On Monday October 22, CSFE is hosting business icon and philanthropist Ken Langone as he visits WCU for the first time. Ken and I will do a fireside chat to discuss stories and ideas from his new memoir, I Love Capitalism: An American Story. I hope that people who attend, especially WCU’s students, will like it.

Ken’s new book tells his story of growing up poor in Long Island and rising to business success through hard work, good judgment, helping others, and especially being helped by others. In reading Ken’s book, I noticed he uses lots of F words. Sure, there are some F bombs along the way (it’s hard to tell a rough-and-tumble story without sprinkling some of those in). But the F words that stood out to me were other ones:

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  • Family. The cornerstone of Ken’s book is family. We see this especially in the opening and closing chapters, where Ken talks about the unconditional love received from his parents, the tender story of his lifetime partnership with his wife Elaine, the lessons learned from his brother’s all-too-brief life, and also Ken’s own story as a father of two sons. This is intimate stuff. It brings us close to Ken the person.
  • Faith. Also intimate are Ken’s descriptions of his faith, having been a devout Catholic since boyhood. “I have a routine every morning,” he writes. “I get up and brush my teeth and, still in my pajamas, go off in a quiet corner of the house for twenty minutes with my Bible and a Bible study guide and pray.” Ken’s faith seems to show at many points along the way, for example where his sense of judgment separated good deals like Home Depot and EDS from bad deals like Bernie Madoff, and how he found inner strength during times of adversity and failure. Not every capitalist has religious faith. But Ken does.
  • Friends. Even though he says he’s not a humble type, Ken gives enormous credit to his friends who have helped him along the way. “There’s one very important point I want to make right at the beginning of this book: the thing I can’t say and never will say is that I’m self-made,” Ken writes. “To make that claim would be to commit a grave sin against all the many, many people who helped me get to where I am.” He tells many stories of friends along the way, how they opened doors and taught him lessons, and how they frequently locked arms, occasionally patted backs, and always thanked each other. He also talks about friends who he’s helped, like his driver of twenty-six years, Alvaro Gallego, who has succeeded in business as well.
  • Freedom. The book isn’t only a memoir. It’s part manifesto, too. Ken wants people, especially people just getting their start, to embrace his positive message of hope, integrity, hard work, and success. But he says none of this would matter if it weren’t for the wide-open opportunity, and responsibility, that are provided by America’s system of economic freedom. This system rewards productivity and allows recovery from failure: “Capitalism works, but you’ve got to make the effort, and you’ve got to be able to take the lumps.” The system is not perfect, not even close, but it’s better than any other: “We all have different talents. We are not all equal… But we know capitalism brings better lives than socialism does.” The system also lets people who exercise good judgment and treat others with justice to succeed beyond their wildest dreams: “I can’t think of one deal I’ve ever done where I couldn’t have gotten more out of it than I did… But it’s amazing what you can accomplish when you look beyond sheer profit to getting buy in by other people… One of the most important lessons in my life is this: leave more on the table for the other guy than he thinks he should get. And one of the most important rules in capitalism is incentive.”

Why does Ken Langone love capitalism? Sure, because it allowed him to succeed, get rich, and become a major philanthropist. But also, maybe even more so, because it enables countless other success stories. “You want my philosophy in a nutshell?” Ken writes. “I want everybody to do well. The world is a lot more fun if we’re all rich instead of just some of us.”

As an egghead economist, I don’t see things exactly the same as Ken does. I wouldn’t say that I love capitalism. But as I wrote on this blog’s inaugural post, I do think that civil and economic freedom, as embodied in the system of free enterprise, provides the best sets of rules for channeling individuals’ pursuit of their own well being toward social betterment. Each of us has our own definitions of success — our own pictures of what makes a good life. What unites us is freedom. Freedom is what fundamentally allows us to flourish as individuals and to progress as societies. This point lies at the very heart of CSFE’s mission.

There couldn’t be a better time for Ken’s first visit to WCU. This year’s campus theme is “Defining America” — just browse the campus theme website for a few minutes, and look at the enormous variety of activities, projects, and events that tie into the campus theme. WCU is an incredibly vibrant place! I can’t think of a better time to hear from Ken Langone’s incredibly vibrant voice, and I’m both delighted and proud that CSFE is hosting his fireside chat. Please think about attending. You can register on our event page at Langone.wcu.edu.

Thank you, and let me know if you have any thoughts on this post. You can reach me any time at ejlopez@wcu.edu.