Bill Gates: Hero, Coward
Is there any hope? The historic antitrust suit against Microsoft
is about to resume, and it seems a sure bet that the ill-named Department
of Justice will have its way. The ever-eager fist of the state,
fed by envy, shall crush a tall poppy for its crime of growing so
high so fast. What can we conclude? Such is the dour fate of those
who succeed today. Such is the hope for re-establishing the freedom
which has enriched the world. Down the dark pit we fall.
Or not. The truth is, though liberty is at stake, the principle of liberty has not been given a chance in this trial. Very likely, Microsoft will lose, but it will not be the grand death of a Promethean hero who fought to the last, but instead the result of quiet, cowardly surrender. The spectacle a circus of whining competitors eager to feed at the carrion, or Microsoft's embarrassing bungling of videotaped evidence is pathetic and anticlimactic. Before the trial even began, Bill Gates blithely proclaimed his disinterest in justice, and ensured his defeat by stating in his deposition that he did not question the legitimacy of antitrust. Gates likely thought this the most "pragmatic" position, his best chance for winning. He was wrong.
What if Bill Gates had made a principled defense in his trial? Imagine he read Atlas Shrugged, let's say, and found special affinity for Hank Rearden and the latter's defense in a similar trial. When presenting his deposition before the Department of Justice, Bill Gates would have said, "Not only is Microsoft not guilty of any crimes, but I do not recognize the legitimacy of the law under which it is being held guilty. I do not recognize the legitimacy of punishing an individual or company not for any force or fraud, but for being successful."
But this approach is dangerous. It sends a chill through every
pragmatic sinew of Microsoft's lawyers. It sounds so extreme. It's
unprecedented. It's unthinkable.
It would have worked.
For nearly a year, I have provided telephone technical support as a Microsoft representative. I talk to dozens of Microsoft customers every day. Yes, I have heard a few comments about a shoddy product or Gates' determination to conquer the world and poison small children. But such barbs are rare. Overwhelmingly, the customers who do comment on the product are very satisfied with Microsoft. If the subject of the antitrust trial comes up, the customer invariably sides with the software giant, some even insightfully proclaiming that "they're going after Gates for doing well."
The results of a Gallup poll released in April confirm my impression:
80% of Americans polled thought Microsoft has had a positive impact
on the computer industry, while six out of ten Americans have a
favorable image of the software company. Only one in four of those
polled sided with the Department of Justice.
This is not a trial about a company abusing its customers with monopoly powers, such as is seen with local phone companies or the US Postal Service. Instead, the trial is driven by companies such as Netscape and Sun Microsystems, who are envious of success and unwilling to challenge it in an open market as well as the government goons who are eager to fatten power and pocketbooks.
This brings me back to my hypothetical situation from above. I claim that if Bill Gates had decided to recognize the moral principles involved in this trial, to stand firm and proclaim his and everyone's right to succeed, the effect would have been pyrotechnic. Such a flagrant challenge to the status quo would have the press in an ecstasy. Suddenly, Bill Gates and his audacious notion of the right to be left alone would be discussed everywhere. The real principles of the trial would be unavoidably exposed. He would have changed the terms of debate.
But most importantly, giving political potency to his stand, we would have seen the popular support of thousands of Microsoft customers who know they like Microsoft's products, knew the trial smelled funky, but did not have the words. The smug Department of Justice would have to scramble to manufacture new rationalizations. It is they who would be on the defensive. And at this point, Microsoft would have had a very good chance of winning and at the same time, striking a harsh blow against tyranny.
That is, if the principles of liberty had been given a chance. As Ayn Rand repeatedly emphasized, there is no conflict between the practical and the ideal, so long as one's ideals are based on reality and reason. The principle of liberty, and its implication that a man has the right to succeed, is true. Because of this, when applied, it will ultimately prevail. The evils of the government are impotent in the light of reason, but where reason is absent, such evil fills the void and is nourished by the victims who "do not question its legitimacy."
Speaking to students recently at the Columbia Business School,
Bill Gates said, "You don't have to go as far as Ayn Rand to
think that allowing businesses to keep innovating in their product
is a good idea." In other words, you don't have to bother with
the actual principles involved. And he means it. Microsoft, owner
of the Expedia on-line travel service, recently joined several similar
services in filing antitrust action against several major airlines
citing "unfair competition." Can we now conclude that
the results of the current trial against Microsoft represent the
futility of principles and liberty? Or shall we rediscover their
power, by the effect of their absence?
Reason and liberty can win. But they require what Bill Gates has ignored: a principled defense.
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