By Dick Meyer
Scripps Washington Bureau.
According to a 2013 survey by scholars at Baylor University, entrepreneurs “are more likely to believe in an engaged, responsive God who takes a personal interest in them” than the rest of us. They pray more and believe their prayers are answered more.
The faith of entrepreneurs is contagious. Americans have developed an unquestioning faith in the virtue of people who start businesses. Today we venerate entrepreneurs. We worship them. Or maybe we just have a crush on them. We spare them the criticism and skepticism we heap on other vocations.
There are less worthy vessels for our ardor. It is mildly heartening to know we’re still capable of admiration at a time when our confidence in most professions and institutions is so low.
But it’s gotten out of hand, this glorification of entrepreneurs and startups. It’s mythmaking. Other worthy vocations are getting cheated (not journalists, by the way and for the record).
Who gets more of our love than entrepreneurs?
Polls show Americans trust and admire doctors and nurses the most, the people who directly take care of us. Their incomes haven’t kept pace with our tender feelings.
We gawk at athletes, entertainers and talentless, generic celebrities. We might even envy them, but we don’t give them unmitigated respect and confidence. Trust in the clergy, members of Congress, journalists and big business people has crashed since the 1970s.
I can’t recall learning about heroes of commerce in school. Inventors such as Thomas Edison were heroes because of their brains and contributions, not their eventual fortunes.
We did learn about great moguls such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford, but we also learned about the downside of the Industrial Revolution and labor movement. It wasn’t hero worship.
I can’t recall any great admiration for the biggest self-made zillionaires when I was in high school and college in the 1970s, except for maybe Hugh Hefner, who my pals probably did worship. Howard Hughes was certainly famous, but he was loopy by then.
But people like J. Paul Getty, Daniel Ludwig and John D. MacArthur were more secretive villains than role models. There were no man-child billionaires.
There was still a 1960s anti-materialism in the air. In college and graduate school, kids didn’t talk much about becoming an entrepreneur or wanting to start a business. Some people wanted to, of course. But it was distinctly uncool to confess to greed or wanting to make a lot of money.
The big change started somewhere in the middle 1980s. Sam Walton and then Warren Buffet were folksy, fatherly, friendly moguls. Ted Turner was a swashbuckling, irreverent financial delinquent. Celebrity culture expanded to commerce and Forbes began listing the richest of the rich.
The archetypal new era entrepreneurs were the twin lords of tech, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. They had compelling stories: outsiders, dropouts, incredible focus and brilliance, inventors, not just businessmen. They weren’t the establishment.
They paved the way for our glorification of classic entrepreneurs but also for a new class of financial celebrity, the wizard of hedge funds and private equity.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Wall St. was stained. When Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko said, “Greed is good” in the 1987 movie “Wall Street,” it was evil. Gates and Jobs came to represent a different narrative. They flipped “greed is good” into a virtue in a way Ayn Rand’s disciples never could.
The entrepreneurial knight created not only new things but new ways of doing things _ and of thinking. The entrepreneur was a builder, a creator, a disruptor and a do-gooder.
And some are. Others aren’t. The distribution of human virtues and vices doesn’t vary much from among groups and fields in my experience.
Overall, the new mythology of entrepreneurship is probably a good thing. At its best, it is optimistic, assertive, rebellious and bound for solutions. It is chock-full of old American memes, self-made, self-reliant and independent by declaration. The role of entrepreneurs and startups in the whole economy probably has been overstated in recent years, but that’s no great crime.
People at the top of giant corporations and institutions have benefitted from the entrepreneurial glow to help justify incomes proportionally far larger than their predecessors ever saw.
The rise of entrepreneur idolatry also has coincided with the rise of unparalleled inequality of wealth and incomes in America. It isn’t a cause. Entrepreneurs aren’t to blame. But this hero worship provides a cover story, a convenient ideology.
The role of the entrepreneur in free market America is important and honorable. The same is true of doctors, schoolteachers, scientists, artists, farmers and public employees.
The pendulum has swung a tad too far in equating virtue and prosperity. The exaggerated faith in entrepreneurs is a sign of that and it is time for a market correction.
Dick Meyer is Chief Washington Correspondent for the Scripps Washington Bureau and DecodeDC