Jonathan Yardley — the Washington Post‘s generally excellent chief book reviewer — began his review  of a new biography of Milton Hershey this way:
During the Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries — the
age of rapacious corporate bullies characterized by Theodore Roosevelt
as "malefactors of great wealth" — Milton S. Hershey was a man apart.
Yardley’s history, of course, is the standard one. But while the so-called Gilded Age had its share of rent-seekers (Jay Gould springs to mind), most of the alleged ‘robber barons’ were simply successful businessmen in an age when the U.S. market was made truly national by railroads and telegraphy.
Without getting into history here, I offer the following mental experiment.
Suppose farmer Jones works tirelessly to plow his fields, plant his crops, and tend them until they’re harvested. In his spare time, farmer Jones experiments with different recipes for fertilizer and pesticides. As a result, he invents vastly more productive fertilizers and more effective pesticides.
He’s a workaholic, spending every waking moment trying to increase his crop yields. Over time, because of his success, he buys additional land and plants additional crops. His output expands both intensively (more output per acre) and extensively (more acres under his cultivation).
Compared to average farmers, farmer Jones produces vastly more crops at much lower per-bushel costs.
Is farmer Jones greedy? Is he rapacious? Is he a malefactor? Are the farmers who voluntarily sell their land to him, or who are undersold by him, bullied by him? Does farmer Jones deserve scorn? Or admiration and applause?