Billy Wilder on the Purpose of Business

The missus and I watched Sabrina last night, the 1954 award winning film with Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, written and directed by the great immigrant film-maker, Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, Some Like it Hot, One, Two Three, etc.). In the film, the fabulously wealthy Larrabee family owns a vertically integrated series of industries. Of the two sons who stand to inherit the family empire, David (William Holden) is a handsome, cynical playboy who treats his money as a right, but also a joke. The other son, Linus (Bogart), works constantly to expand Larrabee enterprises, even to the extent of planning a morganatic marriage of David to the beautiful daughter of an other industrial family.

David is okay with that plan, but disparages the whole idea of capitalist enterprise. Why work so hard?

“David: “You’ve got all the money in the world.”

“Linus: What’s money got to do with it? If making money were all there were to business it’s hardly worthwhile going to the office. Money is a by-product.

“David: What’s the main objective? Power?

“Linus: Agh! That’s become a dirty word.

“David: Well then, what’s the urge? You’re going into plastics now. What will that prove?

“Linus: Prove? Nothing much. A new product has been found, something of use to the world. So, a new industry moves into an undeveloped area. Factories go up, machines are brought in, a harbor is dug and you’re in business. It’s purely coincidental of course that people who’ve never seen a dime before suddenly have a dollar. And barefooted kids wear shoes and have their teeth fixed and their faces washed. What’s wrong with a kind of an urge that gives people libraries, hospitals, baseball diamonds and movies on a Saturday night?”

Yes, what’s wrong with that? Money well made can be well-spent. Notice that the Linus didn’t say anything about the joys of government redistribution.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.