In Praise of Entrepreneurs

I won’t say that I would be the last person to praise Steve Jobs, Apple founder, but I’d certainly be way down the list.

I’ve never owned an Apple product. At the risk of heresy in these benighted times, I’ve always, when forced to use any product by that company, found them annoying, and I’ve never purchased anything from iTunes. But similarly, because I grew up as the son of a GM executive, I’ve never owned a Ford product, but I can nonetheless recognize Henry Ford (even ignoring his ideological shortcomings) as a great force in the history of not just transportation, but in transforming a nation, increasing its wealth and freedom beyond measure.

So despite my personal lack of appreciation for his inventions, I appreciate Steve Jobs as a brilliant technological visionary, and I recognize him as the kind of person who truly changes the world.

As I wrote at my blog, almost ten years ago (and not long after its founding — frightening to think that this month is my decadal bloggiversary):

I came to realize that the true revolutionaries were not people marching to the barricades, or theorizing about social philosophies in Ann Arbor or Berkeley or Paris cafes, or even the small subset of such people who actually somehow came to political power. The true revolutionaries were the technologists -- those who solved societal needs not by attempting to forcibly rearrange society against human will, but rather by giving individuals new tools that allowed them to reorder their own lives within those constraints.

Gutenberg almost single-handedly (and probably unintentionally) overthrew much of the power structure of his time. Mssrs. Winchester and Colt, and the fellow who invented barbed wire, had as great an impact on the American West as Thomas Jefferson, and more than any politician from the region. Arguably, few politicians had as much impact on the twentieth century as Henry Ford, or Orville and Wilbur Wright, or Armstrong, prolific inventor of the modern radio, or Turing and von Neumann and Noyce and Jobs and Gates, and all the others who gave us the modern information revolution.

When a history of the late twentieth century is written decades or centuries from now, it seems likely to me that John F. Kennedy will be noted as “a minor politician during the era of von Braun.”

Technology, not politicians, has always been the driver of human progress. Whoever figured out how to grow grain reliably invented a product that not only fed many more people than hunting and gathering, but also allowed the creation of civilization (despite its potential ill effects on the health of civilized people).

The men who created Rome weren’t the politicians, but the engineers who built the aquaducts and the roads.

The industrial revolution and the development of capitalism was partly a result of far-sighted politicians who created the political systems that would allow commerce to thrive, but even more it was that of the people who developed the ships that opened up the New World, allowing the discovery of coffee and transmission of ideas. Later, the effect would be accelerated by Morse’s telegraph, Bell’s telephone, Marconi and Armstrong’s radio, Baird’s television, and even the Internet. Steve Jobs was just the latest in a long line of visionary people who bettered the lives of millions through his genius, by putting them in touch with others in innovative ways. Even many, apparently, despite their educational credentials, unable to appreciate the gift he had given them:

I was down at the Occupy Wall Street protest today, and never has the divide between the iPhone world and the politics world been so clear: I saw a bunch of people very well-served by their computers and telephones (very often Apple products) but undeniably shortchanged by our government-run cartel education system. And the tragedy for them — and for us — is that they will spend their energy trying to expand the sphere of the ineffective, hidebound, rent-seeking, unproductive political world, giving the Barney Franks and Tom DeLays an even stronger whip hand over the Steve Jobses and Henry Fords. And they — and we — will be poorer for it.

But I’m also saddened by a more personal reality. Steve Jobs (and Bill Gates) are my generational cohorts. We were all born in the same year. I’ve reached that time in life in which I look at obits to see which people my age (or younger) have shuffled off this mortal coil, and I find it particularly disheartening when someone who is my age, and had abundant resources, still couldn’t stave off the reaper. But then, I’m always a little surprised to learn that people of such abundant resources don’t devote more of them to funding research to help them (and others) live longer, so they can not just continue to enjoy life longer, but to bring joy to others. If I had their money, it’s what I would be doing. I imagine that Steve Jobs was spending a lot of money to keep himself alive, but I’m not aware of any donations to efforts that would have helped not just himself, but millions of others, to extend their lives.

But then, perhaps the qualities that enable, even drive them to do the things that personally spiritually enrich them crowd out the urge for self preservation and rational asset allocation. It may be that the same urges that allow them to focus so totally on helping the world in the areas of their expertise depletes their focus from issues farther afield from their personal knowledge, but which could help them continue to strive on. I see it as important, and it’s what I’d work on if I had their money, but then, I don’t have their money, partly because I’ve never changed the world in the way that they do.

In any event, the world has lost a great man, and one whose greatness, in terms of his contributions to human progress, vastly exceeds any contemporary politician. Which is, sadly, to damn him with faint praise.

Also read Richard Fernandez: "It's a Wonderful Life"