BUSINESS

In defence of Microsoft

Ross Laver November 9 1998
BUSINESS

In defence of Microsoft

Ross Laver November 9 1998

In defence of Microsoft

BUSINESS

Ross Laver

Any man who happens to have $50 billion (U.S.) sloshing around in his bank account is unlikely to want for friends and admirers. But as Microsoft chairman Bill Gates takes on the U.S. government in the biggest antitrust case in a generation, he can be grateful for one ally in particular: a onetime Hollywood script reader turned novelist and philosopher who was born Alice Rosenbaum but changed her name to Ayn Rand.

Rand died at the age of 77 in 1982, not long after Gates, then a pimply-faced Harvard dropout, made his first million. But the Russian-born writer’s influence lives on, thanks to her perennially popular novels— The Fountainhead, We the Living and Atlas Shrugged—and legions of dedicated followers. Happily for Gates, one of their favorite causes these days is defending the world’s richest man against what, in their eyes, is an unconscionable attack on freedom—the U.S. justice department’s claim that Microsoft has abused its status as a producer of operating systems to grab everlarger chunks of the computer software market.

The underlying theme here will be familiar to any reader of Rand’s fiction. Her best-known novel, Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957, depicts the struggle between the hardworking and creative members of society and a parasitic class of do-gooders (the “looters”) who, in the name of social justice, are making life difficult for the entrepreneurs who run the railroads, smelt the steel and otherwise contribute to the prosperity of all.

The book’s hero is a brilliant industrialist named John Galt who is treated with contempt by those whose well-being depends on his ingenuity. Denounced as a profiteer and penned in by restrictive government regulations, he rebels by withdrawing his talent and allowing the looters to starve. While the rest of the world’s economy grinds to a halt, Galt and hundreds of other unappreciated industrialists move to Colorado and establish a meritocracy. As each of these productive geniuses enters the new utopia, he or she must recite an oath: “I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I shall never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

Followers of the novelist Ayn Rand are among Bill Gates’s most vociferous supporters

For Rand’s followers, who call themselves objectivists, the parallels between Gates’s predicament and that faced by John Galt are obvious. “There is only one fundamental reason why great businessmen or great companies are hated, and it has nothing to do with monopolies,” says Edwin Locke, a professor of management at the University of Maryland. They are hated, he adds, “because they are good—that is, smarter, more visionary, more creative, more tenacious, more action-focused, more ambitious and more successful than everyone else.” Locke’s defence of Gates appears in an essay titled “Hatred of the Good,” one of half a dozen articles posted on the Microsoft Defense Site, an Internet service run by the California-based Ayn Rand Institute. A statement issued by the institute last week, as the trial against Microsoft entered its second week, asserted that the company “is today’s prime example of what Ayn Rand called ‘America’s Persecuted Minority.’ Like an increasing number of big businesses, Microsoft is being punished for being successful, for making products that people want to purchase.”

For the record, institute officials deny their campaign is in any way affiliated with Microsoft. That’s not the case, however, with another objectivist Web site called the Center for the Moral Defense of Microsoft. Robert Tracinski, a 29-year-old Virginian who helped found the site, says his group received “significant one-time funding” from the software giant as part of the company’s efforts to sway public opinion. Among other things, the site has compiled an 11,000-name petition demanding that the justice department end its “war on success.”

Despite the money, Tracinski says he and his Randian peers are nobody’s lackeys. Indeed, they are frustrated by Microsoft’s attempts to justify its actions on the grounds that they result in better products at lower prices. In Tracinski’s eyes, that’s a cop-out. ‘We don’t believe serving consumers is the ultimate standard,” he says. We’re saying Microsoft is perfectly entitled to behave the way it does in order to increase profits for shareholders, regardless of the public good.” And if Gates won’t say it, the Randians will.