Misrepresentations of Capitalism
SEPTEMBER 01, 1968 by JOHN O. NELSON
Dr. Nelson is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado where he has taught since 1950. Articles and papers by him have appeared in numerous scholarly journals and books in the United States and abroad.
Proponents of laissez-faire capitalism find, like Socrates, that their most implacable and influential accuser is nameless: a great and almost infinite mass of historical distortion. This distortion takes two forms. One consists in the presentation of what never was fact as historical fact. A case in point would be the mephitic butchering practices depicted in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and in the multitudinous accounts of the meat-packing industry that trace their lineage to that libelous figment of Mr. Sinclair’s imagination. The other form consists in presenting as fact what was fact, but putting upon the facts an interpretation that entirely discolors them. In certain respects, this last method of denigrating laissez-faire capitalism is more persuasive, as it is more common, than the first. Plain misstatement of fact can be easily hit and exploded. Colored interpretations of fact offer a tougher target, off which even well-directed fire can glance harmlessly.
In this essay, I shall concentrate upon the last form of distortion. Although helpful, general considerations and arguments cannot disarm these distortions. Like the repressions in hysteria, they must be disarmed by concrete exposure — one by one. This is slow work, but there is no substitute for it.
So, let us begin with a recent article in that popular but prestigious emporium of the American Past, the magazine, American Heritage. The article, "The King of the Ranchers,"¹ is a description by Bernard Taper of the life and career of the cattle-raiser, Henry Miller.
Distorting the Picture
By interpreting in emotively denigrating terms various facts of Miller’s life and activities which seem prima facie praiseworthy, and which by libertarian standards are praiseworthy, Taper manages to produce a picture of the laissez-faire capitalism of the American Past that depicts it as something distasteful, even immoral, and deservedly displaced. The analogy that comes to mind is of a person who holds up to a gleaming white snowscape a red-colored pane of glass and, beckoning us to look through the glass, then tries to convince us how ghastly and bloody the snow is. But let me now substantiate this claim in detail. I shall use for my witnesses Taper’s own statements of fact.
We learn from Taper that Miller was born in 1827 "in the little town of Brackenheim in Wurttemberg, Germany," the son of a butcher. He was apprenticed to the trade at eight and at fourteen he ran away to the United States. Nine years later, when 22, he made his way to the gold-booming California of 1850 with six dollars in his pocket. When he died in California in 1916, his "estate was appraised at forty million dollars, a sizable increase [Taper notes] over the six dollars he had started with…." This estate consisted almost entirely in farm and cattle-land and cattle.
In summary, then, Miller, a German immigrant without friends or fortune, came as a very young man to this country and after a few years, with six dollars in his pocket, arrived in California, where he died 66 years later leaving an estate in cattle-land and cattle worth forty million dollars. In the older tradition of Horatio Alger, we should want to praise this progress from rags to riches and think of it as exemplifying the rewards of virtue, hard work, invention, and thrift. How does Taper refer to it? He quotes from Carey McWilliams’ tendentious work, Factories in the Field, to the following effect: "His [Miller's] career is almost without parallel in the history of land monopolization in America. He must be considered as a member of the great brotherhood of buccaneers: the Goulds, the Harrimans, the Astors, the Vanderbilts." In this quotation Taper clearly intends to be presenting his own interpretation of Miller. Thus, he, too, wants to convince us that Miller was a "land monopolist" and a "buccaneer."
How Big Is a Monopoly?
In dissecting this harsh accusation we might pause first over the epithet "land monopolization." Now what can land monopolization by a private individual consist in? If one owns a certain amount of land in his own name, is he a land monopolist? If, then, I own in my own name a half-acre lot in suburbia, am I a land monopolist? Predictably, neither McWilliams nor Taper means that. But by the same token, if I owned one thousand acres or a million acres, I should not for that reason alone be a land monopolist.
What could an individual possibly be taken to mean if he said, "I have a monopoly on land"? Surely, he could only mean that he had some kind of exclusive control of the ownership of land. Thus, if uttering such a remark in the United States, he would have to mean either that he owned all the land in the United States or that he had some sort of charter that gave him exclusive control over the ownership of land in the United States. Plainly, Miller was as far as Taper himself from falling into either category; for, as we have seen, ownership of some land (as opposed to all land) does not make one a land monopolist.
Actually, it is inconceivable that any private individual could be a land monopolist. This sort of monopoly, like most others, would have to reside in the State, and typically it has. In the face of such obvious discrepancy with fact and theory, what then can be the point of McWilliams’ and Taper’s description of Miller as a land monopolist? We can think of only one possible answer. In the "Brave New World" laboratories of Marx and his latter-day followers, the term "monopoly" has been given a sense denoting demons and demonocracy and, just as unfairly, has been reserved for private individuals and private business (instead of government where its older and true application lay). Whatever McWilliams’ and Taper’s conscious intention may have been, therefore, in calling Miller a land monopolist, the point is made that Miller and his activities were somehow diabolical. By obvious implication, the virtues and ideals of laissez-faire capitalism are also sullied.
Pirate Without Portfolio
Do we find any closer fit of phrase and fact in the description of Henry Miller as a "buccaneer"? According to Webster’s dictionary, a buccaneer is "a pirate; esp. one of the freebooters preying upon early Spanish-American vessels and settlements in the 17th and 18th century." Since Miller lived in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and had only a brief and nodding acquaintance with the sea, we must assume that Taper and his authority, McWilliams, are here being purely fanciful. Presumably, what they mean, if they mean anything factual, is that Miller obtained his wealth and possessions through robbery of one sort or another. Let us see then what facts Taper adduces for this serious charge.
Four paragraphs following his stigmatization of Miller as a buccaneer, Taper describes in specific detail Miller’s general outlook and methods. We find that Miller abjured easy and capricious ways of making a fortune for sheer hard work, industry, honesty, and thrift. Taper tells us:
From the beginning, the gold mines had no lure for Miller. He was as fully certain as the miners that the West was the land of opportunity, but he expected to have to work hard for his reward, not to have it handed to him as a pile of nuggets. He became a butcher’s assistant, laboring early and late seven days a week and indulging in none of the pleasures of what was then the most riotous, fun-loving city in the country. A contemporary gives us a telling glimpse of young Miller at the start of his career in 1850. The writer was wending his way home at dawn after a night of carousing and passed Miller on the street. Miller was on his way to open the butcher shop. He was bent over, carrying on his shoulders a calf he had slaughtered an hour earlier in the stockade at the other end of town.
Are we reminded by this description of anything resembling robbery? I trust that we are not. Does the fact that Miller worked and saved while much of San Francisco caroused suggest piracy? Surely, it does not.
Taper several times refers to Miller’s foresight, organizing genius, and consummate knowledge of the cattle business. According to Taper, Miller had "a fabulous memory, brilliant organizing power, and a fanatic devotion to work." He rode day and night supervising his vast holdings and herds, composing meanwhile an almost endless stream of insightful and knowledgeable memoranda covering an amazing variety of details and topics:
As Miller travelled there used to emanate from him a steady stream of letters to the various supervisors, agents, foremen, and other satraps (sic) of his business empire. Written on cheap ruled paper at any opportune moment of the day — before sunup, late at night, during pauses on the dusty roads and trails — Miller’s letters contained advice and instructions on the most minute details of his far-flung operations: how to make use of cow chips as fuel to run the farm machinery, what to do about anthrax and blackleg, the advantages of opening haystacks at the south side, Miller’s displeasure at finding canned milk served in his hotel in the heart of the dairy country, the importance of rubbing salt over a hide to keep it from shrivelling, etc… A good many of the thousands of letters of instruction he wrote have been preserved, and they are quite remarkable documents, constituting something of a comprehensive manual of cattle raising.
To judge from this presentation of fact Miller was not only a hardworking and prudent businessman but an imaginative and scientific one also. And this impression is borne out by some later remarks of Taper’s. Consider these statements:
He [Miller] affected the development of the Far West, particularly of California, in a number of unique and significant ways. He put the business of raising livestock onto a systematic basis for the first time. He developed a breed of cattle particularly suited to the West — a mixture of Hereford, Devon, and Durham — and improved the breeds of sheep. He has been credited with being one of the first agriculturists in California to experiment with the strange new crop called alfalfa, and he was among the first to plant cotton and rice, both now staples of the state’s agriculture.
Of even more far-reaching consequence were his reclamation and irrigation projects… Miller was also the first to do something practical on a large scale to assure a constant water supply — he built thousands of miles of levees and irrigation ditches, three major canals with a total length of 190 miles (!), and a 350-foot dam across the San Joaquin River. It is estimated that he thereby made fertile over 150,000 acres of near-desert land.
To almost anyone of uncorrupted mind and feelings, this account of Miller would seem to picture, not a malefactor and robber of men, but a creative genius of the highest order and a benefactor of both his own generation and subsequent generations. We therefore repeat: what possibly can Taper and McWilliams mean factually by calling Miller a buccaneer or robber? Did Miller perhaps steal his land holdings and cattle from other men? This does not seem to be true either.
The first land Miller owned was purchased in 1863 with some ten thousand dollars he had saved from working (as we have seen) in a butcher’s shop and then operating one himself in San Francisco. As far as one can tell from Taper’s article, whatever land Miller acquired from individuals or the government, he acquired by purchase or other legal means. He forced no one to sell land to him, an innuendo of Taper’s to the contrary notwithstanding. Says Taper:
Like many of his contemporary titans of private enterprise, Miller had few scruples to deter him in his quest for gain. One of his methods of acquiring land was to buy out one or more of the heirs to a Spanish land grant. This would give him grazing rights over the whole ranch and before long he would so dominate the land that the other heirs would sell out to him at a nominal price.
"Facts that Can’t Stand Close Examination"
Let us examine this colored version of Miller’s "method" more narrowly. Miller would buy out one or more of the heirs of a Spanish land grant. There is nothing unscrupulous in that! "This would give him grazing rights over the whole ranch and before long he would so dominate the land that the other heirs wouldsell out to him at a nominal price," adds Taper. But unless greatly enlarged upon and those enlargements substantiated in all sorts of detail, this blanket indictment carries no weight whatsoever. It does not even make much sense. Buying out one heir would not give Miller sole grazing rights over a ranch if there were other heirs. He would possess just so much right as his portion of the estate entitled him to. Had he purchased a controlling interest? Then, of course, he "dominated" the ranch, but what would one expect? If the other heirs possessed the controlling interest, they and not Miller would "dominate" the ranch. Did the heirs to Spanish grants really sell out to Miller at "nominal prices"? What were the exact circumstances if they did? Was the land unimproved and did its improvement entail a great deal of expense which they were not prepared to share with Miller? These are questions that minimum fairness would demand be answered before accusing a great and gifted man like Miller of sharp practices, and, in particular, such a seedy-looking practice as "so dominating the land" that heirs to Spanish grants were forced "to sell out at a nominal price." From what we learn elsewhere about Miller’s abilities and achievements, he neither did engage in sharp practices in order to obtain business success nor did he have to.
But, again, Taper tells us with testy indignation that Miller "also engaged in the practice of making extensive loans on farm properties and then foreclosing on the mortgages." Let us suppose this were so. Miller forced no one to accept the loans in question. On the contrary, one can imagine that those who received the loans would have been outraged had Taper raced up during one of the said transactions and cried, "You dare not — you cannot — borrow this money from Miller!" Did Miller foreclose on unpaid loans on farm properties? Suppose he did. How could one possibly remain solvent if he did not? Does the government waive foreclosure when not paid on loans to it or when its coercive tax-levies are not paid? But even Taper’s imputation that Miller avariciously foreclosed on farm mortgages whenever he could and indeed loaned money on farms just in order to be able to foreclose on them is invalidated by his own subsequent testimony. For soon afterwards he tells us that "one day during the depression of the nineties he [Miller] called everybody in the region who owed him money and gave back all their IOU’s. ‘It’s time for a clean start, “he said gruffly, wiping $350,000 off his books." Let us put this fact in the scales against the charge, for whatever weight it has, that Miller loaned money to farmers simply in order to foreclose on them and gain possession of their lands. Here was his supreme opportunity, and he did the very opposite from what the charge predicates. Surely, therefore, the charge in question weighs out as mere vilification.
Can it be maintained, perhaps, that though Miller did not rob others of their land, he robbed them of their cattle and for this reason deserves the appelation, "buccaneer"? Once more the facts rise in opposition. What we learn is that — far from robbing others of cattle — Miller was the constant target of such robbery and that, moreover, the government courts, instead of protecting Miller from this robbery, condoned and abetted it. We read:
Miller’s attitude toward those who attempted to rob him was realistic. He knew that he was a natural target and that it was a rare jury that would bring in a conviction against a person accused of stealing from the man who owned more livestock and land than any person in America. In one case a defendant was acquitted after being caught red-handed. After the trial he said reproachfully to one of Miller’s superintendents, "I’m surprised at Mr. Miller. He ought to be a better businessman than to prosecute me. It cost me a thousand dollars to bribe that jury. Look at all the cattle I’m going to have to steal now to get that back."
We are tempted to exclaim: Mr. Taper, these are the facts by your own admission! Look at them for heaven’s sake! Now who were the buccaneers? Indeed, except for just Henry Miller, who was not!
Taper is not satisfied with calling Miller a "buccaneer"; he calls him a "grasping, dominating, humorless man." These ugly traits are evidently supposed to lie behind and explain Miller’s being a buccaneer or, what seems to come to the same thing in Taper’s Lexicon, a successful businessman. A successful entrepreneur just has to be grasping, dominating, and humorless! What truth is there in this first article of the anticapitalist’s creed? Once more we shall let Taper’s own statements be our witnesses.
Acts of Benevolence
Let us take the accusation that Miller was grasping. We have already cited the instance of his returning $350,000 worth of IOU’s in the depression of the nineties.
This act of benevolence, we discover, was merely one of a great many. For example, Miller "was apt to leave a twenty-dollar gold piece in one of his boots as a tip for the maid who shined them" —a queer form of graspingness, one must say! Or consider these policies of Miller’s as set down by Taper:
[Miller] never prosecuted anyone — settlers or bandits — who killed his cattle for food. Miller asked only that whoever killed any of his steers should hang the hides on a tree where Miller’s cowboys could find them. Hides, after all, were worth four dollars apiece. It was surprising how often even bandits took the trouble to comply with this request.
He let it be widely known that any settler should feel free to pick up a Miller cow on the range and take her home as a milk cow for the family, provided the settler saw to it that the unweaned calves did not suffer.
Miller had a long list of people to whom he regularly sent gifts, and he knew better than to try to stint or economize here. "There’s no use giving a person a turkey and expecting him to appreciate it unless it is in fine condition," Miller once said to a penny-pinching foreman. "It’s better not to send a gift at all." Miller’s prudently calculated generosity extended to tramps and other vagrants, to whom he gave several thousand free meals a year.
Taper’s charge that Miller was humorless — and certainly that is a charge of which, for all we know, Taper himself might be guilty — is not so easy to counter. What strikes one person as humor is apt to strike another as not humor. For my own part, I detect wry humor in Miller’s instruction for "the care of hoboes":
Never make a tramp work for his meal. He won’t thank you if you do. Anyhow he is too weak to work be-fare a meal and too lazy to work after a meal.
I detect a twinkle of humor in Miller’s leaving twenty-dollar gold pieces in his boots for the maids who shined them. But suppose Miller lacked any sense of humor: how uncharitable to bring this fact up against Miller as if enumerating the counts of an indictment: grasping, dominating, humorless!
In a widely read and admired journal devoted to the history of this country, then, we find a great entrepreneur of our recent past described as a "buccaneer" and, given the harshest intonation, "grasping." Our vision being colored by these interpretations, we are apt to think that we are reading an account of some unmitigated thief and scoundrel. When we look hard at the facts providedus, we find instead that the person being described was in reality intelligent, industrious, imaginative, saving, prudently generous, and completely honest, and that his immense success in business stemmed from these virtues and from a corresponding lack of vice.
Destroying the Founders Denies Our Heritage
I have gone to these lengths to demonstrate the distortion and deception that have been practiced in Taper’s article for reasons that are not negligible. Taper’s distortion and deception are not isolated. They are representative of the treatment accorded for many years now and still accorded to the great geniuses of this country’s laissez-faire past. In so denigrating these men, historians and economists have also blackened the virtues and achievements of such persons. In doing this, they have made it seem that one ought to be ashamed of the very traits, persons, and achievements that in another time it was perceived one should rightly be proud of. The tragic upshot of this denigration of laissez-faire history, achievement, and virtues is that the present generation, taken in by the deception, finds itself emulating, not the true heroes of civilization like Miller, but the constant oppressors of mankind, the Castros, Mao-tse‑tungs, and Lenins. One hardly needs to point to the already terrible devastation of mind, morality, spirit, and material well-being that this subversion of truth and history has produced in America. In less than two generations, "the land of the free and the brave" has become the limbo of the coerced and the fearful; the land of opportunity, the limbo of despair; the land of the beautiful, the limbo of the ugly.
Taper, McWilliams, and their fellow anticapitalists, while pointing at the Millers and Carnegies of our past and shouting "robber," have themselves engaged in the most frightening robbery of all: first, robbing great men of reputations fairly won and the gratitude that we owe them; and second, in doing so, robbing us of a rich heritage. It is important that what has been taken from us by deception be taken back by force of fact and demonstration.
The country’s great past and its great men — the Fords, Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Astors, Millers, Jim Hills — have been buried under a mountain of muckraking innuendo, misrepresentation, and outright libel. Our future lies buried under this same mountain of collectivist refuse. One of the major tasks of the libertarian scholar — perhaps the first of his tasks — is to remove this kitchen midden of hatred and envy that obscures the past greatness of America and so retrieve the visible foundations of a right civilization and right philosophy.