conduct your life or business by studying the killings made by the great capitalists of the past, but there’s some comfort to be found in recalling them. Take, for instance, the man on the cover of this special issue on American wealth. From the consumer’s viewpoint John D. Rockefeller was always a hero. He changed the way we lit our lamps by substituting petroleum kerosene for coal oil and whale oil, and he sold it cheaply. It was his fellow capitalists who made him one of the most hated men in our history. To make Standard Oil strong, he bought out his competitors or crushed them. By the 1880s Standard Oil dominated some 90 percent of the refining industry, controlled all the major pipelines, owned railroads and state legislatures, took secret rebates, and became the ultimate monopoly business. Eventually, because of regulation, competition, and just plain satiation and old age, Rockefeller came to seem what he was from the start—not so much a many-tentacled beast as a supreme commander of opportunity who spent the last forty years of his long life basking in the esteem brought to him by his press agents and his great philanthropies.
Meanwhile, capitalism, the system that made a Rockefeller and his kind possible, charges along on the course that makes life in America so stimulating, so encouraging, so nerve-racking. As I write, the Dow Jones has tumbled from the record twentyseven hundred mark it had reached a few weeks earlier. By the time you read this it may have gone far higher—or lower—or nowhere. We’re old hands at this now. The Panic of 1837 took a young country by surprise—we had never thought we could go anywhere but up. The Depression of the 1930s was less surprising, though no less calamitous. Whatever happens, we’re determined to tend to our business and not go to pieces. History is a good tonic for the nerves.