I’m going to go back more than 60 years for a short discourse on literature and philosophy this morning. Bear with me – it could not be more relevant to the times we live in.
Back in 1957 the Russian-American philosopher and writer Ayn Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged, the book for which she’s remembered. If you haven’t read it, let me summarise the plot for you. (Or watch the clip…)
The book is set in a dystopian USA, in which private businesses suffer under increasingly burdensome laws and regulations. Railroad executive Dagny Taggart and her lover, steel magnate Hank Rearden, are struggling against ‘looters’ – people who want to exploit and live off their productivity. Then they discover that a mysterious figure called John Galt is persuading other business leaders to abandon their companies and disappear – effectively encouraging productive people to go on strike against the looters. The novel ends with the strikers planning to build a new capitalist society, based on their own principles.
One of the main themes of the book – without turning this into an English essay – is the failure of government policy and coercion. That’s summarised and captured in the ‘looters’ – advocates of high taxation, ‘big labour,’ government ownership, government spending, planning, regulation and redistribution.
It’s not what you think…
At this point you’re thinking, ‘Ah, Ed’s going to warn us about the dangers of a Labour government. That all this nonsense in Parliament, these talks with Jeremy Corbyn, could lead to a General Election. No need to, Ed…’
No, I’m not. I’m not even looking to make a political point. Yes, of course there is chaos in Government. I started this post on Tuesday morning after the latest set of ‘indicative votes’ on Brexit had all been defeated: at that point I wasn’t sure we even had a Government any more. But this morning I want to discuss an even broader theme – and it goes right back to 1957.
Last week Lyft made its stock market debut. The company was valued at $24bn, the biggest IPO since China’s Alibaba. But that will pale into insignificance when Uber comes to the New York Stock Exchange. Despite continuing to rack up billions in losses, the company is expected to be valued at around $120bn (around £92bn at current exchange rates).
Meanwhile Tesla is outselling Mercedes in the US and BMW is next in its sights. Very clearly, the automobile industry is changing rapidly. Very clearly, every industry is changing rapidly. And along the way businesses are being built, wealth is being created and some people are getting very rich indeed.
Why the race for the White House matters to us
But there is another development in the US – and it certainly has echoes in the UK. Those echoes are only going to get louder.
Back in November there were the US Congressional elections. Perhaps the biggest story to come out of those was the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York’s 14th District. Ocasio-Cortez is 29 – the youngest woman ever to serve in Congress. She’s a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and her stance is unquestionably left wing. Her ‘policy guy’ is called Dan Riffle – and he has an interesting Twitter handle: Every Billionaire is a Policy Failure.
Earlier this year there was a simple opinion piece in the New York Times. The headline? Abolish Billionaires.
Meanwhile Democratic Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren is making no secret of her desire to see the internet giants broken up.
“Today’s big tech companies have too much power,” she wrote in an article. “They have bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit and tilted the playing field against everyone else. And in the process, they have hurt small business and stifled innovation.”
You might think that is a patently ridiculous comment – after all there are thousands of small businesses that would not exist without Amazon – but it is becoming a key part of many Democratic candidates’ thinking.
Couple that with the rhetoric that is coming from Ocasio-Cortez’s spokesman, the New York Times and – on this side of the Atlantic – more and more MPs and their advisers, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that those of us who run businesses and create wealth are the villains of society. That we are the ‘looters’ – taking from society and not giving back.
The real picture
Right now, as I look round the various TAB UK tables I don’t see any billionaires, who might one day be candidates for abolition. I do see plenty of successful people and, yes, I see them enjoying the fruits of that success.
Equally, I know how that success has been earned. It’s been earned by ideas, by conviction, by a willingness to take risks, by a willingness to put yourself – and, sometimes, your family – on the line. It’s been earned by getting into the office at 6 in the morning and going home at 8 at night.
It’s been earned by sitting at your desk feeling desperately lonely because no-one else can take the decisions you have to take. Above all it has been earned by dedication and focus: by consistent, remorseless dedication and focus.
And along the way, that dedication and focus has created wealth – but not just for the entrepreneur. It has paid mortgages, paid for holidays, put children through university and made a contribution to local communities up and down the UK.
I am beyond proud to work with the TAB community. And they are representative of entrepreneurs throughout the UK and throughout a great many more countries.
So the blog this morning is a rallying call – to never be afraid to tell the story of the wealth you create. There are plenty of people prepared to criticise you: plenty of people who haven’t put themselves on the line or worked a 14 hour day. But who nevertheless think they are entitled to spend the wealth you have created or decide how you should spend it.
Those voices are only going to get louder: we must make sure that we tell our stories just as loudly.