All-American Sharks
What Shark Tank can teach us about capitalism

Shark Tank contestants make their pitch.


Lee Habeeb

It’s an exceedingly simple show: A panel of potential investors — “the sharks” — sit in a row, taking business pitches from Americans of every imaginable stripe, and every imaginable walk of life. They are hoping to get those rich guys and gals — themselves a walk through the American diversity quilt — to fund their start-up businesses.

The show is ABC’s Shark Tank. Now in its fourth season, it’s exceedingly entertaining. It’s so entertaining that it’s the No. 1 show in America in the coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic on Friday evenings. And what’s not to enjoy? It is part American Idol, part The Gong Show, but with a twist: The contestants aren’t wannabe Lady Gagas; they’re wannabe entrepreneurs.

They’re the American next door who wants to start a business and grow it. Maybe into the next McDonald’s or Apple Computer. Or maybe something big enough to make a difference in their community, and hand down to their children. Or sell for a tidy profit.

They’re Americans of all kinds: kids and adults, black and white people, Asians and Hispanics. But there is only one color on Shark Tank that matters: green.

Contestants come from cities, from suburbs, and from rural America too. Some pitch their businesses in suits and ties, others in flip-flops. We’ve seen firemen and teachers, housewives and executives, grade-schoolers and college kids, surfers and salesmen on the set of Shark Tank. All get treated equally. Equally well and poorly.

If the pitch is good, there are offers. Sometimes, the sharks compete against one another to land a deal. If it’s bad, things get ugly. Sometimes, things get funny, too.

But one thing is certain: On Shark Tank, no one gets preferential treatment because of his race, or class, or where he’s from.

What could be more American — and more likeable — than that?

The contestants want to own their own lives and build their own businesses, and need funding. And they’re hoping against hope that one of those sharks takes the bait and invests in them.

Millions watching hope against hope, with them.

It’s the show that every capitalist should watch. And tell his friends to watch, especially those who don’t like capitalism. Because it makes capitalism cool.

It makes capital cool, too. Cool to want. Cool to have. And cool to invest in others. Because that’s what the dreamers on the set of Shark Tank want: capital. Capital is oxygen to aspiring entrepreneurs. Most Americans just don’t know it.

Karl Marx had a different view of capital, as do many leftists today. Why should rich people own a slice of a business for doing nothing more than investing in it? They aren’t actually doing the work. Why should they reap the rewards? That’s why many on the left think we should tax the heck out of capital. Because money that makes money is tainted. It would be far fairer if that money went to the government to redistribute and “invest.”

Peddle that line at most American universities and you’ll get some uninformed students to buy it. But peddle it to the contestants on Shark Tank and see how far it gets you. They are on the show to joyfully and voluntarily trade a portion of ownership in their businesses for capital.

But they looking for more than capital. It’s stunning how often the contestants on Shark Tank tell their potential investors — plead with them — that what they want is their experience, too. Experience with distribution, cash flow, marketing, and more.

What they are seeking is knowledge, and knowledge is the capital of capitalism. That’s what capitalism does best of all: It creates vast pools of knowledge no central planner or bureaucrat could ever manage.

In this respect, Shark Tank isn’t just great entertainment. It’s a great education. Indeed, no single show has been a better distillation of the genius of capitalism than Shark Tank. Nothing Milton Fredman ever did for PBS matches it. Nothing Adam Smith ever wrote by candlelight can touch it.

Shark Tank does more than just give capitalism a good name; it also gives being rich a good name. The 1 percent’s wealth can fuel dreams and create more wealth — and jobs.

Shark Tank makes being in the 1 percent cool. That’s because the cast is cool, and thus very different from the caricature leftists generally paint of the rich. What makes the cast so good is that all are self-made millionaires, and all of them love growing small businesses into bigger ones, and making lots of money doing it.

The show is all about underdogs overcoming the odds and doing great things. The cast reflects those virtues.


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

NRO Polls on LockerDome

Subscribe to National Review