How It Began

I do not believe God Almighty came down and anointed me with The Way of All Truth, but I do think it’s fair to say that I have put my years to use, mainly with books. Over the years I have read some seven or eight hundred books, a good share of which are histories and biographies. Reading lots of books does not make me right necessarily, but it does make me informed.

I am now 67 years old. Way back in the beginning, when I first began to consider political issues in high school, I thought that “from each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs” was as fair and reasonable a statement as anyone could possibly make. In junior college I took some philosophy classes and began to challenge everything I believed to that point. I ended up as a registered Libertarian and a subscriber to Ayn Rand’s Newsletter (Rand is the author of “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead”). I read almost everything she wrote and pretty much figured she was God.

The marketplace must remain free, because unless it does, we will have a communistic economy, and we all know that does not work. And the fewer regulations the better. I believed that sort of thing for more years then I care to remember. For a view of how that works out in real life, though, you might want to watch the documentary “The Smartest Guys in the Room,” which is about the Enron debacle.

The problem with an unflagging belief in the rightness of laissez faire capitalism, you see, is that the historical record really doesn’t support it. I hate to borrow from the film in this regard, but Enron’s slogan was “Ask why,” which is really what I have tried to do all my life. And once I got into history, which I actually began reading during my college days, well, one book led to another. And soon I was reading about workers and robber barons and strikes and Wat Tyler’s Rebellion in 1381, and I don’t know what all.

And after a while, if you simply read history, I think you do learn some things, one of which is that the negative emotions–greed, hate, anger, etc.–tend to be stronger then the positive emotions like love, charity, kindness, and patience. “Robber barons” is clearly a pejorative term, but if you simply read about what they did–not just what they created, but what they took from others–that term takes on an accuracy it might not otherwise have had.

I do believe that capitalism greases the wheels that run the machine that benefits us all. But I also believe capitalists must be regulated. I think Alex Gibney, the director of “The Smartest Guys in the Room,” stated my position rather succinctly in one of the extras on this DVD. He said, “I think the story of Enron exposes the major flaw in capitalism, which is the crude belief that raw self-interest, left un-tethered, will always result in the best possible social good. It’s not so.”

Joseph Freenor

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