Selling the Rope, as Lenin Predicted

The old saying that, “The problem with socialism is socialism; the problem with capitalism is capitalists” proves itself true time and again. So does Lenin’s claim that the capitalists would sell the Bolsheviks the rope with which to hang them. Thus, I’m not too surprised at The Los Angeles Times‘ brief profile of one capitalist doing just as Lenin expected:

He’s been called a bully and a monopolist. Al Gore once labeled him “Darth Vader.” The Wall Street Journal described him as “ruthless” and alleged “self-dealing” in a maze of complicated business transactions. He is a master of the tax-free deal, completely disdains government and most federal regulations, and has expressed a fondness for Rush Limbaugh. This summer he was slapped with a $1.4-million fine by the Justice Department for illegal stock purchases.

Sounds like the perfect target for a hard-hitting Michael Moore documentary, no? But no, we’re talking about Moore’s latest sugar daddy: cable mogul John Malone.

That’s right, Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story” is being co-financed and distributed domestically by Overture Films, which is a unit of Malone’s Liberty Media. Moore, who has been railing against Big Media during press junkets promoting the movie, is in bed with the Goldman Sachs of the media world.

Unsurprisingly, Moore tries to excuse this incongruity by appealing to some corporatist state ideal.

Moore, through a spokesman, isn’t making any apologies for having one of Malone’s companies as a backer of his film. “The movie is about HOW people make their money, and specifically criticizes the beast, our out-of-control economic system. …  And for those folks who make their money in ways that don’t exploit or hurt others, then they should be giving a lot more back in tax dollars to help support a more just and fair society. People like John Malone, myself and others who have been blessed, we all ought to be in a 70% tax bracket with the money being used to provide such important services as a real universal and affordable single-payer healthcare system.”

Of course, there is nothing preventing Michael Moore from writing a check to the IRS surrendering the 70 percent of his enormous income, which, by his own view, he does not deserve. As for Malone, the question of “how” posed by Moore’s spokesman should be asked of him. And I’d love to hear his reaction to his business partner’s 70-percent tax proposal.

This isn’t meant to single out Malone, though. As a story published by the Business Journal chain notes, this is part of a wider phenomenon:

Such relationships aren’t unusual in Hollywood, where populist rabble rousers, dreamers and captains of finance long have been united in pursuit of art and profit.

“That’s more the norm than not,” said Michael Taylor, a movie producer, and chairman of film and television production at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Moore’s films have been indictments of broad aspects of American culture: the auto industry in “Roger and Me,” U.S. gun culture in “Bowling for Columbine,” the Bush presidency in “Farenheit 9/11” and the health care system in “Sicko.” The latter three are among the six highest-grossing documentary features in history.

His ability to draw large audiences is why a large media company founded by someone like Malone — who battled regulation to make TCI into a cable TV empire, and whose Libery Media recently started a $50,000 annual prize for journalism covering economic freedom — embraces entertainment without regard to its political viewpoint.

“One of the features, I suppose, of being a titan of industry on that scale is to not micromanage these things and get in the way,” Taylor said.

Yet there is a very big difference between getting in the way and not knowing — or caring — what it is you’re backing.

Fittingly, this week The Economist launched a new business column named “Schumpeter,” after the great economist of entrepreneurship, Joseph Schumpeter. This is timely, because Schumpeter’s dire warning about the future of the free market is one we should always keep in mind. As the column notes:

The prophet of capitalism’s creative powers also understood the precariousness of the capitalist achievement. He pointed out that successful firms depend upon a complex ecology that has been created over centuries. He wrote extensively about the development of the joint-stock company and the rise of stockmarkets. He also understood that capitalism might be destroyed by its own success. He worried that a “new class” of bureaucrats and intellectuals were determined to tame capitalism’s animal spirits.

Today, we can look back and see the rise of that “new class” happening alongside the rise of the state over the last century. Entrepreneurs — Business Journal describes Malone as “libertarian” — should know better than to support the kind of intellecutal poison that seeks to do them in. (Thanks to Margaret Griffis for the LA Times link.)