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‘Strangled’ by government regulationBY: Dan Rottenberg 03.28.2011
The Philadelphia entrepreneur Joan Carter, recently inducted as the first woman president of the Union League, is a remarkable business success story. But she insists that she and her husband are “choking” on government regulation. Where have I heard this complaint before?
Ayn Rand lives!DAN ROTTENBERG
The monthly lectures at the Free Library’s City Institute branch on Rittenhouse Square usually take the form of non-credit college courses, delivered by cloistered professors or experts armed with vast detailed knowledge about their esoteric specialties. This month’s lecturer, by contrast, was drawn from the real world of practical experience.
The speaker was Joan Carter, a former high school German teacher who in 1973 co-founded (with her husband) a private equity investment firm that subsequently owned more than 40 businesses, from renal dialysis companies to a small airline. Along the way Carter became, in 1986, one of the first five women members of the Union League of Philadelphia, the city’s pre-eminent private civic club, and last year she became the first woman to serve as the League’s president.
Meanwhile, her husband and partner, John Aglialoro, became a movie producer; his first oeuvre—Part I of Atlas Shrugged, based on Ayn Rand’s free-enterprise fantasy— is scheduled for release in April.
It’s an impressive story of risk and commensurate reward in the great American free market. So I was shocked— shocked!— to learn that, like many another Ayn Rand devotee, Carter is being persecuted by forces beyond her control. She and her husband, Carter informed us, are “choking” on government regulation.
She used that term twice in the course of her talk. For good measure, she added that she and her husband are being “strangled,” too. Carter spoke wistfully of the good old days of the Founding Fathers, of the post-Civil War era and the 1950s, when government left entrepreneurs like the Aglialoros alone to rise or fall on their own merits. If only the government would get off people’s backs, she said, entrepreneurs could generate all the jobs and tax revenues that our beleaguered country has been yearning for.
Needless to add, my attention was riveted. In all my years of attending lectures at the City Institute, I’ve never seen anyone strangled or choked on the podium— just a lot of talking heads. But as far as I could tell from my admittedly obstructed view in the back row, Carter wasn’t choking at all. On the contrary, she seemed well dressed, well fed and well coiffed, with a perpetual smile on her face, to boot. Maybe she was talking figuratively.
After her presentation, Carter was peppered with hostile questions from presumed socialists and agents of the Comintern in the audience, one of whom had the temerity to remind her that the City Institute itself is a government agency.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I raised my hand and identified myself as a member of a small and despised minority group— optimists. Whenever I hear people talk about the troubled world we live in today, I wonder: “Compared to what?” So I asked Carter which historic period she’d rather live in, as opposed to our own. The 1950s, she replied.
That is, Carter chose a decade during which not only would she never have been elected president of the Union League, she wouldn’t even have been allowed in the building, except for a basement entrance on Broad Street. Ditto for Catholics, Jews, Hispanics, Asians and, yes, even Democrats. And if Carter believes government policies over the past half-century had nothing to do with opening up admissions at private clubs, I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I’d like to sell her.
“I’m not saying life was better in the ‘50s than it is today,” Carter hedged, presumably reading my mind. “But there was less government regulation then.”
The bottom line
Ah, but that’s precisely my point. If there was less government regulation then, but life is better now…. do you catch my drift?
Whatever. Government regulation— or its elimination— isn’t an end in itself. It’s a tool toward a greater goal about which, presumably, everyone of good will agrees: maximizing human potential. If we can achieve that goal without government coercion— say, by utilizing today’s thousands of voluntary non-governmental organizations that didn’t exist in the ’50s— terrific. But if sometimes we can’t, why not put government to use?
If only for the sake of raising the level of intellectual discourse at the City Institute, could we please stipulate that attitudes toward government rarely depend on objective observation? Some people feel persecuted (by government, unions, Wall Street, immigrants, whatever) no matter how comfortable they are, and some people feel happy-go-lucky no matter how poor they are. It all goes back to your childhood, the psychiatrists say. (The late billionaire publisher Walter Annenberg, a man of huge wealth and talent and equally huge insecurities, once told me his philosophy of life: “Harassment is just around the corner.")
Joan Carter deserves credit for venturing beyond the cloistered confines of the Union League to the differently cloistered confines of the City Institute. Because she’s a mere child of 67, she can be forgiven for her limited historical perspective. Some of us who are a bit older can remember the Stone Age, when there was no government regulation whatsoever— and let me tell you, it wasn’t the picnic that Ayn Rand would have you believe.
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