John D Rockefeller. Adjusted for inflation, he's the richest person in the history of the world. The fortune of this self-made entrepreneur would be worth five times that of the world's richest person today.
Many historians have put John D Rockefeller into a group of people they refer to as "Robber barons."
According to thefreedictionary.com, "Robber baron" is defined as:
One of the American industrial or financial magnates of the late 1800s who became wealthy by unethical means, such as questionable stock-market operations and exploitation of labor.
I'd argue that this categorization for Rockefeller is quite unfair.
Why he's hated
He's hated far and wide, but in my opinion, people have very weak reasons for hating him. Some say he acquired his wealth by unethically: they say he got rich by exploiting labor, or say that he was a monopolist who unfairly crushed his competitors.
A couple more of the primary arguments for him being a "Robber baron" or an evil person, are for one, that his company, Standard Oil, violated the Sherman Anti Trust Act. Number two is that he insisted on getting rebates from the railroads.
These are the arguments of people who actually have a reason to hate him. However, I think most people who hate him, do so for reasons of envy. I think many assume that because he was tremendously wealthy that he must be a bad person. I'm not going to address this final reason in this article, but I will talk about why the others are wrong.
Why these are bad arguments
"He got rich by exploiting labor"
I don't think an employer can exploit an employee if the employee is there under voluntary circumstances. Once the relationship is no longer voluntary, it is at that point that there is likely exploitation happening.
What does it mean to be an employee? If you're an employee, it means you're selling your labor to the business. When you sell your labor, you want to get the highest price possible. Therefore, assuming all else equal (working conditions, hours, enjoyability, etc), you're going to work for the business who's willing to pay you the most.
JDR's employees willingly chose to work for Standard Oil instead of other companies, which means Standard Oil offered them the best alternative. Many people moved from rural areas to industrialized cities because working for JDR provided them a better standard of living than working on a farm.
Why hate a guy for providing people a better standard of living?
"He's a monopolist who unfairly crushed his competitors."
Yes, he was a monopolist. Is that such a bad thing? I'd argue it's not. In this case, I'd argue that it's a great thing! The more important question is "Why was he a monopolist?"
The short answer to this question is that other oil-refining companies couldn't compete with him because Standard Oil was so much more effecient. Everyone bought from him because he could produce kerosene at the lowest cost.
Rockefeller was almost solely responsible for reducing the cost of kerosene by 90%. That means every persons' lighting bill went down by 90%.
What if a single individual was responsible for reducing your monthly electric bill from $115.00 to $11.50? Would you love them or hate them?
You should love them, regardless of how much money they made in the process.
Fun fact: No one in history has done more to save the whales than Rockefeller.
Before he reduced the cost of kerosene, people were using whale oil. Yes, oil from whales. Whales were being killed at a rapid rate because people would use oil from their fat to light their homes. When you drastically reduce the cost of an alternative (kerosene), and make the alternative significantly cheaper than whale oil, you suddenly save a whole lot (or should I say "pod") of whales!
Standard Oil Violated The Sherman Anti Trust Act
Legality does not equal morality. It's a stupid law and it should be violated. Standard Oil was a monopoly because they offered the best product at the lowest price. Should he have not tried to optimize his supply chain and decrease prices to make sure customers didn't buy from him? Of course not.
Another way to say that "He violated the Sherman Anti Trust Act" would be to say "He ran such an efficient company that he reduced the price of kerosene by 90%, he allowed the average person to afford to light their home, and he improved the lives of millions. For these reasons, people purchased from him instead of his competitors."
He insisted on getting rebates from railroads
So what? Should you not get a better deal when buying in bulk? Should you pay the same price for each can of Coke when buying 50 at a time from Costco as you should when buying a single can from a convenience store?
All companies and individuals get a discount when buying it bulk. Why should it be illegal or unethical when Standard Oil gets a discount? They gave the railroads an enormous amount of business and they should be allowed to negotiate with them accordingly.
Rockefeller not only did a lot of great things in business, his personal life is also something to be admired.
According to the book John D. Rockefeller: A Life From Beginning To End
Rockefeller lived whet we might regard as a model life. He did not drink alcohol. He attended church regularly. He was married to his wife for over fifty years. His children were not the spoiled, pampered scions of the rich but were expected to work, to live productive lives, and to obey the teachings of the Baptist faith which their parents instilled in them. Rockefeller's philantrhopy, which bagan when he was a boy putting pennies in the church offering plate, continued all his life and totaled more than $500 million given go education, religious causes, health, the arts, and World War I relief.
This post was solely written so you can see John Davison Rockefeller in a different light. It is by no means a defense of what his heirs and benefactors have done with his fortune since he passed away.