Must-read: John Plender: “Capitalists Excel at Giving Themselves a Bad Name”

Must-Read: (1) Cecil Rhodes stole a lot of stuff. (2) Cecil Rhodes got a lot of people dead. (3) Cecil Rhodes built a lot of stuff. (4) Cecil Rhodes tried hard to spend his money to create a peaceful, united, trading world in which people of different countries understood each other–and (5) understood that people of British culture and British race were boss.

It’s fine to celebrate (4). And it’s good to actually spend the pile of money that derives from Cecil Rhodes on (4). But if you want to have a big statue of Rhodes hanging around, shouldn’t it be part of an exhibit that also notes his role in (1), (2), (3), and (5), and puts it all in its proper place?

Monticello these days, I think, does that, and does that properly. Can Oriel College say that it does that? Does Plender have any constructive ideas as to how to do that? And is he willing to head up a fund-raising campaign?

John Plender: Capitalists Excel at Giving Themselves a Bad Name: “Oxford’s dilemma is indicative of how the system can create wealth but often in ways that offend…

…Cecil Rhodes, alas. Or so the governing body of Oriel College, Oxford, must feel as it confronts demands from the student-led Rhodes Must Fall movement…. Rhodes was, of course, a rampant colonialist, unprincipled mining entrepreneur and conspicuous racist. He also happened to establish the Rhodes scholarships to facilitate the celebrated international study programme at Oxford…. Back then I took for granted that the kind of people who endowed Oxbridge colleges were likely to be rich but noxious. Today I rationalise it less casually. Rhodes epitomises the paradoxical nature of capitalism. The genius of the system is that it has an extraordinary capacity for creating wealth and raising living standards. Yet it often does so in ways that many find morally offensive. The difficulty concerns the centrality of the money motive — greed, in a word — in driving economic growth….

There is, in the moral economy of entrepreneurship, a spectrum. At one extreme are those like the robber barons of the American gilded age, such as John D Rockefeller, JP Morgan and Henry Clay Frick…. These were exceptionally nasty men. Their career model consisted of a no holds barred, preferably monopolistic, money grab until old age when they atoned for their misdeeds through spectacular philanthropic largesse…. At the other end of the spectrum were such high-minded model employers as Matthew Boulton, the nonconformist steam entrepreneur who, among other things, pioneered workers’ insurance at the start of the industrial revolution…. The distinctive feature of the assault on Rhodes is that the outrage is retrospective. The question is where such retrospection leads. Should we now spurn the sculptures of Periclean Athens on the basis that its democracy was supported by slavery? And what to do about statues of Thomas Jefferson, owner of numerous slaves?…

January 25, 2016


Brad DeLong
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