Take that, Bill Gates!
The world's richest man took a blow to the pocketbook this week, when a
federal judge ruled that he and his Microsoft monolith had to obey at least some
of the same laws that the rest of us must follow.
The very notion that federal and state antitrust laws might be applied to a
man so rich and so powerful as Gates shocked the stock market. Gates' personal
wealth dropped $10 billion or so; but fret not for the digital robber baron,
he's still got more money than the combined per person income of all the people
in the world's 20 poorest nations.
Gates is, of course, crying the crocodile tears that are always in evidence
when the obscenely rich are asked to stop flaunting their wealth and start
behaving like, well, citizens.
What is Gates' complaint about having to obey the law, pay his fair share of
taxes and participate in American society as a relatively equal player? If he
cannot be an economic overlord, the computer capitalist says, innovation will be
This theory that only the rules of the jungle could possibly lead to
technological progress is often thrown up by billionaire monopolists as an
excuse for allowing them to continue reaping untold profits at the expense of
real competition. The only problem with the argument is that the Internet was
created by the federal government at taxpayer expense, as were most of the other
technological advances that are defining our age.
Gates has never been anything more than a profiteer -- and a predatory one at
that. If he didn't exist, someone else would be cashing in.
The point, of course, is that progress will come with or without
billionaires. And even if wealthy monopolists did do a better job of digital
development, the price of allowing them to have their way would still be too
Maintaining a healthy democracy, in which citizens have the power to set
rules for business, is far more important than any billionaire's pleasure or
whim. As such, Americans ought to be celebrating the reining in of Bill Gates.
In an age where there is serious debate about whether the people still have
any real ability to regulate corporations and their billionaire overlords, the
Gates decision was a small victory. In the battle between the rule of community
and law versus the rule of corporate monopolists and geeky oligarchies,
democracy won one.
Now, says Gates, we should all try to get along.
Spare us. We have only begun to battle monopoly and corporate control. As
always, Americans should ask themselves the questions posed in 1873 by Wisconsin
Supreme Court Chief Justice Edward Ryan.
"There is looming up a new and dark power. The accumulation of individual
wealth seems to be greater than it ever has been since the downfall of the Roman
Empire. And the enterprises of the country are aggregating vast corporate
combinations of unexampled capital, boldly marching, not for economic conquests
only but for political power,'' said Ryan in a speech that inspired the politics
of Robert M. La Follette. "For the first time really in our politics, money is
taking the field as an organized power. It is unscrupulous, arrogant and
overbearing. The question will arise, and arise in your day, though perhaps not
fully in mine, which shall rule -- wealth or man; which shall lead -- money or
intellect; who shall fill public stations -- educated and patriotic free men, or
the feudal serfs of corporate capital?''
© 2000 The Capital Times