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Greed Is Good: The Villainy of the On-Screen Capitalist

The ironic end of the air-hoarding Cohagan in Total Recall The ironic end of the air-hoarding Cohagen in Total Recall.

Generic corporate villains litter our popular culture. Omni Consumer Products birthed RoboCop, only to be revealed as his ultimate nemesis. Weyland-Yutani treated its employees as expendable when their discovery of an Alien offered potential profit as a biological weapon. The interplanetary corporation in the original Total Recall ruthlessly killed anyone threatening its various monopolies, including that on breathable Martian air.  And who can forget James Cameron's Avatar, where a corporatized human government seeks to strip-mine the living planet Pandora after “killing their mother” Earth.

None of these examples accurately portrays capitalism. While economics can certainly be complex and nuanced, the definition of capitalism is simple. When individuals may freely trade goods and services among themselves, capitalism exists. Such trade does not include force or fraud. Misrepresenting the value of a trade does not qualify as a capitalist transaction. Coercion, extortion, or any application of force has no place within capitalism. The villainy of on-screen “capitalists” actually demonstrates their rejection of capitalism.

The Ferengi conduct themselves as fraudsters and cheats, misrepresenting the value of trades and outright stealing or hijacking goods. So bad is their reputation that they regard the ignorance of new customers as an asset. No true capitalist could or would succeed like this. Reputation is everything in business, and companies go to expensive lengths to control the integrity of their brand. Under capitalism, customers can choose to deal with a business or not, and no one wants to deal with an unscrupulous fraud.

The coercive and harmful actions of Weyland-Yutani or Omni Consumer Products would be rejected as wholly illegitimate under capitalism. Monopolies can only be maintained with force. Only force can present an insurmountable barrier to entry, undermining competition. And force is entirely antithetical to capitalism. Capitalism requires proper government to negate force and vigorously protects individual rights -- not necessarily small government, and certainly not anarchy, but robust power set to a limited purpose. Such government would never tolerate extortion, real pollution, or any harm, whether negligent or intentional.

Unique among the specific examples cited above stands Gordon Gekko, whose actions presented as villainous prove largely legitimate. If an investor purchases a business in whole or in part, what moral claim does an employee of that business have over how it is disposed of? If Gordon Gekko determines in his best judgment that liquidating a business will provide a more certain profit than continuing to operate it, what obligation does he have to keep its doors open?