Business Leaders and the Mixed Feelings They Inspire

The combination of suspicion and reverence that people feel toward the financially successful isn’t unique to the modern era, but reflects a deep ambivalence that goes back to the Roman empire.

A circa-1900 cartoon satirizing the power of large corporate trusts. Its caption reads, "What a funny little government." (Horace Taylor / NYPL)

In the early 20th century, Dale Carnegie began to travel the United States delivering to audiences a potent message he would refine and eventually publish in his 1936 bestseller, How To Win Friends and Influence People: “About 15 percent of one’s financial success is due to one’s technical knowledge and about 85 percent is due to skill in human engineering—to personality and the ability to lead people.” Carnegie, who based his claim on research done at institutes founded by the industrialist Andrew Carnegie (unrelated), thus enshrined for Americans the notion that leadership was the key to success in business—that profit might be less about engineering things and more about engineering people. Over 30 million copies of Carnegie’s book have been sold since its publication.

Political and military leaders have long been a preoccupation of historians, philosophers, and poets, who have chronicled exemplary life stories to instruct the curious and ambitious. Consider, for example, Plutarch’s second-century lives of Greek and Roman generals and statesmen, which Ralph Waldo Emerson once called “a bible for heroes.” Later collections of biographies like Boccaccio’s On the Fall of Princes, written in the 1350s and widely translated, and the 16th-century English Mirror for Magistrates were predicated on the idea that princes could profit from reading about the successes and failures of their predecessors.

But the examination of leadership in the commercial sector is a comparatively recent development. (Indeed, the term “leadership” was itself a 19th-century coinage.) It took the revolutionary stimulants of 19th-century industry and 20th-century finance to turn leadership and management into discrete branches of academic study—inhabited largely by social scientists and those who popularize their work for general readers craving formulas for economic success. As Peter Drucker, the 20th-century theorist known as the “father of management,” observes, the “large enterprises” that gave rise to contemporary ideas about organizational culture date only to the 1870s; before that, “the only large permanent organization around was the army.”

The old manuals for leaders—even the most controversial of all, Machiavelli’s The Prince—define success as the effective stewardship of the common good. Modern advice books for aspiring business executives have a different focus: financial performance, not civic virtue. Drucker described a business enterprise as “an organ of society,” the health of which is tied to the health of society at large. “Free enterprise cannot be justified as being good for business,” he writes. “It can be justified only as being good for society.”

Nevertheless, as Drucker noted in 1974, a business’s “first social responsibility” is its own performance. He maintained that the leader of a business, like the head of any institution, who uses the authority of his or her position “to become a public figure and to take leadership with respect to social problems, while the company … erodes through neglect, is not a statesman, but is irresponsible and false to his trust.” Drucker also recognized another challenge: the ease with which many executives lose sight of social responsibilities because of an obsession with profit in the near term. Business schools attempt to combat the seduction of profit by reenergizing ethics instruction in periods dominated by corporate scandals.

History provides so many examples of the tension between amassing profit and cultivating a public conscience that not even someone as optimistic as Drucker could dissolve it. Even when benefits do accrue to the public, of course, that tends to be beside the point of those interested in profit: This is simply the work of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. And even Smith acknowledged the potentially competing interests of business and country when he cited the wisdom of the 1651 Navigation Act, which regulated foreign commerce and thus limited the potential profits of England’s merchants, because it rightly prioritized national “defence” over “opulence.”

Today, as the banking and corporate excesses of what many have called a return to the Gilded Age—so lucrative for individuals, so devastating for large swaths of the public—amply demonstrate, superintending financially successful ventures, in contrast to leading in the political arena, does not prioritize the common good. Since the 1970s, income inequality in the United States has been growing, while economic mobility has decreased. The relationship between the short-term gains board members and shareholders demand from their leaders and the long-term health of the republic remains ambiguous at best. Manipulating people—winning friends, to use Dale Carnegie’s seemingly anodyne phrase—in order to serve a corporation’s best interests (or one’s own) is a different proposition from that of enlarging the common store.

“It is probably true that the large majority of the fortunes that now exist in this country have been amassed not by injuring our people, but as an incident to the conferring of great benefits upon the community,” Theodore Roosevelt proposed in 1901, during the country’s first Gilded Age. This was the case, he added crucially, “no matter what may have been the conscious purpose of those amassing them.” Public welfare in a capitalist society may depend to some degree on private fortunes, Roosevelt noted, in an echo of Smith, but no one should assume that public benefit is therefore the intention of the wealthy. And no one, Roosevelt continued, should underestimate the damage done in a society where an inflated conception of “the importance of wealth” authorizes the rich to behave with a “brutal arrogance” that is met only with a “cringing servility” born of envy.

Living in an era that mirrors the present moment in its struggle between the interests of business and those of the public, Roosevelt insisted that to counter the “monopolistic tendency” of “great corporations,” ultimate authority over them had to rest with the people. Confronted with the “predatory wealth,” absence of “moral scruple,” and arrogant contempt of government on the part of capitalists such as Edward H. Harriman of the Union Pacific Railroad, who freely boasted that he could buy the necessary senators, congressmen, and judges “to protect his interests,” Roosevelt warned, “there can be no effective control of corporations while their political activity remains.”

In 2016, the country once again stands at a crossroads, the dark magic of finance capitalism having replaced the more legible abuses of industrial capitalism. Harriman’s railroad could at least be given tangible shape as “the implacable, iron monster,” as Frank Norris described it in his 1901 novel The Octopus. But the tracks have been laid, the sweatshops moved overseas out of sight, while the new robber barons work in virtual realms. Roosevelt would have been disturbed by the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, which concluded that “corporate political speech,” like that of the individual citizen, was protected by the First Amendment. The Court thus permitted corporations to exert political influence by funding causes and campaigns.

In his study of 17th-century New England merchants, the historian Bernard Bailyn suggests that Puritanism provided colonial Americans with “a grammar for the translation of economics into morality.” However, he added, “From the same texts the Puritan magistrates and the merchants read different lessons. The former learned the overwhelming importance of the organic society which subordinated the individual to the general good,” while the latter “learned the righteousness of those individual qualities”—diligence, frugality, and self-discipline among them—“whose secondary but attractive virtue” promoted financial success.

The conflicting moral interpretations of accumulating money that Bailyn delineates have persisted over the centuries to accommodate both the characteristically American commitment to making money as a virtuous expression of the Protestant work ethic, yet also the condemnation of the capitalist as a kind of confidence man who might peddle anything from patent medicines to curiosities to salvation in order to take advantage of the gullibility of his fellow citizens. The peerless showman and promoter P. T. Barnum might be the most seductive of these capitalist-tricksters. His autobiography, a quintessentially American tale of self-invention through business, revels in the various hoaxes—George Washington’s 161-year-old nurse, the Fejee Mermaid, the Woolly Horse—that made Barnum’s such a profitable brand.

Making money in America has rarely been regarded as morally neutral. And the conviction that economic success is in and of itself a virtuous thing endures even at those moments when excessive profit or malfeasance on the part of a few provoke outrage. This is a dimension of what one might call the Gilded Age psychology articulated by Roosevelt: “Each one of these states of mind, whether it be hatred, servility, or arrogance, is in reality closely akin to the other two; for each of them springs from a fantastically twisted and exaggerated idea of the importance of wealth as compared to other things,” he told an audience of educators in 1905. He went on:

The clamor of the demagogue against wealth, the snobbery of the social columns of the newspapers which deal with the doings of the wealthy, and the misconduct of those men of wealth who act with brutal disregard of the rights of others, seem superficially to have no fundamental relation; yet in reality they spring from shortcomings which are fundamentally the same; and one of these shortcomings is the failure to have proper ideals.

That same amalgamation of indignation, fawning celebrity-worship, and arrogant misconduct characterizes today’s historical moment just as it did Roosevelt’s. His insight was that a love of wealth undergirded it all—even the outrage.

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One of the most powerful fables about the relationship between the pursuit of riches and the care of the common good—between commerce and political virtue, to borrow the terms of the 20th-century historian J. G. A. Pocock—is that of Croesus, the fabulously wealthy 6th-century B.C. king of Lydia, in western Asia Minor. The Lydians were probably the first people to use metal coins, which were instrumental in the spread of commerce throughout the ancient world during the period, and Herodotus recorded in the 5th century B.C. that they were also “the first retail tradesmen.”

Herodotus explains that “all the sages of Greece” visited Croesus’s court. Upon the arrival of Solon, an Athenian statesman celebrated for his wisdom, Croesus commanded that his guest be given the customary “tour of the treasury” so that he could see “how large and rich it was.” Afterward the king demanded to know whether Solon had “seen anybody … more fortunate than all other men,” assuming, Herodotus wryly notes, “that the most fortunate of men would turn out to be himself.”

Refusing to oblige his host, Solon instead offered up examples of virtuous men who had valiantly defended their cities in battle or excelled in honoring their families and the gods. Croesus replied, “So then, my Athenian guest, as far as you are concerned, our wealth amounts to nothing, and you do not even consider us on a par with private citizens!” Before being dismissed, Solon had the temerity to school his irritated host: Croesus was “very rich” and ruled over a populous kingdom, but Solon refused to pronounce on the king’s good luck “until I find out that you have ended your life well.” The “super rich” were often unluckier than the “moderately well-off,” Solon observed, because the latter were less “able to afford desire and trouble.” The arrogant, short-sighted Croesus comes to appreciate Solon’s wisdom belatedly, after he has suffered a series of harrowing misfortunes, culminating in being taken captive after the violent destruction of his empire.

Modern-day scholars conclude that a meeting between Croesus and Solon was historically implausible, but it proved irresistible to a historian like Herodotus, who, as the classicist Philip Stadter suggests, turned it into a “paradigmatic encounter” between the “sage” who cares for the common good and the “prince” who who cares most for riches. Essential to the episode’s point is the opposition between wealth and political virtue, the implication being that the acquisition of wealth might actively work against the cultivation of the attributes that distinguish true stewards of the public good in their execution of political or military duties.

The meeting of Solon and Croesus—of wise political leader and super-rich man—typifies the mistrust of wealth that textures political thought from the ancients to the present day. In his biography of Solon, written centuries after Herodotus in imperial Rome, Plutarch acknowledges an ambient mistrust by defending Solon himself from the taint of making money. Although Solon was forced by his father’s improvidence to work as “a trader” in his youth, Plutarch protests, Solon was just trying to make a living and didn’t actually enjoy turning a profit. Reflecting his age’s prejudice against trade as a source of wealth, Plutarch recalls that in Solon’s day no “distinction [was] made with respect to trade” and “merchandise was a noble calling.”

The theme of a struggle between virtue and wealth threads throughout Ancient Greek and Roman narratives—historical and fictional. On the one hand there was the self-sufficient republic characterized by masculine citizenship rooted in landowning and the bearing of arms. On the other there was the commercial empire, corrupted by feminized luxury and often identified with the East: with the Persians, the Carthaginian Dido, the Egyptian Cleopatra. The legendary reformer Lycurgus banned trade in Sparta as part of an austere program meant to join citizens “in a common admiration of virtue,” while senators in the Roman republic were at least technically prohibited from engaging in trade. Julius Caesar, meanwhile, attributed the rugged German tribes’ comparative advantage over the Gauls to the fact that the latter “live close to the Province and are familiar with imported goods, and this entails an abundant supply of items both luxurious and functional.” The decline of Athens would likewise come to be associated with the corrupting wealth and luxury made possible by its commercial empire.

Virtuous political figures who also seemed interested in accumulating wealth posed a particular problem for ancient historians. Wrestling with the great Athenian leader Pericles’s interest in business, Plutarch wrote, “he kept himself untainted by corruption, although he was not altogether indifferent to money-making.” In contrast to philosophers, Plutarch rationalized, public men might successfully navigate a life of contradiction: “Inasmuch as he brings his superior excellence into close contact with the common needs of mankind,” he insisted, the statesman, “must sometimes find wealth not merely one of the necessities of life, but also one of its noble things, as was actually the case with Pericles, who gave aid to many poor men.”

The meditations of Plutarch on the relationship between commerce and virtue began to acquire new urgency roughly two millennia later during the Enlightenment for his European readers—of which there were many—who were witnessing the economic and political upheavals that paved the way for modern capitalism. The ancient fear that the accumulation of riches could militate against the accumulation of virtue intensified in 17th- and 18th-century England, for example, as observers attempted to make sense of the altered relationship between government and commerce created by the development of a new apparatus of public credit.

In the 1690s, accumulated war debt occasioned, as the historian J. R. Jones explains, England’s expansion of a system of government credit on “an unprecedented scale.” As Jones wrote in 1978 in Country and Court, what began as “a series of improvisations” ultimately grew into the “financial revolution” of the 1690s, which saw the founding of the Bank of England as well as two major commercial enterprises, the East India Company and the South Sea Company. Challenging the political influence of traditional landowners, this new “monied interest” also unsettled traditional conceptions of civic virtue by turning speculation on public credit into private profit.

Striking one of the keynotes of The Machiavellian Moment, his magisterial 1975 history of the Renaissance revival of classical republican thought and its repercussions, J. G. A. Pocock suggests that while it was “easy to visualize” the landowner, “anxious only to improve his estate for inheritance, engaging in civic actions which related his private to the public good,” it was “much harder to ascribe this role” to the man of commerce, who was “constantly engaged in increasing his wealth by exchanging quantities of fictitious tokens” and engaging in speculation. A century later, the belief that the monied interest had effectively usurped governmental functions fueled Edmund Burke’s arguments in the British parliament that the independent East India Company, which had begun “in commerce” but had insidiously “ended in empire,” should be subjected to government controls.

In this environment, merchants were more easily rescued from suspicion than were speculators, who effectively transformed what had historically been social and political relations between citizens and their government into what Pocock describes as a purely economic connection. The new financiers—the governors of the Bank of England chief among them—were almost universally feared and despised because they appeared to be, as Jones puts it, growing rich “at the expense of the nation generally” and because “their wealth was the product of financial transactions and currency manipulations that were totally unintelligible to the mass of the people.”

Nothing, the philosopher David Hume wrote in the 1740s, can “restrain or regulate the love of money, but a sense of honour or virtue.” How such virtue was to be stimulated in an age of rapid commercial growth that at the same time so clearly ameliorated social conditions became the subject of some of the age’s most agile thinkers, from Bernard Mandeville to Adam Smith. Mandeville, for his part, provocatively concluded in his satiric 1714 poem The Fable of the Bees that vice was the “very Wheel, that turn’d the Trade.” It was only pride that prompted individuals to “endeavor the Benefit of others,” Mandeville explained in one of the essays he appended to his poem, suggesting that national prosperity depended on personal avarice and appetite.

Not every observer of commercial society rendered quite so bleak a picture. The Spectator, the widely read London periodical launched in 1712 by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, offered readers a celebratory portrait of the modern merchant in the character of Sir Andrew Freeport, who finds his foil in the figure of Sir Roger de Coverly, a Tory squire deeply suspicious of those engaged in trade: “Gain is the chief End of such a People, they never pursue any other: The Means to it are never regarded; they will, if it comes easily, get Money honestly; but if not, they will not scruple to attain it by Fraud.” The best one could hope for in a merchant, according to Sir Roger, were “Frugality and Parsimony.”

In contrast to Sir Roger, the energetic Sir Andrew envisions a salubrious role for merchants and commerce: “There are not more useful Members in a Commonwealth than Merchants,” Addison writes. “They knit Mankind together in a mutual Intercourse of good Offices, distribute the Gifts of Nature, find Work for the Poor, add Wealth to the Rich, and Magnificence to the Great.” Indeed, to Addison, trade effectively preserves the health of the country through systemic regulation, “bringing into their Country whatever is wanting, and carrying out of it whatever is superfluous,” all the while “promoting the Publick Stock.” Sir Andrew describes a system of global trade, with Great Britain at its heart, as something natural and organic. (This image of the body politic is reminiscent of Sir William Harvey’s 1628 description of the circulation of the blood: “I conceive it will be manifest that the blood circulates, revolves, propelled and then returning, from the heart to the extremities, from the extremities to the heart, and thus that it performs a kind of circular motion.”)

In the second half of the century, the idea that commerce—whatever its potential corruptions—was an essential engine of social and political progress found arguably its most eloquent champions in Hume and Smith. For Hume, the improvement and “refinement in the arts and conveniences of life” ushered in by trade was “advantageous to the public.” Citing the example of the Spartans, whose non-commercial republic was sustained on the backs of the enslaved Helots, Hume concluded, “that policy is violent, which aggrandizes the public by the poverty of individuals.” By increasing the happiness of individual citizens, he observed, commerce is an equalizing, civilizing force.

Echoing Hume, Smith also lauded commercial enterprise in The Wealth of Nations, writing that “commerce and manufactures gradually introduced order and good government, and with them, the liberty and security of individuals … who had before lived almost in a continual state of war with their neighbours, and of servile dependency upon their superiors.” In Smith’s vision—not only in The Wealth of Nations but also in The Theory of Moral Sentiments—self-interest becomes the most reliable path to the common good; like several writers before him, he transforms a potential human liability into an asset. “Self-love but serves the virtuous mind to wake, / As the small pebble stirs the peaceful lake;” the poet Alexander Pope had written several decades before. “The centre mov’d, a circle straight succeeds, / Another still, and still another spreads, / Friend, parent, neighbor, first it will embrace; / His country next; and next all human race.”

Ultimately, Smith’s invisible hand is also a kind of sleight of hand, for the merchant is not motivated by civic virtue. Nor does he conceive his interests to be those of the public. The individual, Smith explained,

generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the publick interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it…. [H]e intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

The convergence of private and public interests in Smith’s model is a fortunate feature of the system, not a conscious expression of civic virtue on the part of the merchant. And if there is nothing inherently virtuous in personal gain even in the best of times, when interests harmonize, how easy it is during periods of excess and abuse to suspect that there is something innately corrupting in the accumulation of wealth.

* * *

It should come as no surprise that the opposition between agrarian and commercial interests and the debate over the optimal relationship between business and politics running through Enlightenment political and moral philosophy should also texture American political thinking from its beginnings. The founders were schooled in classical and Enlightenment texts, while the ideology of the Revolution is inextricably bound up with the fundamentally economic grievance of taxation without representation, a cry that has come over the centuries to assume a talismanic importance in the national imagination.

One of the great debates in the early republic took place over the constitutionality of a national bank. The agrarianism embodied by Thomas Jefferson—a celebration of agricultural life entangled with, yet long outliving, slavery in America—was pitted against Alexander Hamilton’s urbanism and schemes for restoring public credit at a time when, as the Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow put it, “[m]any Americans still regarded banking as a black, unfathomable art.” (Some Americans undoubtedly still do.)

Hamilton argued that no plan to establish a government could succeed unless it found a way “to unite the interest and credit of rich individuals with those of the state.” And it was commerce that he imagined would provide the riches. Jefferson envisioned a very different model. A passage from Notes on the State of Virginia is representative of this thinking in its association of virtue and husbandry and urbanization with corruption: “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God … whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. … The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.”

It is perhaps a symptom of the ambivalent attitudes of Americans toward making money that, in today’s political moment, which is so dominated by public outrage about the abuses perpetrated by the rich, it is the figure of Hamilton, at once a forward-looking enthusiast of finance and an immigrant made good, who has captivated audiences and made Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical a phenomenon. Theatergoers—many of whom have, incidentally, spent thousands for a ticket on the secondary market—root for Hamilton, and against an aristocratic Jefferson who has clearly been corrupted by too much time in France and by the fact that, unlike Hamilton, he did not fight in the war.

The first “Cabinet Battle” in Hamilton occurs over the issue of a national bank. Jefferson tells Hamilton that to plant crops is to “create” and accuses his adversary of simply wanting to “move our money around.” Hamilton replies, “How do you not get it? If we’re aggressive and competitive / The Union gets a boost. You’d rather give it a sedative! / A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey neighbor. / Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor.” Hamilton succeeded—in life and art—in persuading Washington, who authorized the founding of the bank in 1791.

In the antebellum United States, it would be the populist Andrew Jackson who took up the Jeffersonian brief against the power of banks and corporations after the country was rocked by a series of financial crises. The increasing misery of industrial workers throughout the century also gave ammunition to those who championed agrarianism. Rhetoric on all sides was complicated and often compromised by the persistence of slavery in the American South. It was during this period that reformers expressed their outrage at the poor treatment of urban workers in the North by referring to their condition as “wage slavery.”

In 1840, the minister and reformer Orestes Brownson perversely perceived the plight of the ostensibly free “laboring classes” to be more desperate than that of actual slaves. Slavery’s defenders, unsurprisingly, railed against capitalism’s disruptive evils, and even in his profound hypocrisy an apologist like George Fitzhugh, a planter from Virginia and vocal pro-slavery advocate, exposed the potential inhumanities of the industrial system: “Capital commands labor, as the master does the slave…. Whilst you were engaged in amassing your capital,” he informed industrialists in 1857, “you were in the White Slave Trade.”

The analogy between wage slavery and chattel slavery persisted in the United States into the 20th century in the rhetoric of reformers such as the socialist Eugene Debs. In 1914, even as Dale Carnegie was beginning to train businessmen to win friends and influence people, the labor leader Samuel Gompers concluded, “the economic interests of the employing class and those of the working class are not harmonious,” adding, “There are times when, for temporary purposes, interests are reconcilable; but they are temporary only.”

If, as Pocock suggests, the Industrial Revolution ushered in the “fantasy” of “[e]conomic man as masculine conquering hero” in the shape of Marx’s worker, it also made it possible to discern in his nemesis a kind of terrifying savior. Looking in desperation at “the Hell of England” in 1843, the historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle believed only one class capable of restoring order to the “Human Chaos”: “The Leaders of Industry, if Industry is ever to be led, are virtually the Captains of the World,” he proposed in his book Past and Present. It was they who would have to organize “that grandest of human interests”: work. To do it, of course, they would have to “retire into their own hearts” to determine whether there was anything there “but vulturous hunger, for fine wines, valet reputation and gilt carriages.” Carlyle looked to a time when, “[t]o be a noble Master, among noble Workers, will again be the first ambition with some few—to be a rich Master only the second.”

A decade later, in 1854, the masters not yet having found their nobility, Charles Dickens would indict England’s “Hell” in his novel Hard Times, where he speculated about the future of the appropriately named industrialist Mr. Gradgrind: “Did he see himself … making his facts and figures subservient to Faith, Hope, and Charity; and no longer trying to grind that Heavenly trio in his dusty little mills?” Would Gradgrind and his fellow “dustmen” finally see, Dickens asks, that they owed a “duty” not simply to their own fraternity, but also “to an abstraction called a People”?

One of the most intriguing American incarnations of Carlyle’s “Captains of the World” was the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who had the added attraction of having been an immigrant who built his wealth in archetypal Horatio Alger fashion. Having absorbed the tenets of Social Darwinism, Carnegie proposed his solution for harmonizing social and economic relations in 1889 in The Gospel of Wealth: “The problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth, so that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship.” Rather than deploring the inequities of Gilded Age America, Carnegie understood the “contrast between the palace of the millionaire and the cottage of the laborer” as a measure of “the progress of the race.” He preferred “great irregularity [to] universal squalor.”

To Carnegie, it was the “duty of the man of Wealth” to solve “the problem of Rich and Poor.” His philanthropy was animated by the idea that the rich man was in fact better suited than government to addressing the issue by virtue of his “superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer.” The wealthy ought therefore to use their expertise to dispose of their “surplus revenues” for the common benefit. With the methods of accumulation and distribution left appropriately unregulated by government, “the millionaire will be but a trustee for the poor; intrusted for a season with a great part of the increased wealth of the community, but administering it for the community far better than it could or would have done for itself.” As the many charitable foundations that improve the lives of Americans attest, the amassing of private capital may ultimately yield a real communal good, but this good is arbitrary and unreliable, depending as it does on the sense of “duty” felt by particular individuals.

It is difficult to credit the claim that the successful accumulation of capital necessarily recommends someone to calculate the public good. In the eyes of Carnegie’s contemporary, the sociologist Lester Ward, “the qualities which best fit men to gain advantage over their fellows are the ones least useful to society at large.” Yet the idea that business leadership somehow naturally translates to other kinds of stewardship also animates the belief, so popular today, that business can do what government cannot and encourages the introduction of business methods and efficiencies into all sorts of institutions that aren’t businesses at all—schools, health-care and emergency services, prisons. The ubiquitous impulse to privatize manifests a faith that profit is the most reliable motive of all.

This idea has deep roots. The English novelist and political pamphleteer Daniel Defoe, a generally enthusiastic if sometimes ambivalent witness to the economic transformations of the late 17th- and early 18th-centuries, once suggested that the merchant “is qualified for all sorts of employment in the state by a general knowledge of things and men; he remits and draws such vast sums, that he transacts more value than a large exchequer.” If one can run a business, in other words, perhaps one can run a country.

That’s what Americans who voted for Donald Trump are banking on. They are counting on his willingness to employ a habitual, avowed self-interest on their behalf. But democracies don’t run like businesses: They are messy and inefficient by design. Checks and balances, separation of powers—these are deliberate protections. Trump’s candidacy rested on a consistent refusal to claim any qualification for running a government other than the pragmatic ability to secure his own advantage and to negotiate the best possible “deal.” Yet his campaign promises were the furthest thing from practical: commitments to restoring a greatness somewhere lost; to building a 1,000-mile Maginot Line on the Mexican border that won’t cost Americans a penny; to ending an environmental “war on coal,” an industry transformed largely by technology and cheaper natural gas; to resurrecting a post-World War II manufacturing economy that has already substantially metamorphosed into a knowledge and service economy.

Who in difficult times does not crave a panacea? What principles are people willing to sacrifice to their irrational craving for something that doesn’t exist? The columnist Francis Wilkinson recently wrote in Bloomberg View, “It’s a conundrum—good, decent people supporting a moral delinquent who subverts many of their most basic values. At the same time, many Trump supporters … believe Hillary Clinton is an affront to their morality.” Many Americans have accepted that self-interested calculation, while intolerable in a professional politician, is business as usual for—even admirable in—billionaires. One of the things the election’s outcome suggests is that while voters claim to demand honesty and virtue in their politicians, their expectations for the capitalist conscience could not be lower. Is that the reason why Trump’s explicit boasts about being “smart” enough to avoid paying taxes, sufficiently famous to grope women at will, and so popular that he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing voters, as well as his disinclination to repudiate racist extremist groups that support him, did not prove insurmountable bars to election?

If the United States has a parable akin to the old Greek tale of Croesus, perhaps it is Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, the 1941 film that was in certain important respects based on the publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst but managed to illuminate truths about America that reach far beyond any one individual. It chronicles a poor boy-turned-plutocrat-turned-newspaperman-turned-aspiring politician whose populist campaign for governor is derailed by his opponent’s political machine and his own indiscretions. Charles Foster Kane isn’t an especially good businessman, as his guardian and advisor, the Wall Street banker Mr. Thatcher, tells him on more than one occasion. Humiliated and financially damaged by the Depression, Kane—who came in at number five on Forbes’s 2013 list of the 15 richest fictional characters—reinvents himself and remains a player on the public stage before finally retreating into monied isolation on his Florida estate, Xanadu.

At least for a while, Kane pursues a boyish ambition somehow to serve the public good. When he reaches adulthood, he shows little interest in the diversified portfolio he has come into. Only one item intrigues him, a small newspaper that he tells Thatcher he thinks “it would be fun to run.” Kane uses that paper to serve the progressive cause of defending “decent, hardworking people” from “a group of money-mad pirates.” Kane claims to be “two people”: one of them a capitalist pirate, the other a newspaper publisher dedicated to exposing pirates. He explains, in language reminiscent perhaps of Carnegie’s gospel of wealth, that the first role is precisely what equips him for the second: “If I don’t look after the interests of the underprivileged, maybe somebody else will, maybe somebody without any money or property—and that would be too bad.”

The film bombards viewers with analyses of Kane by intimates and acquaintances. Ultimately, however, it is Kane himself who diagnoses his condition by implying an inverse relationship between his money and his character: “You know, Mr. Bernstein,” he tells his loyal business manager, “if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.” Bernstein, for his part, characterizes Kane as “a man that lost—almost everything he had.” These losses are sometimes material but most often emotional: his family, his friends, his campaign for social justice. But the film’s final irony is that even in losing everything that matters, Kane improves his store of virtue not at all.