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Books: Rockefeller's angles

Books | The capitalist espoused Christianity and didn't like competition

Issue: "Putting Kyoto on ice," Aug. 8, 1998

In reviewing Ron Chernow's bestseller, Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr., a New York Times writer argued that America's premier capitalist was, in fact, a Marxist. That's going way too far. Instead, what Mr. Chernow's excellent biography shows is that Mr. Rockefeller made the same mistake Marx made: Though a firm believer in the sinful nature of individuals, he failed to see that by grouping together into a company or a council, men don't make themselves any less sinful. The portrait of John D. Rockefeller Sr. that emerges from the nearly 800-page Titan is Picasso-esque in its sharp angles and contrasts. Mr. Rockefeller's father was a loon, a liar, and a bigamist (he was buried as Dr. William Levingston, patent medicine salesman). His mother, who married "Big Bill" while still very young, managed to provide for the children during her restless husband's year-long absences. Mr. Rockefeller grew up poor and determined. His mother passed on her deep faith in Christ; the image most Americans have of robber-baron Rockefeller rarely includes his religious orthodoxy and commitment. Or if we've learned anything about Mr. Rockefeller's religiosity, it has only been to advance the notion he was a hypocrite. But Mr. Rockefeller was anything but a hypocrite. Part of the problem with the historical image of Rockefeller, an image Mr. Chernow does help to make more truthful, is that the historians have failed to see the connection between Christian faith and Mr. Rockefeller's business practices. This is not to say that Mr. Rockefeller's tactics were the correct conclusion drawn from Scripture-just that Mr. Chernow points out a connection other biographers and critics have often have missed. "The saga of his monumental business feats is inseparable from the fire-and-brimstone atmosphere that engulfed upstate New York in his childhood," Mr. Chernow writes. Just before the Civil War, Mr. Rockefeller saw his chance to succeed in business by entering into the infant oil industry. Mr. Chernow colorfully records the rise of Mr. Rockefeller's Standard Oil into one of the biggest and most profitable companies in history. He did this, in large part, by banking on the greed of others and the arrogance of opponents. Where Mr. Rockefeller agreed with Marx was in despising competition as something ruinous and anarchic. The oil industry was then and remains the textbook example of boom-and-bust cycles, with wild price fluctuations. Mr. Rockefeller craved price controls and steady markets. "In a critical distinction," writes Mr. Chernow, "he viewed competitive capitalism-and not capitalism per se-as producing a vulgar materialism and rapacious business practices that dissolved the bonds of human brotherhood.... What the American economy needed instead were new competitive forms (trusts, pools, monopolies) that would restrain grasping individuals for the general good." Mr. Rockefeller's mistake, as shown in various of his legendary takeovers and raids, was to think that individuals would be any less grasping if they sat on a corporate board (or Executive Committee, in Marx's case). But he did do a better job at home. Mr. Rockefeller was a doting, loving father, who rightly feared that riches could ruin his children. His efforts to teach them economy and prudence may seem a bit much (his children had to share one bicycle, for example), but he did show a deep love and regard for their future.

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