by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
… the more likely you are to fear the federal government’s current path? One might get that impression after reading a short Bloomberg Businessweek profile of Thomas Peterffy, a “68-year-old emigre from socialist Hungary who founded Interactive Brokers, the world’s largest online broker, and built a fortune of $7.6 billion.” Peterffy created a television ad titled “Freedom to Succeed.”
Peterffy, who is ruddy and thickset, narrates and appears in the ad, which intersperses shots of him as a young boy with scenes from the aftermath of Hungary’s failed 1956 revolution. “I grew up in a socialist country and I know what that does to people,” he says solemnly, as images of poverty and suffering flash by. “There is no hope, no freedom, no pride in achievement. The nation became poorer and poorer.”
The ad is also striking because it essentially takes up the plight of the poor, albeit from an unusual angle. Peterffy suggests that “badmouthing success” of American capitalists causes them to stop succeeding and paying the taxes that support the less fortunate. The ad, while slightly ridiculous, is deeply sincere and also quite affecting. It argues on behalf of the “47 percent,” not against them.
Curious about the man responsible, I called him up. Unlike the other political billionaires, Peterffy is almost unknown in Republican circles, and, also unlike those billionaires, seems anything but angry. When I asked what prompted him to suddenly get so involved in politics, he laughed and said, in a thick accent, “The Democratic spokespeople! Politicians have killed the entrepreneurial spirit in this country.”
It seemed to me, I told him, that there were still plenty of entrepreneurs around. Was it really so bad? “But they’re losing their mojo!” he replied. “It takes mojo to take the risk to start to grow a business. When you trash the leaders, they don’t invest. I used to be very active. I liked coming to work in the morning. But not anymore.” Oh, c’mon, I said. Was he really saying that he, a self-made billionaire, was so depressed by Obama’s policies that he had given up? Peterffy laughed. “That’s right,” he said. “I came here when I was 21. I’ve paid $1.9 billion of taxes in my lifetime. And now I’m being told that I’m not paying my fair share, that I’m playing by different rules.”
Those who don’t get Peterffy’s complaint fail to understand the entrepreneur’s role in the economy.