Oregon Magazine

Steve Jobs and the Electric Kool Aid Acid Test  by Art Hyland, Contributing Editor

November, 2011 -- It has been 38 years since I squirreled away an article I clipped from the Wall Street Journal, written by Michael Novak and called, “A Closet Capitalist Confesses.” 

It was 1973, Richard NIxon was attempting to wind down the Vietnam war, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average was about 800.  It was the year of the first Arab oil embargo (Arab--the term that used to describe some residents of the Middle East), and government gasoline rationing.  It was a classic example of the federal government interrupting the free market by making things infinitely worse than if the market had been allowed to allocate the temporary scarcity.

Washington DC was all about equality of outcome, because socialism was DC-chic back then.

Mr. Novak wrote:  “I first realized I was a capitalist when all my friends began publicly declaring that they were socialists ... How I wished I could be as left as they. Night after night I tried to persuade myself of the coherence of their logic; I did my best to go straight. I held up in the privacy of my room pictures of every socialist land known to me: North Korea, Albania, Czechoslovakia (land of my grandparents) and even Sweden.  Nothing worked.  When I quizzed my socialist intellectual friends, I found they didn’t like socialist countries either. They all said to me: ‘We want socialism, but not like eastern Europe.'  I said, ‘Cuba?’  No suggestion won their assent...They loved the idea of socialism.

We’ve come full circle.  Again. 

Having defeated the National Socialists of Germany (Nazis) in the forties, allowed bureaucratic socialism to creep into the 60s and 70s, and having returned capitalism partially back in style with the Reagan Revolution of the 80s, socialism itself, unfortunately, was never killed in America.  What Novak wondered about in 1973, we are now duplicating today.  The thoughts he pondered, the arguments he developed, remain as genuine now as they did those many decades and cycles ago.

He continued:  “Finally, I realized that socialism is not a political proposal, not an economic plan. Socialism is the residue of Judeo-Christian faith, without religion. It is a belief in community, the goodness of the human race and paradise on earth.  That’s when I discovered I was an incurable and inveterate, as well as secret, sinner. I believe in sin... Capitalism is a system built on belief in human selfishness; given checks and balances, it is nearly always a smashing, scandalous success.”

The recently-revealed comments by Steve Jobs to Barack Obama, wherein he lamented about the difficulty of opening factories here vs. foreign countries, or his thoughts about how unions have strangled our educational system puzzled me given the well-known fact that Jobs was politically liberal.  But given his highly-focused mechanical and design engineering experience, political and social engineering may have seemed, superficially at least, a natural solution to patronize.  

Like Novak described socialists decades ago, Jobs when away from his office, believed in the goodness of the human race and therefore sided with political liberals (and married one) who were determined to make everyone good by making them equal:  Christians, Jews et al without the trappings of religion. 

But within Jobs’ treasured workplace, he practiced extreme capitalistic philosophy:  selfishness (no corporate philanthropy at Apple) and a demanding competitiveness and search for perfection and order at any cost, human or financial.  

Apple has been a “smashing, scandalous success,” scandalous by any liberal appraisal if you consider the non-union, relatively low-wage workers in his foreign factories pumping out those wonderful iPods, iPads and iPhones.  Jobs sinned against his public persona, and was successful beyond imagination.  The liberal establishment never bothered to ask him about his capitalist successes (they may now that he’s gone) because when you’re a liberal, you don’t bite the liberal hand that feeds you, you smile and look the other way.  And head to the bank.

Novak again: 

“Capitalism, accepting human sinfulness, rubs sinner against sinner, making even dry wood yield a spark of grace.”

Jobs created those sparks of grace, and he did it by rubbing those sinners against one another.  At this point it just seems interesting to point out that Apple was one of the very first companies to offer benefits to domestic partners.  To him, it was just a business decision.  He combined the working capitalist with the cultural socialist while playing the role of a high tech Jeckyl and Hyde.  As long as Apple was successful with Jobs having one foot in each of the opposing camps, it didn’t matter to him, or never occurred to him, that with his off-hours encouragement of liberal politicians, the playing field for budding American capitalists was fast becoming bleak.  I don’t know if Jobs shared an opinion about the condition of the state of California, or of its regulatory bureaucracy, but then, as noted above, he didn’t manufacture the goodies there anyway.

It’s 2011, and Steve Jobs is sadly dead, but I believe he went to his grave as a Closet Capitalist who never confessed.  Too bad he never met Michael Novak, who would have been able to open that closet door for all of us to see the real Steve Jobs while he was alive.

                              -- AH

Original text © 2011 Art Hyland