Notes on John D. Rockefeller

I recently read Ron Chernow’s biography of John D. Rockefeller, the man who monopolized the oil industry. Rockefeller’s company, Standard Oil, had a stranglehold on the refining of crude oil[0] in the United States[1] between 1882 and 1911.[2] This turned Rockefeller into the richest man in modern history; his peak net worth is estimated to have been (in 2016 dollars) about 400 billion, despite him giving away enormous sums during his lifetime.

As you might expect, Rockefeller did not climb to staggering wealth without stepping on some toes. Standard Oil swallowed competitors, politicians, and entire towns whole; dominating the landscape with unprecedented industrial efficiency, bulldozing competing firms with such force and ingenuity that the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 was written almost specifically to outlaw some of Standard Oil’s less ethical business practices.[3]

To skirt regulations, Standard Oil operated an opaque network of subsidiaries. For the first twenty years of its existence, almost all of its 100,000 employees did not even know they were working for Standard Oil. Rockefeller puppeteered his empire through a vast structure of intermediaries, endowing him with the mystique and terror that a nineteenth-century Keyser Soze might inspire.

Yet there’s another side to Rockefeller. He was a mild-mannered, personally amicable man who devotedly gave to charity, starting in his teenage years. He retired in his early fifties, and spent the rest of his life (over forty years) donating his fortune to worthy causes. Whereas tycoons like Vanderbilt, Gould, and J.P. Morgan gave mostly to pet projects (if at all), Rockefeller went about giving with the same kind of large-scale industrial efficiency with which he did business, and thus pioneered modern philanthropy.[4] He funded schools[5] and universities, and led the charge on establishing medical research and public health as modern, scientific disciplines, in the process eradicating hookworm in the US.[6] His foundation continues to dispense money to this day.

Thus, the common view is that Rockefeller did both significant good and bad. Though opinions from historians like Chernow and Nevins lean toward the good outweighing the bad, Rockefeller nevertheless occupies an uneasy position in history. H.G. Wells put it succinctly:

Something in the nature of J.D. Rockefeller had to occur in America, and it is all to the good of the world that he was tight-lipped, consistent and amazingly free from vulgar vanity, sensuality, and quarrelsomeness. His cold persistence and ruthlessness may arouse something like horror, but for all that he was a forward-moving force, a constructive power.

Wells captures Rockefeller’s dichotomy between hostile means and benevolent ends. Perhaps Rockefeller occupies an uneasy position in history because of that dichotomy, as his final achievements (widely-lauded philanthropy) were in character so different from the actions of his career (ruthless monopolization). In that light, it’s important to separate Rockefeller’s motivations, the qualities that made him constructive, from his characteristics, which made him an eerily powerful industrialist. We can see four core characteristics to Rockefeller:

  1. The ability to ignore and dismiss all external criticism. Rockefeller’s father was a pariah — an infidelious con man who sold snake oil on the road, absent from home for months at a time. As such, Rockefeller endured great indignities and ostracism during his childhood. He promptly learned to completely disregard and refuse to engage with the opinion of the public — first in his childhood town, later in general.[7]

  2. A strict devotion to the Northern Baptist church. Not unusual for a boy ashamed of his wayward father, Rockefeller idolized and mimicked his mother, who was his father’s opposite: a thrifty, endlessly God-fearing, paragon of puritanical New England virtues. Thus, Rockefeller did not once smoke or drink, and he abstained from suspect pleasures like opera or theater until age sixty-seven. The Baptist church was the focal point of his life well into old age — Sunday services were just about the only social function he would willingly attend. There is no record of Rockefeller ever having had religious doubts or a crisis of faith.[8]

  3. Relentless persistence. Rockefeller never showed doubt in his actions, past or present. That’s not to say that he acted rashly or thoughtlessly: his career was punctuated by examples of long, quiet and careful deliberation, and — once he made up his mind — he would pursue his plan to the fullest possible extent with total determination.[9]

  4. The belief in a divine right to money. You may have wondered how Rockefeller reconciled his rapacious money-making with his Baptist doctrine. For most people, religion provides moral checks that inhibit the crass accumulation of money or aggressive business tactics. Rockefeller, however, interpreted Baptist doctrine to give theological justification for his actions.[10] Rockefeler believed that he had a God-given gift to make money, and that his purpose was to be a responsible steward, to use the money to do good according to Baptist doctrine. [11] As quoted:

    I believe the power to make money is a gift from God — just as are the instincts for art, music, literature, the doctor’s talent, the nurse’s, yours — to be developed and used to the best of our ability for the good of mankind. Having been endowed with the gift I possess, I believe it is my duty to make money and still more money, and to use the money I make for the good of my fellow man according to the dictates of conscience.

    Moreover, Rockefeller interpreted his material success as a sign of divine approval, which gave him unswerving faith in the moral correctness of his actions.[12] In Chernow’s 774-paged biography, there is no evidence that Rockefeller ever grappled with an ethical dilemma, regretted a past action, or even had a moment of self-doubt. Rockefeller proceeded with what Chernow calls “messianic self-righteousness.”[13]

    It is worth noting that Rockefeller’s religious framing extended beyond the personal — in fact, it was used directly to justify Standard Oil’s monopoly. Rockefeller, aware of how rapidly oil products were improving people’s lives, regarded them as God-given gifts.[14] In turn, Rockefeller argued that it was his moral imperative to construct a monopoly. He feared that smaller competitors would, in short-sighted pursuit of profit maximization, cannibalize the oil industry, leaving everyone worse off. Rockefeller claimed that these misguided agents[15] of egotism and materialism[16] would undermine the providential gift of oil — so it was up to him to step in. He literally described Standard Oil as the savior of the oil industry.[17][18][19]

These characteristics paint an unusual and frightening picture: a man who was completely deaf to criticism, zealously dedicated to a simple ideology, yet smart enough to rationalize away any potential questions or inconsistencies. In general, Rockefeller exhibited a remarkable capacity to suppress negative feelings, memories,[20] or accusations of wrongdoing. It seems that he was so successful in part because he executed his simple vision with absolutely no restraint, and that he was able to execute so effectively because he operated with religious conviction — totally certain that what he was doing was morally correct by his God.[21]

Yet the Rockefeller episode turned out okay, in retrospect. His immense philanthropic efforts brought serious benefits to society. As discussed in footnote 19, there is even an argument to be made that Standard Oil’s temporary monopoly was a constructive force. Indeed, Rockefeller basically ran Standard Oil the way an (exceptionally effective) government monopoly would be run: fervently driving down the consumer goods’ end costs, imposing industry-wide standards, recycling waste products, and, in the end, putting the profits to good use. Rockefeller leaves me with the problematic impression of a benevolent dictator: positive outcomes for society by distressing means, enacted by a man with tunnel vision.

This could, of course, have gone completely the other way. Consider a hypothetical Rockefeller who shared the four central characteristics — deafness to criticism, relentless persistence, pursuit of an ideological/religious cause, and a framework to rationalize his actions — but who didn’t share the same benevolent values and dedication to philanthropy. For example, take Henry Ford, who was a similarly important industrialist, but who used his power to fervently promote anti-semitism.[22][23]

Even in much subtler scenarios, Rockefeller could easily have done great harm. He could have stymied the press that had hounded him for decades. He could have used his power to influence legislation — for example, in favor of monopolies, or to elevate Baptist temperance into policy.[24] Even Rockefeller’s choice of advisors could have outsize impacts: the best example lies in Rockefeller’s philanthropy, which was, for the most part, not actually overseen by him. The chief allocator of capital was Frederick T. Gates, a Baptist minister who gained Rockefeller’s trust. It was Gates who persuaded Rockefeller to fund medical science and public health — ironically, Rockefeller harbored a lifelong suspicion of doctors and subscribed to folk medicine. Rockefeller meeting Gates was a chance event, and it is fortunate that Gates turned out to be very responsible with the power bestowed upon him. It is interesting to ponder what course history might have followed had Rockefeller cultivated different advisors, let alone what could have happened if Rockefeller had been taken in by a charlatan.

It is thus that I reflect on H.G. Wells’ statement, and while it is most likely true that Rockefeller was a constructive power, there’s an important caveat: Rockefeller’s redeeming qualities were almost disjoint from those that enabled his success. As such, him being a constructive power was a chance outcome, a fortunate roll of the dice — we are all very lucky that the values with which he was inundated, and the people by whom he was surrounded, led him to pursue good causes with his power. If Rockefeller had been taken in by destructive views, no matter how subtle, then his determination, deafness to criticism, and ability to silence all doubts while proceeding with messianic self-righteousness, would have enabled this man to cause great destruction. I leave the Rockefeller biography feeling frightened, and fortunate that chance was on our side. The age-old question of how best to allocate power is raised once again.

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[0] At first, Standard Oil’s monopoly was horizontally integrated just on the refining of crude oil, controlling 90% of the market by 1890. Once Standard Oil dominated refining, they became further vertically integrated, and expanded to crude oil exploration and pumping, controlling about a third of that market. Note that these are peak figures; Standard Oil’s monopoly began to slip around 1900, as large numbers of new oil fields were discovered by small competitors.

[1] Briefly, Standard Oil even dominated the global oil industry, but there were too many competitors over too great an area for Standard Oil to hold on.

[2] It is worth noting that Standard Oil was incorporated in 1870, replacing Rockefeller’s previous corporate entity. Upon incorporation, Standard Oil already was a dominant force in the oil market. Rockefeller’s aggressive (and effective) business tactics were in place since he became involved in the oil industry in 1863, at age twenty-four.

[3] Standard Oil pioneered many types of anti-competitive behavior, even beyond establishing private cartels. Their strategies involved inflating shipping/pipelining costs for competitors, industrial espionage, bribery of politicians, creating contracts to forcibly restrict competitor activity, etc. Some of these practices ran flagrantly afoul of the law, but Standard Oil was such a byzantine and nebulous organization, and so well-ingrained in the corporate and political power structure of the day, that it was exceptionally difficult for prosecutors to pin blame and assess wrongdoing: it took until 1911 for Standard Oil to be successfully sued, deemed a monopoly, and broken up.

[4] Due mention for pioneering modern philanthropy also goes to Andrew Carnegie, who did significant philanthropic work in education and science. Rockefeller and Carnegie had a mostly-friendly philanthropic rivalry during their lifetimes.

[5] In particular, Rockefeller funded rural public schools with the objective of giving opportunities to freed slaves. Though the scope of Rockefeller’s philanthropy is extensive; it’s worth looking at the General Education Board in particular, which was groundbreaking at the time (as were several of Rockefeller’s other philanthropic ventures).

[6] Winston Churchill had this to say about Rockefeller in 1936: “When history passes its final verdict on John D. Rockefeller, it may well be that his endowmment of research will be recognized as a milestone in the progress of the race... Science today owes as much to the rich men of generosity and discernment as the art of the Renaissance owes to the patronage of Popes and Princes. Of these rich men, John D. Rockefeller is the supreme type.”

[7] In 1910, he put it succinctly: “You can abuse me, you can strike me, so long as you let me have my own way.” Quoted in Titan, p. 140.

[8] Titan by Ron Chernow, Second Vintage Books Edition, March 2004, p. 189.

[9] Chernow makes a similar assessment in Titan, p. 230.

[10] My opinion on this is that Rockefeller was a very smart but formally uneducated man (he dropped out of high-school), which is a combination that lends itself well to rationalization.

[11] Chernow discusses this topic in chapter 8 of Titan. In particular, Chernow discusses Rockefeller’s intertwining of capitalism and Baptism on pp. 152-153. Though this topic flares up continuously throughout the biography, this is one of the key passages.

[12] A discussion of this can be found in Chapter 8 of Titan. In particular, on pp. 137 & 140, Chernow makes the case that after Rockefeller’s first cartelization attempt through the South Improvement Company in 1872, Rockefeller “developed exalted faith in his own judgment.”

[13] Titan, p. 133.

[14] Titan, p. 133.

[15] Chernow provides several instances of Rockefeller referring to recalcitrant competitors as sinners.

[16] It is quite ironic that Rockefeller, one of the great capitalist icons, was in this respect no fan at all of competitive capitalism. Rockefeller’s view was that unfettered competition, with its survival-of-the-fittest mechanics, would reward and encourage greed and destructive business practices that would leave the public worse off.

[17] Titan, p. 154.

[18] An extended version of the argument I made in this paragraph can be found in Titan, pp. 154-155.

[19] Though Rockefeller’s rationalization is a magnificent piece of moral gymnastics, there is some merit to his assertion. Standard Oil had monopolized the oil industry, but it’s worth keeping in mind that this all happened at the very beginning of the oil industry, when nearly all the world’s supply came out of a few fields in Pennsylvania. Back then, the oil industry was indeed exceptionally volatile. Supply was unstable, prices moved erratically, quality was rarely assured, infrastructure was poor and disorganized, and the competing firms were, by and large, relentless cutthroats. It was rightfully deemed a very risky industry to be involved in, and these frictions were naturally felt at the consumer level. It is true that Standard Oil stabilized the oil industry, created extremely efficient infrastructures, and steadily provided oil at extremely low rates, enabled by economies of scale. In 1870, when Standard Oil’s market share was 4%, the average barrel cost 26 cents — by 1890, when Standard Oil’s market share was 90%, the price had fallen down to 7 cents. There is an argument to be made that Standard Oil’s monopoly, while it lasted, was a constructive force. (Importantly, that is not to say that monopolies are in principle a good thing.)

[20] It is a running theme throughout Titan that Rockefeller would put spells of silence over uncomfortable topics. For example, he never referred to disliked past partners in business ventures, as if writing them out of history. He treated his estranged father similarly.

[21] One example of his total unwillingness to ever concede any kind of nuance was in the aftermath of his first (failed) attempt to construct a monopoly via the South Improvement Company: even when pressed on it years later, he said “I knew it as a matter of conscience. It was right before me and my God. If I had to do it again tomorrow I would do it again the same way — do it a hundred times.” Quoted in Titan on p. 137.

[22] Incidentally, there is a thin thread of anti-semitism that runs throughout Rockefeller’s writings. See pp. 180 and 248 of Titan for examples.

[23] Ford sponsored and distributed anti-semitic invectives en masse, which were used as propaganda in Nazi Germany. Ford’s publications were so impactful that he was personally praised by Hitler. One of Ford’s publications, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is a kind of foundational myth to modern anti-semitism.

[24] Rockefeller was, due to his inflexibility and disregard for the opinions of others, almost inconceivably bad at delicate political maneuvering. (Perhaps this was for the better.) Standard Oil’s most serious gaffe was to fund the presidential campaign of Teddy Roosevelt, who promptly spearheaded the dismemberment of Standard Oil.

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