Jan/Feb 2008 -- This past September, I was thrilled to see The Call of the Entrepreneur , a new documentary by The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, headed by Roman Catholic priest Robert Sirico. Beautifully filmed in high definition, with inspiring music and a riveting story, this documentary celebrates the productive virtue, passion, creativity, and heroism of entrepreneurs around the globe.
It dramatically makes the case for the moral value of capitalism—and it’s about time.
Economic and political developments in the last thirty-odd years have proven the factual case for the superiority of capitalism, but the moral case remains to be won. The harnessing and molding of self-interest through capitalism towards creative, productive, life-enhancing, happiness-achieving ends must be trumpeted to the world. This documentary is a clarion call.
The film’s theme is the unstoppable energy, optimism, creativity, and productiveness of the entrepreneur, which has made our world possible. It starts with a dairy farmer in the small mid-Michigan town of Evart, interweaving his story of ingenuity, perseverance, and calculated risk with the thrilling and heart-wrenching story of communist refugee and media magnate in Hong Kong, and that of a self-made merchant banker in Atlanta. Each of these entrepreneurs is remarkable.
Jimmy Lai, founder of giant Next Media, recounts his journey from the desperate poverty of Guangzhou province in communist China to his position as a media mogul aiming to foster freedom through information. The son of a merchant family stripped of their wealth, Jimmy’s mother was sent to work in the fields all week while he and his siblings fared for themselves. The boy left school at the age of ten to work in a railway station, which changed his life.
This film celebrates the productive virtue, passion, creativity, and heroism of entrepreneurs around the globe.
The communists, he comments, painted China as wonderful in contrast to the nasty picture they presented of the outside world; but his eyes were opened by the travelers at the train station. Their dress, speech, and even the kind way they treated him gave him an education. “I was never treated so well before,” he recalls. After ravenously eating a bar of chocolate handed to him by a client, he resolved to go to where it was bought: Hong Kong. He had to beg his mother for a year before she would allow him the dangerous journey in the hold of a sampan to the freedom of Hong Kong.
Dairy farmer Brad Morgan was searching for a more cost-effective way to dispose of tons of cow manure when his undying curiosity and creativity led him to the compost business. Although he appears only moderately educated, Morgan skillfully uses scientific and business experts from far and wide to turn his farm into one of the largest and best composting businesses around.
Investment banker Frank Hanna describes how his father, rather than guiding his sons to sports or leisure on the weekends, would take them to various properties the family owned. Together, they performed all the chores and learned the processes involved in running businesses—lessons Hanna used well as he and his brother built their merchant-banking business. Hanna has combined this practical knowledge with a study of free-market economics, not only for his successful business but for philanthropy, as well. Recently, he was named Philanthropist of the Year by Philanthropy Magazine because of the thoughtful and principled approach he takes to charity.
In addition to these inspiring stories, the movie deftly explains some key economic concepts through simple illustrations, including the tremendous value that capital markets create—something Tom Wolfe’s bond trader in Bonfires of the Vanities didn’t seem to know. Experts such as Peter Boetkke from George Mason University and Wealth and Poverty author George Gilder cameo with pithy explanations of economic principles.
From the opening, the movie attacks the ridiculous idea that capitalism is a zero-sum game, visually puncturing that argument with sweeping views of New York and Hong Kong. You would think that just one of capitalism’s nay-sayers would ask themselves the question: If it’s a zero-sum game, where did all this stuff come from? How did we travel from the caves to New York City?
In justifying the virtue of the entrepreneur, The Acton Institute emphasizes the other-oriented attitude of the entrepreneur in contrast to the view that entrepreneurship is merely about greedy wealth-acquisition. The documentary argues that the entrepreneur must focus on the needs and desires of other people in order to succeed. One of the film’s messages seems to be that entrepreneurs are virtuous because they work for other people, performing a kind of altruism. In fact, during a question-and-answer session after the movie, executive producer Jay Richards confirmed this, emphasizing that the “al” in “altruism” means “other.”
It’s unfortunate that Acton feels the need to justify the goodness of the entrepreneur by his or her ability to help other people. Helping others is a valuable benefit of what they do, but, clearly, that is not always the entrepreneur’s motive. Morgan, Hanna, and Lai are obviously working for the laudable motives of enjoying the exercise of their own powers, and for their desire to change the world for the better—according to their own vision. While entrepreneurs must focus on the needs and desires of others for trade, many entrepreneurs create products that others could never imagine, or imagine wanting, such as PCs or “pet rocks.” Like almost all creators, entrepreneurs often face unrelenting criticism and resistance. Most often, the entrepreneur has to be pig-headedly persistent—“kinda stubborn,” as Morgan calls himself—in his own vision to bring new values to the world. Although the actions of entrepreneurs wonderfully result in benefits to others, in order to succeed, they must cleave to their own selves, to their own vision. Sounds rather self-interested, doesn’t it?
Indeed, the film’s commentators express discomfort with the concept of greed and criticize John Stossel’s ABC specials that focus on greed as a positive force in the market. Unfortunately, in the moral wars, the film’s eschewing of greed could be seen as apologetics for the basic self-interestedness of the entrepreneur, a discomfort that can be attacked by those more consistently altruistic in the self-abnegating sense.
The problem lies in the loaded concept of “greed.” Conventionally, the concept of greed, like that of selfishness, emphasizes excessiveness—in this case, the desire to acquire or possess more than one needs. But what of the entrepreneur’s stubborn insistence on pursuing his vision when others want him to stop? Is that excessive? Is that greedy?
What’s needed is a clearer parsing of the concept of greed. Greed to acquire and possess values is a strong human motivational tendency. A more neutral term for this tendency is “ambition.” It’s a good thing that humans have this tendency, or they might not be sufficiently motivated to survive and flourish. It’s a tendency that can be aimed toward good or ill. The primeval, undisciplined tendency of greed often results in the pursuit of fame, money, or power at the expense of integrity, honor, love, family or friendship. Each person needs to focus the aim of his or her greed toward productive values, not toward destructive ones. That makes the moral difference.
On the other hand, some self-defined individualists would do well to broaden their almost autistic concept of the well-lived life. As Aristotle said, man is a political animal. Humans tend to have a great desire to interact and affect others, even when pursuing their own interests.
Given the religious orientation of The Acton Institute, the ultimate message of the film is that man becomes nearer to God through creativity. With stirring music and shots of Michelangelo’s “Creation,” the documentary’s climax testifies that man’s creative ability is God’s gift to man, granting man a special place in the universe. This is the religious idealism of former centuries—a view contrary to that of the radical environmentalists, who consider man and his reality-transforming reasoning powers to be an unnatural scourge upon the earth. Rather, this Scholastic religious doctrine sees man as closer to God than any other creature, by his participation in God’s ability to create. The commentators, including Father Sirico and George Gilder, affirm the inspiring nature of this relationship to God.
As a thoroughly committed scientist and a nonbeliever, I was struck by the topsy-turvy nature of this view. Man’s ability to create and transform reality rather than merely adapt to the given is fundamental to his survival powers, acquired through evolution. Man’s reason and imagination, exploratory tendencies, and especially the energy, persistence, and independence of the personality type that typifies entrepreneurs, allow him to remake the world to suit his purposes. Isn’t it interesting that men feel the need to capture the sacredness of this fundamental of human nature by projecting a god with the same ability—and making man his special protégé?
This transformational power is a sacred ability, because it makes human flourishing possible. As George Gilder says in the film, “There is no reason to explain poverty—poverty is the natural human state” before the first entrepreneurs, the farmers, changed the world. Productive creativity should be celebrated with joyful sanctity—and this film goes far in that direction.
The Call of the Entrepreneur is premiering around the country at small venues, through organizations like the Sam Adams Alliance. Acton hopes to get it onto PBS affiliates or commercial TV. Despite its philosophical shortcomings, I urge you to see it and to enjoy its dramatic celebration of the optimism and lavish productivity of the entrepreneur.
On the web: The Call of the Entrepreneur