Tycoons to Technologists


Tycoons to Technologists The Potentates: Business and Businessmen in American History By Ben Seligman Dial 323 pp $10 00 Reviewed by Edward T. Chase Editor, New American Library Ben...

...Tycoons to Technologists The Potentates: Business and Businessmen in American History By Ben Seligman Dial 323 pp $10 00 Reviewed by Edward T. Chase Editor, New American Library Ben Seligman's last book--his untimely death occurred while it was m production--will bring pleasure to many lay readers and lighten the scholarly burdens of many students In this shrewd and engaging panorama of American business history, he recreates the personalities, retells the best anecdotes and recounts the major business experiences from colonial times to the present A volume from Dial's new Two Centuries of American Life A Bicentennial Series, directed by Harold M Hyman and Leonard W Levy, The Potentates demonstrates Seligman's characteristic assiduousness, so notable m his valuable Main Currents in Modern Economics He covers virtually all aspects of his subject We are told again about Thomas Hancock of pre-Revolutionary Boston, the Hamilton-Jefferson debate over funding the national debt, the enormities and economic significance of the slave trade, Civil War speculators, the melodramatics of the robber barons, the careers of 20th-century titans like Ford, Insull and J P Morgan--right up to the epoch of conglomerates and the defense-aerospace industry Seligman was, of course, too sophisticated an economist and too sensitive about social injustice to lapse romantic in relating the fantastic story of America's growth His perspective is amiable but sharp He rightly emphasizes that "the Constitution set the conditions for a businessman's civilization in the final analysis, the Constitution was a document that protected property in its various guises--securities, goods, and slaves And perhaps events could be shaped in no other way" He observes that over a 35-year span Chief Justice John Marshall made the Supreme Court the shaper of constitutional meaning as he saw it--and he saw it in terms of "the business views of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and other centers of enterprise Seligman relishes defending Henry Demarest Lloyd's 1894 indictment of Rockefeller and the Standard Oil monopoly, Wealth Against Commonwealth, and asserts its accuracy "down to its minutest details " He duly notes the hold Social Darwinism has had on the corporate magnate's "philosophy" for over a century--and also its embrace by judges obsessed with property rights He specifies how at the same time businessmen "were ever ready for the Government to intervene in economic and political affairs on their behalf," citing the examples of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon's tax bounties to business during the 1920s, and the shocking subversion of the Geneva Naval Conference by Charles Schwab and E G Grace to protect their own steel and shipping interests Perhaps his strongest contempt is reserved for Henry Ford "One of the high points of his career was the acceptance of the Iron Cross from Hitler m 1938 " He succinctly disposes of the rags-to-riches myth, referring to studies that show successful men of the late 19th century most often descended from native families, frequently from New England, usually sons of small entrepreneurs, whereas immigrants "had few chances" and tended "to be dumped into the burgeoning working class" Curiously enough, Seligman is least satisfactory in his treatment of the postwar period He does a fairly workmanlike job of describing the merger movement in the 1960s and the rise of conglomerates But his concluding review of the defense-aero-space era is uninspired and seems hastily put together He raises the insistent Galbraithian question (rhetorical, surely) of whether a firm doing 90 per cent of its business with the Federal government is really a private venture He calls this "newest manifestation of the world of business the contract state," noting that it breeds a new power type, the contractor, whom he condemns sarcastically for displaying "all the virtues of the older corporate breed" "The sole difference," he maintains, "was that the new men of power had the inside track to the public trough and there seemed no way to shunt them aside so long as the Cold War and a fascination with space dominated the American spirit" He ends the book abruptly and bitterly with the comment that the reigning ideology is for economic growth via arms and space, providing only incidental spillover of goods and services for the common man This is "the latest stage of America's business civilization " The Potentates, an image suggesting profiles of tycoons, is a bad title for a work that m fact surveys the evolution of virtually all phases of our business civilization And it would have been a more challenging and illuminating study if toward the end Seligman had dealt with the salient underlying forces that cannot be ignored He fails to explore the pervasive impact of science and technology on business history For instance, he barely suggests the degree to which 20th-century technology has transformed the products, communications, financing, underlying political issues, even the demography of our socio-economic life Similarly, little consideration is given to the rise of new professional classes, the recently ascendant elites of scientists and technologists are generally antagonistic to laissez-faire entrepreneurship and inclined toward conscious control of socioeconomic development Nor does Seligman recognize the steady, spreading disenchantment with the price market system, especially among the younger generation An increasing awareness of the external diseconomies (social costs) of business and industry has dimmed the luster of the market even among the middle-aged bourgeoisie Indeed, this is perhaps the chief consequence of mounting anxiety over environmental pollution a realization that the prices of things in our culture are all awry, that they are treacherous signs because they only reflect effective (cash-backed) demand, not social need or industry's malign side effects The youth movement (witness the instant success of Reich's Greening of America) is at bottom a rejection of our business civilization Both the alienation of the blacks because of unending discrimination and the rejection of our Vietnam involvement by much of the nation are additional factors intensifying dismay and hostility over what America's business civilization has wrought Thus in recent years business has come to find itself in an altogether new ball game It is a shame Ben Seligman will not be here to interpret this for us We must be grateful for what he has given us, but wistful that it was not a bit more...

Vol. 53 • December 1970 • No. 25

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