By Trevor Watkins
I watched the film “The Wolf of Wall Street” last night. It is a bio-pic about the life of Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo di Caprio. It is a gruelling, action-packed, 3 hour movie, alternately entertaining, horrifying and enlightening. It is a better movie than I thought it would be, less judgemental and less respectful of mainstream values than usual.
It provides a useful acid test for one’s libertarian beliefs. The main character, Jordan Belfort, rises from middle class suburban roots to astounding wealth in a few short years by dint of his ambition, personality and insight. He creates a successful brokerage firm, employing over 1,000 people, who also become extravagantly rich. His firm sells penny-stocks to suckers, most of whom end up losing money. He becomes addicted to drugs, sex, power and money. He lives an outrageous lifestyle, bacchanalian parties, trashed hotel rooms, tossed dwarves, you name it, he did it. He is unfaithful to his several wives, betrays his friends, ends up in prison.
Yet at no stage, at least in the film, does he ever coerce anyone. He uses his powers of persuasion, his personal charm, to persuade his co-workers, friends and clients to engage with him, buy his shares, get into his bed. At no stage does he use force or the threat of force to achieve his purpose. He tells people what they want to hear – buy these stocks and you will be rich. Is that any more fraudulent than a politician saying – vote for me and you will be prosperous? All his clients consented to his offers, conscious of the risks of investing in the stock market, greedy for easy profits. Collectively, these clients made Jordan super-rich.
Then the forces of law and order, of government, step in. The Securities and Exchange Commission(SEC) investigates him constantly, but without success. A sour and sad little man from the FBI is assigned his case. By tapping his phones, intercepting his communications, threatening him with endless court cases and long jail sentences, they manage to persuade him to give up his business, betray his friends and colleagues, and plead guilty to various charges. He is finally bundled off to jail for 22 months, for the crime of money-laundering – attempting to keep his own money by taking it overseas. Having effectively destroyed his business and put him in jail, he is also ordered to pay back $110 million to his “victims”, willing buyers of his stock recommendations, guaranteeing them a risk-free transaction. Authorities triumph!
From a libertarian point of view, Jordan Belfort is no hero. He is a drug-addicted, sex-crazed con-man who gets lucky and makes and spends millions. But he coerces no one, uses persuasion rather than force, employs 1,000 people, pays them handsomely, and recycles vast amounts of cash back into the economy. His personal shortcomings are just that, personal to him alone.
On the other hand, the FBI agent constantly uses force and the threat of force to achieve his purposes. He creates no value, but rather destroys it wantonly. He takes victimless crimes such as money laundering and uses them to imprison productive individuals. Through regulation, harassment and prosecution he attempts to “protect” the public from their own greed and stupidity.
Jordan Belfort may be morally reprehensible, irresponsible, misguided. But the FBI is evil.