As a horde besieged Wall Street and the president of the United States inveighed against the wealthy, the nation paused to celebrate the life of a billionaire CEO who traveled by private jet.
Steve Jobs was the corporate titan even corporate-haters loved. The lefty website Nation of Change had a respectful notice of his passing, underneath a banner advertisement urging donations to “stand up to corporate power.” It apparently didn’t occur to anyone that he was the nation’s most influential corporate power.
Jobs had such appeal because of his decidedly non-CEO vibe — the jeans and the sneakers — and the sheer elegance of his creations. But make no mistake: Jobs was perfectly distilled entrepreneurial energy, the highest expression of a system of consumer capitalism that nearly miraculously delivers life-changing products before we know we want or need them.
Pres. Barack Obama loves his “Buffett Rule” for taxes. He’d be better served by adopting the “Jobs Rule”: Government’s role is to provide the structure of order and freedom for the churning creativity of the free market, and otherwise minimize its involvement in forces beyond its competence to understand or control.
The day after Jobs’s death, President Obama explained at a press conference why the government needs to “take bets” on the solar industry, picking companies and technologies to favor with government support. Somehow Apple managed to roll out a series of transformative devices during the past decade without any such subsidies. Of course, the federal government never thought to aid the makers of profitable media players or tablets, because they had little impact on popular consciousness until Jobs made his versions practically universal. Solar power, on the other hand, has been the clichéd energy of the future for decades.
In the form of the market, Jobs had a more exacting master than any government agency could ever devise. There was no guarantee that his genius would be rewarded. When he made missteps, he failed. The misbegotten Lisa desktop computer is a mere footnote in the obituaries. It didn’t live on in perpetuity, bailed out and propped up. When sales were disappointing in the 1980s, Jobs got ousted for a time from his own company.
Jobs wouldn’t be remembered if he hadn’t connected with customers, knowing what they’d want and caring about their needs. The difference between the private and public sectors couldn’t be captured more starkly than in the difference between Apple Stores and the post office — one sleek, up-to-date, and solicitous, the other charmless, antiquated, and sullen.
Like any businessman, Jobs cared about profit and about value. He made people rich and depended on the investments of people who already were — the $250,000 loan from an Intel executive at the inception of Apple, the $20 million investment from Ross Perot in NeXT Inc., his post-Apple venture. Without capital markets and the profit motive, there would have been no Steve Jobs as we knew him.
And the world would have been a little less convenient, and a little less elegant. In his book on the aesthetics of technology, the Yale computer scientist David Gelernter quotes a designer for the proposition that “a useful object has a ‘natural’ form, which when it is in complete harmony with its function is perceived as having a special ‘rightness’ or ‘fit’ that borders on art.” There’s no stronger argument for the point than Apple’s masterpieces. Steve Jobs vindicated the Oscar Wilde observation, “There is no country in the world where machinery is so lovely as in America.”
The government can care for the needy; it can field a military and do much else besides. But it can’t dream. It can’t let its imagination run wild and pursue an individual vision with a ruthless determination. It can’t conjure new and profitable industries out of nothing. What we need to revive the economy over the long term is what the government can never create: Not just more jobs, but more people like Steve Jobs.