Thirty-five years ago today, a commencement speaker at the UC-Berkeley school of business enthralled the graduating class by giving them permission to indulge their least altruistic instincts. It was probably predictable that a corporate raider nicknamed "Ivan the Terrible" would go beyond the typical platitudes of a graduation speech, and Ivan Boesky didn't disappoint. It was okay, he told them, to be greedy.
But is that really what Boesky said that day?
This issue about vaccine patents featured in RealClearHealth got me to ruminating about Ivan Boesky's infamous speech to the graduates, their families, and professors at the conferring of master's degrees at U.C.-Berkeley's Haas School of Business on May 18, 1986. Boesky was not yet accused by the government of insider trading, had not yet paid hundreds of millions of dollars in fines and restitution, and had not yet served time in prison for his transgressions.
But he had achieved notoriety as a corporate raider -- and was selected as a speaker by a vote of the grad students themselves. These future titans of Wall Street and Silicon Valley admired the 49-year-old son of a Detroit topless bar owner who had made himself into a billionaire. They wanted to hear how he did it.
"Greed is all right, by the way," Boesky said, pausing for effect. "I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself." With that, the audience erupted in cheers and applause. Later, after Boesky's fall from grace, this sentiment was rendered in a shorter way by the fictionalized Gordon Gekko in the Hollywood hit "Wall Street."
"Greed is good," actor Michael Douglas proclaimed in that movie. It is this formulation that people remember. The moral of the story in "Wall Street," however, is that greed is bad, a sentiment found in most of the great philosophies of the world, and the Bible.
And yet, Ivan Boesky was making a more subtle argument. I believe he was saying that the engines of dynamic capitalism depend on men and women who will become fabulously rich, and that this helps drive innovation, job creation -- and, by extension, prosperity in the United States. Today, a debate is raging over Americans' easy access to a COVID vaccine. Yes, it was developed with what Franklin Roosevelt liked to call "American know-how," and yes, this came about both because of taxpayer-funded research and the dynamism of free-market capitalism. Nonetheless, is there a moral obligation to share it with the rest of the world? Leaving aside the practical question of whether waiving patents is the best way to make that happen, I believe most of us would like to share this life-saving medical advance with the rest of the world. And that desire, that altruism, is as American as apple pie.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.