by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
B.C. Forbes was born in Scotland. He remained a Scottish highlander to his kilts, as have his sons and grandsons, the eldest of whom, Steve, is editor-in-chief of the magazine today. But B.C. was also thoroughly American, as only an immigrant can be. He was dazzled by the opportunity the U.S. offered immigrants and was enthralled by other Scots who’d made good in America, the most famous being Andrew Carnegie.
Carnegie’s father had rebelled against the strict tenets of the Scottish Presbyterian Church, which cost the family all of their possessions and left them very poor. In 1848, when young Carnegie was 12, he moved to the U.S. with his parents. He went to work, and by age 15, having learned to operate a telegraph, Andrew was a family breadwinner. Telegraph jobs led to railroad jobs, which led to a meteoric rise in the new industry. He saved his money, invested it and then invested more. By his late 20s Carnegie was acting as a sort of investment banker, buying, selling and merging railroad companies.
Andrew Carnegie never forgot his humble roots and the pain of seeing his father in financial ruin and his mother sewing boot leather to feed the family. Later in his life and sensitive to the harder edges of laissez-faire capitalism, Carnegie promoted “The Gospel of Wealth,” which was based on an article he wrote in 1889. Successful capitalists, he said, should be stewards of capital for the highest social purposes. As with philanthropy, there was a moral obligation to investing.
B.C. Forbes was surely listening to his Scottish-American hero. In the first issue of FORBES in 1917 B.C. articulated the deeper purpose of business, as well as his mission: “Business was originated to produce happiness, not to pile up millions.”
This is the amazing gift of immigrant capitalists in America, on whom we focus particular attention in this year’s edition of The Forbes 400. Immigrant capitalists remind us of the success that can be achieved in our country with a bit of luck and a lot of pluck. They also remind us that America remains the world’s harbor for innovation and self-made riches–sadly, a rare thing in the world.
But immigrant success stories do more. They show us how to renew the foundations of capitalism and keep this glorious system fresh.