“Let them eat cake” were the famous words of the ill-fated Marie Antoinette whose personality and legacy have come to symbolize that all but dead parasitic aristocratic class. That class of rulers and monarchs, known collectively as the Ancien Régime, who ruled Europe for almost a thousand years. The frail skeletons of those monarchs surviving in some countries to this day notwithstanding, those four iconic words were the last, dying breath of a group which fed off the productive and stunted the development of humanity for nearly a millennium.
The reason I’m writing this is because I often hear the wealthy and leaders of business and industry of today compared to the old aristocracy of the past. On the surface their shared opulence and wealth cause people to think that they are indeed one in the same—that the titans of industry and the private sector are the new aristocratic overlords, only with a new face. Notions forwarded such as the idea that CEOs and top executives of companies simply sit back and count their money while the lowly, underpaid worker creates all the value and then has it stolen from them, only serve to reinforce this idea that business leaders are little more than 21st century feudal lords.
This idea is, however, utter nonsense and the belief that the CEOs and workers of today are akin to the lords and serfs of the old aristocratic society is a gross miscalculation. The monarchs of old, even the benevolent philosopher kings which history views more kindly, were the definition of parasites. The monarchs and aristocracy gained wealth in the very beginning through conquest, theft, and murder, and then used their plunder to extend favors to other lords in the form of lands and titles. They then gained sustenance through the virtual slave labor of serfs who were born into servitude, and who had no freedom of movement or rights to the product of their labor. Later, as it became more sophisticated, the aristocracy further leached off society by allowing early merchants and businessmen a bit more freedom, and then plundering the fruit of that freedom through taxes. They used this great stolen wealth to build shining and magnificent monuments honoring themselves, and to build an ever more lavish lifestyle which the serfs and peasants could scarcely even dream of.
The point is that they fashioned a world over the centuries in which they made themselves legally and involuntarily entitled to the labor of others. They needed not to be productive because they owned the productivity of the masses. In the words of the Murray Rothbard, “allowing Class A to own Class B means that the former is allowed to live parasitically, at the expense of the latter. But this parasitism itself violates the basic economic requirement for life: production and exchange.” Class A, the aristocracy, lived at the expense of Class B, everyone else, and anything even resembling productive activity such as infrastructure was paid for through stolen funds (i.e. taxes). For these reasons, the Ancien Régime cannot be said to have been in anyway productive members of society, acting instead only to slow down and hold back its growth and development in favor of maintaining their power and parasitic lifestyle. The rulers and aristocracy were simply gangs of thugs who were able to hold on to power long enough for their rule to become tradition. This contrasts sharply with the leaders of private sector industries today.
Before delving into how these two groups of people could not be more different, it is worth saying that the class of entrepreneurs, businessmen, capitalists, and industrialists are the most underappreciated, taken for granted class of people in history. People speak of them with scorn, mistrust, hatred—as if we are all victims of their insatiable greed and unceasing exploitation. These ideas bring forth within me emotions ranging from humor to horror because they are both utterly false, and almost universally accepted to a degree by all (even by business people themselves). It seems both funny and horrible to me that people are so ready to mock and insult the very people that so greatly and positively changed a world which had been unchanged and unchallenged for nearly 10,000 years. These people used their minds, drive, and sheer will to create everything from the computer, to penicillin, to cars, to modern farming techniques, to clean water, to gasoline, to heat, to air-conditioning, to electric lighting, to phones—indeed everything that we use today, that we take for granted today. They are called exploiters, when they have created a world in which poverty affects so few of us, that it is a problem we can begin to grapple with; they are called greedy, when they are the ones who have given us the tools to free our hands and our minds in order to pursue what we want to do in life; and history and popular culture both mock and demonize them, when they have made both of those things available to everyone for the first time. The entrepreneurial business class, and all who take part in productive activity, are nothing short of heroic because they have found a way to better their own lives, while simultaneously bettering the lives of countless others.
So how could this class of heroic producers and thinkers come to be compared to the parasitic ruling classes of the old regime? Though probably many reasons, the two which I see are the association of any and all wealth with corruption, and the misidentification and false history of the entrepreneurial class as one of exploiters and thieves. To tackle the first reason you must understand that wealth and monetary success for businessmen are merely signals that you have created something, or helped to create something, which society values. John D. Rockefeller became extremely wealthy because he helped to create and provide cheap kerosene which allowed the majority of people to no longer be limited to activity during the daytime, and to efficiently and safely light up the darkness for the first time in human history. His great fortune is simply a testament to the fact that people greatly enjoyed and appreciated the ability to read, eat, spend time with their families, do chores around the house, etc.—all after dark. This is contrasted with Louis XVI, whose family, The House of Bourbon, gained wealth through hundreds of years of taxation, conquest, and slave labor. Rockefeller created something which made the world a better place and people rewarded him for it by individually and voluntarily exchanging their hard earned money for his product, while Louis produced nothing, but used the power of tradition and the French State to coercively extract the same reward.
Their respective fortunes, then, were accrued in exact opposite ways. The businessman accumulates wealth through voluntary exchange, which necessarily makes both parties better off than they were before. Both people in a free exchange win. If I have five dollars and you have a cheeseburger, then I am only going to exchange the five dollars for the burger if I value the burger more than having five dollars, and you will only exchange the burger if the five dollars makes you happier than having a cheeseburger. We trade, we both get what we want (or at least something that we value higher than what we had to start with), and we are both better off. The parasitic class takes your money, slaps you in the face, makes you bow to them, and then says, “you’re welcome.” The way wealth is made makes all the difference and that is what people do not understand. Wealth for a businessman means they have made the world a better place, wealth for the ruler or political class merely means that they have grown quite efficient in their methods of thievery.
Most people recognize that the old aristocracies and even the political classes of today are inefficient leeches that suck off the productivity of others. Most also recognize the blatant exploitation by the ruling classes of everyone that they could get their hands on. The false association of business leaders with the Ancien Régime arises because people see that exploitation and have been taught that the business world engages in similar practices. I hope that now you see that assertion as utterly false. A Nike sweatshop laborer in China is not exploited by business, but helped. Assuming that no one is forcing the person to work there, the concept of free exchange still applies. That person is working there because it is the best of his or her options. People flock from the countryside to these so-called sweatshops not because they are exploited, but because working for a wage in a factory is better than working 12-16 hour days in a field exposed to all the elements. If the factories made them worse off then they would go back to the fields. And if the factories paid the workers a wage similar to what an American laborer would make, then those laborers would also be back in fields because the factory job would not exist because the company would just produce the product here in the US. The business class sees the needs and wants of society, and attempts to fulfill them. Along the way they create endless new opportunities for workers, consumers, and other entrepreneurs. They are wholly undeserving of the title of “exploiters” and as such, are wholly undeserving of being called similar to the old aristocracies.
These two groups could not be more different. One gained wealth and success through the productive and creative use of their mind, the other through the long and brutal use of indoctrination and force. One adds to society, while the other takes and takes. One pours their life into their ideas and risks their property, wealth, and reputation to make those ideas a reality, while the other skims wealth off the top of the profits created by that reality. One created and continues to create a better world for all of us, while the other tried fiercely to keep the world as it had been for millennia. The business class says “let them eat cake,” and then tirelessly attempts to make it better and more available to all; the ruling class steals all the money that you would purchase the cake with, and then mocks you for not being able to have it. We must take the time to learn what businessmen are, and then it will become painfully obvious that they bear no resemblance to the parasitic aristocratic class of old, or the equally parasitic political class of today.